Vivian has been writing as long as she’s been reading (“Longer than you think!” as Stephen King once put it). She has previously published a short story in a small literary magazine, Our Country, Our People. Her first novel will be released early in 2019. Vivian’s fascination with the macabre began when she was a young child in the sixties. She and her siblings would watch The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone with their mother. She has been writing ghost stories ever since.
CAN YOU SEE IT?
“Can you see it?”
I have never wanted to lie to my brother as much as I did in that moment. We were standing in a crowded corridor in the medical center, outside the psychiatrist’s office that Paul had just come from. People were walking busily up and down the hall. Some of them carried cell phones and others held folders and paperwork. Some people in the hall were medical types, others clearly civilians.
Paul was in a straitjacket. I’d never seen him so miserable. He looked ten years older than his actual age of 33.
I tried to avoid looking into his eyes and the strangers hurrying about their unknown lives proved a great temporary distraction.
My brother and I had grown up with very detached and distracted parents. Often left to our own devices, we played together constantly as kids. We were only two years apart in age and were never very far apart geographically, even after we grew up and went on to our adult lives.
Paul got married a while back, but it didn’t last very long. He had chosen a woman who turned out to be as distant and cold as our parents had been. He married a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad. I guess I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t. I stayed close enough to help him pick up the pieces when it was over.
When he was single again, we started to regain our youthful closeness. Which meant that it wasn’t out of character for him to call me in this, his hour of great distress.
This hospital is the regional trauma center where the critically injured, suicidal, and newly insane are brought first. I suppose the first responders to Paul’s workplace had judged him to be of this latter type.
Now he stood looking at me with such abject terror, I knew I had to give him an answer. And, much as I wanted to, I didn’t lie.
“Yes, I can see her,” I said. I refrained from using the pronoun, “it,” as he had done, because if she was not a hallucination as his doctors believed, then she was most definitely a she.
Paul seemed so relieved by my admission, but it didn’t last. “If you can see it, then I’m not crazy,” he said. “It’s really there. What does it want?”
The “it” he referred to was an apparition, a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of a young woman and she was on fire. Her gaze never left him, even when I spoke, although I knew she was aware of my presence.
She stood very close to him and if she hadn’t been incorporeal, he would have felt the heat. I could practically feel it. She was transparent, but I could also see every detail of her. She was wearing jeans and what appeared to be a leather jacket. She had tattoos and piercings here and there. The expression on her face was odd. I put it somewhere between anger and sadness; maybe with a little surprise thrown in.
Did I mention she was on fire? Because she was, literally. The woman-who-wasn’t-there was completely engulfed in flames. I could see her hair melting along with her clothes. The pain in her face didn’t seem to come from the fire, though. It looked deeper than that. It was an emotional anguish so intense that I wanted to pity her. But why was she haunting my brother?
She gave off a fetid, smoked meat smell that was offensive on so many levels, not the least of which was that it smelled kind of good, like roast pork.
“You tell me,” I said. “I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her before.”
“Well neither have I!” He was getting upset again and I didn’t believe him.
“Ghosts don’t just show up to stare at you, all burning up by the way, if you don’t know who they are, Paul! If she’s here, you know who she is. Tell me. Otherwise, we are not likely to see the end of her any time soon.”
He looked at his feet. “Can’t you just ask her?” he mumbled.
I tried not to roll my eyes. “What did the doctor say?” I asked, hoping a slight change of subject would soothe him a little. He kept stealing glances at the apparition. I wished whatever medication they’d given him would kick in soon.
“He said I’m having some kind of breakdown brought on by guilt,” Paul said. But if you can see her, then she’s really there and I’m not crazy!”
He wasn’t surprised that I could see her, only relieved. “No, you’re not crazy,” I assured him.
Her melting seemed to continue unabated, as did the flames. Yet she never stopped having hair to burn or clothes to melt. She was a horrifying presence and I knew he had to be more terrified now that he knew she was not a hallucination.
“Paul, what did you do?” I asked. The spirit looked at me then. So he had done something to her! She was recently deceased, this I knew also. Oh my god, had Paul somehow killed this woman? It couldn’t be! And yet, here she was.
Two men came and positioned themselves on either side of Paul. So help me, they were wearing white coats. “Let’s go to your room now, Mr. Havens,” one of them said. He gently put a hand on Paul’s elbow and began steering him down the hall.
“Talk to the doctor,” Paul pleaded with me as they left. “Tell him I’m not crazy! And please tell it to go away!” He stole one last glance at the burning woman before surrendering to his escort. The specter followed.
As they walked away, I saw a middle-aged man in a suit leaning against the door jamb of the office my brother had just exited. I surmised that this was the doctor in question and went over to him.
“And you are?” he asked. He smiled a knowing smile and I knew he had been watching me talk to Paul.
“I’m Paul’s sister, Anna,” I said. “This is so not like him. I can’t believe what’s going on. It’s just so damned weird!”
He extended his hand to shake, but I didn’t take it. He looked momentarily confused, then regained his composure.
“I’m Dr. Drake,” he said. “Come into my office for a moment, won’t you?” What was it with his tone that I found so condescending?
I followed him into his office and took a seat in front of the desk that dominated the dark room. I assumed he was going to tell me what had set my brother off, or worse, what kind of crazy he had diagnosed in my brother. Before he sat in the oversized leather chair behind his impressive desk, he started the brew cycle for a cup of coffee from a Keurig® machine that was sitting on the bookshelf to the right of the desk. When it was finished brewing, he held it out to me.
“Do you take cream and sugar?” he asked.
“No coffee, thank you.
He nodded and kept it for himself, taking a sip of the black brew as he sat.
I looked around and found the office charming in a cliché sort of way. The furniture was big, expensive-looking, and made of dark wood. The doctor’s desk was enormous and matching bookcases and tables stood about the room lending an authoritative air. A brass lamp with a green glass shade stood on one corner of the desk. On one side of the room was the obligatory couch. Next to it, facing, was a worn leather chair, completing the effect.
The blinds were closed, giving the room a muted, closed-in atmosphere.
The walls were paneled with the same dark wood as the furniture. Framed degrees (Johns Hopkins, no less), honors and magazine covers displaying his likeness adorned those walls. It would seem that Dr. Drake was something of a celebrity in the psychiatric community. My brother was in the best possible hands. That should have been a relief, but it was then that I decided to have a little fun with the good doctor.
“He says he can see a woman staring at him. She’s on fire,” he said. I didn’t want to respond right away. I just stayed where I was, listening. After a few moments, I answered as he seemed to be waiting for me to react to his revelation.
“Yes, he told me as much,” I said. His eyes searched mine. I guess he expected me to look shocked or frightened, but because I knew the flaming spirit was actually present, I didn’t give him any satisfaction.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a breakdown,” Drake continued. “I believe his hallucination is brought on by Post Traumatic Stress and associated guilt.”
“PTSD? Guilt from what?” I asked. Now he had my attention. My conviction that Paul must have killed this woman was gnawing at me. Surely it was an accident?
“Your brother admitted to me that last night he’d had a few drinks before going home. He was not entirely sober. It was quite late, after one in the morning. He said he was stopped at a light and there was no other traffic. There was an alley near the intersection and when he looked over that way, he saw a young woman being attacked by two men.
“He sat in his car watching while they doused her with some liquid and then set her on fire. He said he was so horrified by the sight that he just took off and never looked back.
“He told me that the burning image he’s seeing is that same woman,” he finished.
I thought about it for a moment. It all sounded so plausible, so rational, coming from this psychiatrist. It also explained the apparition’s sudden appearance. But I knew, even if he was in a slightly inebriated state, my brother would never have left someone to die. I said as much to Dr. Drake.
“That’s the story he told me,” he said. “You may draw your own conclusions.”
I knew I had to hear it from Paul. He may have been afraid of confronting the two attackers, certainly, but at a minimum he would have called the police. Knowing my brother as I do, I just could not accept this narrative at face value.
I wondered if he had tried to rescue her and failed. Had he known her before and that was adding to his guilt? Did he really kill her? I had to find out.
“Paul said he went home and then this morning he went to work as usual,” Dr. Drake went on. He told me he was sitting at his computer working and not really thinking about anything else. All of a sudden the hallucination, this flaming woman, appeared. He started screaming and ran from his office. It followed him. He was asking for help, for anyone in the office to help him, but they all sat staring at him and didn’t react to what he was seeing.
“He kept asking if anyone could see it. He was pointing and crying and begging for help. His superiors came out of their offices and tried to comfort him. They tried to find out what was going on, but he was panicked and completely out of reach of reason by that point.
“Someone must have called 911, because not long after Paul fled his office, the EMTs showed up. They brought him here and I was called down to the ER. I assessed his state and decided he wasn’t a danger to anyone, nor to himself. But he was in such a state of panic that I thought it best to admit him if only temporarily.
“After he was sedated and acting calmer, I brought him up here to my office where we could speak in private.”
He paused and I decided this was a good time to drop the bomb. “What would you say if I told you that I can see her too?” I asked. I crossed my arms, feeling smug. I smiled and sat back in the chair. I hoped he could really feel the depth of my sincerity.
“I’d say that you are either trying to defend your brother, or that you two are so close that you perceive his hallucination because you can’t accept that he could be having a mental break.”
“Wow! That’s a pretty convenient conclusion, shot from the hip! Good for you, doc.
“But I’m telling you the truth. I can see her. I’ll tell you something else: I can describe her to you. I know you were listening from your office door here so you know that Paul did not tell me exactly what he was looking at. He just asked me if I could see it. Did he describe her to you in detail, Doctor?”
“Good. I saw a young woman with tattoos and piercings,” I said. “She had her hair dyed that ridiculous shade of blue all the young girls affect these days. She was wearing jeans and had on a t-shirt under a leather jacket. She was on fire and her hair, clothing, and skin appeared to be melting. She was staring directly at Paul.”
“I see,” he said. “What are you saying? Do you believe you’ve seen a ghost?” he asked.
“What else could she be?”
“I just told you, a hallucination. You must understand that I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“You will now,” I said, smiling.
“I beg your pardon?”
A voice over the PA started yelling, “Code blue, Room 522!” The psychiatrist leapt from his desk chair and ran down the hall. I followed. We arrived at Room 522 in time to see doctors and nurses working feverishly over Paul. He was lying on the bed, still wearing the straightjacket, and appeared to be unconscious.
Dr. Drake asked me to leave. I did as instructed, but not before gesturing to the flaming woman who stood off to one side. Her interest in Paul seemed to have waned. She saw me jerk my head in the direction of the door and followed me through it. Someone closed it and we were alone in the hallway.
“All right. You know what I am, you know I can see you, so let’s cut the crap. Who are you and what do you think you are doing haunting my brother?” I asked her. If any of the people walking up and down that hall noticed us, they gave no indication.
She sighed and for the first time, turned off the flames. She looked so young, no more than a teenager. It seemed a shame she’d lost her life. She sat in a chair that was against the wall adjacent the door to Paul’s room. I sat down next to her.
“He’s only telling a very small part of the story,” she said. The voice she offered in my mind was soft, not ravaged by burned and tortured vocal chords or anything as physically mundane as that.
“So I gathered. You know I’ve heard what he told the shrink. Why don’t you tell me the rest?”
She sighed again and looked at her partially melted hands, which lay in her lap. The roast meat smell had gone away with the flames and now I only noticed the pungent, antiseptic smell of a hospital.
“We dated a few times,” she said. She must have noted my surprised look.
“I know what you are thinking, but I was a professional,” she said.
“Well, if you must use that term, sure. Anyway, Paul was looking for me last night. He had been drinking, quite a bit more than he told you or that doctor. That is the only reason he would have been in my neighborhood. He was an easy client. He didn’t demand anything weird, always paid on time, sometimes would tip me. Nice guy. Not like the usual customers. A clean cut, regular guy who was lonely, that’s all. That’s what he was.”
She shrugged. “I met up with that other John a little earlier. Had I known Paul was cruising for me, I never would have. But this John got rough very quick. I was able to get out of his car and ran to that alley. His friend was there. It was as if they had planned it ahead of time. They both took turns, there in the dark behind the dumpsters.” She shook her head and her pretty blue locks fell out in ashy clumps, trailed by a wisp of smoke.
“I know people like you think that working girls like me can’t be raped, but that’s what it was. They were rough and uncaring and I wasn’t going to get paid for taking that. But I was more afraid of these guys. You see, there has been a John out there killing the girls on the street. The cops are calling him a serial killer, but since he’s picking on us, they aren’t busting their asses to catch him, you know?”
As she spoke, I noticed she became more substantial. For a moment, I almost forgot she was a ghost. “I know about that,” I told her. Considering what I am, it wasn’t hard for me to know about the recently deceased prostitutes that had been cropping up all over the city.
The blue-haired girl looked at me. “Yeah. So that’s who I thought these guys were, you know? I thought they had reeled me in and now they were going to kill me. But then Paul drove by. I was so relieved. I screamed at him and waved my arms. He saw me. He looked me right in the eyes and I knew he would save me.” She paused.
“Clearly he didn’t,” I said.
“Well, no. Not exactly. See, he did save me from those guys. He pulled over and jumped out of his car and he had a gun. They saw that he was armed and they dropped me and ran out of there, back to their car. He didn’t go after them, he came to see how I was. I was so relieved!” she said again. “He picked me up and I started to get dressed. I asked him if he would take me home and he said, “No. Not tonight, sweetheart.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “Are you telling me he expected you to perform for him after what you had just gone through? That doesn’t sound like the Paul I know.”
“I don’t think you know your brother as well as you think you know him,” she answered. She brushed absently at the pile of ash that had formed on her jeans. Instead of falling to the floor as physical ash would have, the little pile just dissipated, taking some of her hand with it.
She looked up from her lap and met my eyes. “Paul is the serial killer that the cops have been half-heartedly looking for,” she said.
“I don’t believe it!” I got up and went across the hall. Still, no one paid any attention to us.
“I’m dead,” she said flatly. “You know we don’t lie.” She left it at that.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d been aware of some of the other dead prostitutes, but Paul killed them? How could he? What could have happened to send him so utterly sideways?
But then suddenly, the pieces began to fall into place for me. I recalled the dead birds that used to appear out of nowhere when we were kids. I remembered my kitten that had drowned in the pond behind the house. He blamed that one on the dog, but the dog had loved that kitten. Paul’s lifelong fascination with true crime stories, especially unsolved murders came back to me then. I turned to her.
“Why did he set fire to you? I don’t think the others were burned.”
“They weren’t,” she said. “He raped me, there in that alley, just as the other two men had earlier. Then he shot me in the head, execution style, as he had done with the others. When I was dead, he went back to his car and got a gas can. He poured it all over me and lit my body on fire. He took the gas can, his lighter, and everything else that might tie him to the crime and got back in his car and left. I think he burned me because he just happened upon me in that situation. He wasn’t planning to kill me. At least not last night. I suppose he would have eventually, though.
“But he was telling the truth about one thing. I was watching him go, leaving me there to burn.
“Do you know how frustrating it’s been that only he could see me?” she asked. “I wanted so badly to make someone, anyone, see me so they would know what he did! Then you came today. I was glad because I knew finally someone would hear my story. I wasn’t content with just driving him crazy, although there is a great deal of satisfaction in it. But really, he was mad to begin with, wasn’t he? I wanted to kill him. I tried to. But I’m not as good at affecting the physical as I’d like to be. I did try.
“How do you do it, anyway?” She asked suddenly. “Just how do you make them see. . ?”
But before she could finish the question, Dr. Drake opened the door and emerged from my brother’s room. He looked aggrieved.
“We can’t save him,” he said.
“What?” I said. “But how? He was disturbed, not dying!” I brushed past him into the room and looked down at a very pale Paul, motionless on the bed. There were dark bruises on his throat. The doctors and nurses were working hard over his body performing CPR, but could not revive him.
“I’m calling it,” one of them said. The others ceased their frantic attempts. Paul was dead.
I turned, not surprised to see him standing next to me. He looked ecstatic. Death becomes him.
“Did she do this to you?” I asked him.
He nodded and pointed to his body’s bruised throat. Sometime between Paul being led here to this private room and the doctor being called up here on a code blue, the flaming woman had extracted her vengeance after all. She must have thought they would be able to revive him and that’s why she told me her story. So that I could call him on it. She wanted me to know what he was.
But now he was dead, and a serial killer no longer. Her story, while shocking, was moot. I looked over toward the window. She was there, smiling at us and once again burning away.
“You want to maybe turn the fire off now?” I asked. She winked and blew me a kiss, then flipped off Paul. Then she stepped through the fifth story window and was gone. A little on the theatrical side considering, but hey, to each her own.
I looked at him. “How did you keep it from me all these years?”
He shrugged. “Does it matter now?” He looked around the room. “Can we get out of here, this place gives me the creeps.” He laughed and faded from my view.
Then Dr. Drake looked at me. I think he wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but I didn’t let him get past opening his mouth.
I smiled at him. “Remember in your office when you told me that you don’t believe in ghosts?”
“Yes,” he said. “Don’t tell me that you can see Paul now?” he asked.
“Well yes, as a matter of fact, I can. But that’s not what I want you to know. When we met an hour ago I told you that I’m Paul’s sister. What I didn’t tell you is that I’ve been dead for over three years.”
Slowly I began to fade until he saw nothing in front of him but empty space. I laughed and made damn sure he heard me, too. That shrink looked as though he’d seen a ghost.
The author of this material received his Master’s Degree from U.C. Berkeley during the heyday of the sixties. During his 40 year clinical experience, he studied human behavior from a variety of positions. During his career years he dabbled in writing mostly short stories and some essays. He has a book for sale on Amazon.com/books. #149286783, titled: The Sage Institute. He is currently retired and continues to write mostly articles for linkedin Post about the evolution of the human race. He has been published in both national and international journals. End.
The year was 1969. The Vietnam War was surging and many people had mixed minds about it; the youth of the country were in rebellion over our involvement. Ronald Reagan, the actor, was Governor was busy trying to close the state’s mental hospitals; Lyndon B. Johnson was President, and growing increasingly weary of the war. Chief of the Supreme Court was Earl Warren, previous governor of California. The Apollo 11 mission to the moon caused a sensation. This was the year the infamous Woodstock Festival was conducted in upper New York State. Ohio State had beaten USC in the Rose Bowl, and the nation was shocked by the Senator Ted Kennedy affair at Chappaquiddick River. S.I. Hayakawa, Canadian born, now famous Linquist and Semanticist, was teaching at San Francisco State. He had been instrumental in helping to curb the rebellious students, who were copying what was occurring at UC, Berkeley, where ‘free speech,’ and ‘free love’ were the standard youthful behavior, and an endless struggle with drugs was in ascendancy. Gas sold for $ .35 a gallon. The average house cost $15,000 and monthly rentals averaged $135.00 dollars. Average yearly income was $8500, and the average car sold for around $3500. dollars.
* * * * *
“Honey, will you hurry up. You take forever primping. It’s only dinner with the Kerrington’s. We’ve done it dozens of times before.”
“Yes, dear, and we go through this same routine every time. Just be a little patient. Give me a minute. You know how elegant Maddy always looks. Such a beauty at her age, too.”
“Are you primping to try and make a favorable impression on Cordy? Trying to compete with Maddy? I”ve seen the way you two sneak looks at each other when you think no one is watching.”She was wearing a black, knee length cocktail dress with two inch black pumps, over which she would wear a waist length sable coat.
“Don’t be an ass, Larry. The four of us have been close personal friends as you well as business associates. Don’t try to make more out of it than it is.”
He was standing behind her at the dresser, straightening his pale blue tie for the third time. Tonight, he had donned a dark blue worsted suit with a light blue dress shirt. His feet were wrapped in a pair of black Ecco pointed toe shoes, with black silk socks.
“That Cordy, first he marries my partner. Then, he invests in the business. He certainly is ambitious, much more than me.”
That was arranged by Maddy, right?”
“Well, she surely had something to do with it. I sure hope Cordy doesn’t try to talk her into quitting. She’s the best associate I’ve ever had.”
* * * * *
Hadley Moore had met Lawrence Littlefield at a gala event in the wintry month of November, at the opening of the new Overstreet Galleries of Fine Art on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco some fifteen years ago. She was nineteen, and Larry was twenty-five and already established in the travel business. Hadley was five, six with wide hips and figure eight frame. Her face was round shaped, not quite oval, with a strong jaw and high, full cheeks. Her nose was a dollop of flesh, small and slightly flattened. The mouth was shapely and sensuous, with full lips, and her dark eyes displayed an unfulfilled curiosity for everything.
Lawrence was five feet, ten, with appropriate weight. His face was somewhat square in shape, with thin lips and a narrow mouth. He had deep as a sea blue eyes, with long, dark eyelashes somewhat feminine in appearance. His thin light brown hair was full, and he parted it in the middle, the way his ancestors wore their hair. His sideburns came just even to his aquiline nose.
They were instantly attracted to each other, and shared their taste in fine Art. She favored Matisse and Paul Gauguin whose blending of colors was for her eye catching. She particularly liked his, “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” depicting the back of a naked native girl. This picture resonated with her interest in the concepts of the Ancients about death. She was just finishing the Egyptian Book of the Dead, by E.A. Wallis Budge. Her favorite Matisse, in Fauvism style, was his “Red Room,” dominated by rich red colors, which somehow aroused her passions.
Larry also liked those two but favored Renoir, particularly his, “Le Moulin de la Galette,” capturing so realistically, so vividly, a huge crowd of people. He thought that each head was so real. Neither were genuine art gourmets, they just knew what their eyes favored.
Hadley had a PhD in Social Work and was teaching several classes at San Francisco State on 19th Avenue, near Stonestown, the popular San Francisco shopping mall.
Lawrence Littlefield was the sole owner of the Littlefield Travel Services on north Van Ness Avenue, and his business was expanding to the point he needed assistance. Their home was on Pacific, one block from Broadway.
* * * * *
Madeline Newhart had been married before for some ten years to a much older man who died two years previously from liver cancer leaving her childless but his only heir to his small coffee and sandwich place on Van Ness, near enough to the gilded City Hall to draw from it a regular breakfast and lunch crowd. The rest of the day was drop-in stragglers who ordered mostly coffee and pie. In addition to herself she had two half-time helpers who usually left in the early afternoon. It was on a particularly dreary rainy afternoon and the final customer had departed, leaving her alone. She was standing at the front door ready to close up early when he suddenly emerged out of the dimness. She had married at twenty and was now thirty years old.
“Oh, I’m sorry, are you closing?”
“I was, but please come in and have a seat. Maybe you’ll find something you like.”
“Business not so good today, huh? I’ve never been here before. Been meaning to ever since I read an article about this place in the Chronicle, by Herb Cain.
“Oh, that was a while ago. He is such a wonderful read. I love Herb Cain, so charming and witty. His description of San Francisco as the ‘Bhagdad by the Bay’ is a classic.”The man sat on a stool at the counter. She offered him coffee and he readily accepted, while slipping out of his tan rain coat. He was running his fingers though his hair when she placed the steaming cup in front of him. Maddy’s work costume consisted of rotating six silk blouses, using the colors of the rainbow as her guide, and six pairs of matching slacks, and comfortable black slip-ons. Today, she was wearing grey slacks and a deep blue blouse.
Maddy had been lonely ever since the drawn out death of her husband. As they chatted, she felt an immediate affinity with Cordy, which he insisted she call him. She felt so much at ease she told him she was widowed and had been left this cafe by her dead husband, knowing really nothing about running it. “But so far I’ve managed.” She thought it was nice to chat with this gentleman on a quiet rainy afternoon; something romantic about it, like in a novel.
He ordered a Ham and Swiss on Rye, and a piece of cherry pie to go with his refill. While he was finishing his coffee, he pulled out his business card and laid it on the counter. “If you ever need an attorney let me know.” The card read: Cordell Kerrington, Attorney at Law, and gave his business address on Montgomery Street, in the financial district off Market. “I was at City Hall and got this urge for a coffee. That’s why I dropped in today. And, Maddy, I sure am glad I did. It is a real pleasure to meet such a lovely lady as yourself. Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” Then, he told her he had been recently divorced after a short-time marriage and lived alone in an apartment off Grant in China Town (where no one heeded the business of others.) What he didn’t tell her was he used this apartment for his occasional trysts, and actually owned a home in the Marina.
Maddy trusted him without reservation, since he was handsome of face and rather debonair, she thought, tall and well groomed with dark hair that fluffed loosely atop his well shaped head. He carried himself with an air of solid self-assurance, and when he smiled, he dazzled her. His large ears lay flat against his clear skin. His face was oblong, with a high brow, and his intense brown eyes warmed her when he looked directly at her.
His attire consisted of a dark grey Brooks Brothers two piece suit, with pale yellow dress shirt and brown and green striped tie. His shoes were shiny black Floresheim loafers, with a small buckle below the flap. He had celebrated his thirty-second birthday in May last. Maddy was ready for an affair; hoping, of course, to snag another husband if at all possible.
Maddy was still youthful and quite stunning in body and face. Her shoulder length black hair was wavy and shiny, and matched her dark dancing eyes with long curled eyelashes. She had one of those heart shaped oval faces, with a pointed chin and high rosy cheeks. She wore little make up, and used a pale pink lipstick on her luscious mouth. Her only jewelry was a Milan watch she had purchased at Walmart. Her stingy ex. had provided her few gifts. Her teeth were white and straight and sparkled when she licked her full lips.
* * * * *
As was Maddy’s habit, she opened the café at 7:300 each weekday for the morning breakfast crowd. Her bench radio was usually tuned to that colorful and whimsical, Don Sherwood program; San Francisco’s “Bad Boy,” for the entertainment of her breakfast customers. And, the usual customers did come, keeping her busy to well after 9:30. Finally, the last of the City Hall crowd departed, and she had her first opportunity of the day to relax and enjoy her own cup of coffee. She perched on a stool, gazing through the large paneled window with a view of the busy traffic on Van Ness, which never seemed to abate. The fog outside her window was slowly giving way to the rising sun. Her helpers were busy cleaning up the place, washing the dishes, and making more coffee and the preparations for the variety of sandwiches the café specialized in. All would be ready for the expected City Hall crowd at noon.
Just then, Larry Littlefield came in and sat in a booth. As she observed him, he seemed tired even at that hour
“Good morning, Larry.” “Having a busy day?”
“There is always more than I can handle.” He gazed over the wall menu. “I’ll have the pancakes this morning, Maddy.”
“Coming right up,” setting a steaming cup of coffee in front of him. Larry’s agency was only two blocks from Maddy’s place and he had been a frequent customer even when Maddy’s husband had been the one working the counter. She sat the three tier pancakes on the table and a maple syrup dispenser along side a platter of butter patties. She brought the glass pot and refreshed his coffee.
“Maddy, can you sit down for a minute? I’d like to talk to you.”
“Sure, let me get my coffee,” and she joined him, sitting across from him in the booth.
“You probably can tell, you know me so well. I am even at this hour really bushed. I need some help and the soon the better. I’ve run ads for days in both the Chronicle and Examiner, but with no responses. Do you happen to know anyone who’d like to learn the traveling business? If so, please refer them to me.” He thoughtfully sipped his coffee, while steadily eyeing Maddy for her response.
“How much would a job like that pay?”
“Well, it depends upon the number of tours one can deliver. The pay is on a commission basis. It could range between five hundred to a thousand a week. It all depends on the total amount of the trips developed.”
“Do you make trips to various countries to arrange for accommodations? Like I’ve seen in the movies?
“Of course, it’s a staple of the business. You know my partner, Raymond, has deserted me? Just can’t leave the office closed while I’m gone. I’d lose business all together if I did. That’s why I need some assistance ASAP.” He sipped more coffee. “Raymond departed for Seattle. Said he needed a change. Not much of an explanation.”
“Could an assistant also make such trips at times?”
“Well, once he, or she, learned the business that could be arranged. Why do you ask?”
“You know, Larry, I’m getting rather weary of my routine here. Same old, same old, day in, day out. No variety, no spice of life to speak of. I could use a change myself. And, frankly, the money doesn’t equate with all the work involved.”
“Really, Maddy. My God, you’re hired!” And, they both laughed.
“Let me think about it. I would need time to sell this place, of course. I could be available now on Sunday’s, if that would help you. I know you’re also closed on Sunday’s. Maybe you could spend a couple of hours. Just showing me the basics. It’s just a thought.”
“It’s a wonderful thought. I’d be more than happy to have you on board. The truth is I’ve always admired the way you took charge of this place when Carl, Mr. Newhart, passed. You have more than enough business experience. There is not that much different in passing out coffee and sandwiches and arranging travel trips for the tourists. It’s all service to customers.”
And, so it was arranged, and after six busy weeks Maddy was well set up in the travel business. One of her regular café customers had bought the place, and relieved her of the burden of a serious search for a buyer. And, best of all, she received her first quoted price for the café.
“Over time, Larry came to not only trust Maddy fully but they became best friends. Often, Larry invited her and a friend to dinner with him and Hadley.
Cordell Kerrington was a regular companion of Maddy’s at these dinners. These two had been dating steadily ever since that first café visit, and were making marital plans for the near future.
Within two months, Larry and Hadley were invited to be witnesses at their civil ceremony in a judge’s chambers; a simple affair with no fuss or frills. Afterward, Cordy treated them all to a wedding dinner at Aliota’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. Aliota, the friendly and outgoing owner, had once served as Mayor of San Francisco. The place was famous and its picture windows overlooked the Bay and when it was not too foggy, the now closed Alcatraz; an infamous tourist site. It was a memorable and festive affair, and they all became tipsy on champagne.
* * * * *
“What do you think, Maddy? For years I’ve concentrated on tourist trips to Europe, Russia, the Scandinavian cities and Mexico, and of course the Islands of the Carribean. If we’re to expand, we need to include more Central and South American cities. If I were to go down there, I trust you’re now experienced enough to handle the business alone.” Larry’s usual office costume consisted of an assortment of worsted slacks or chinos, open throat dress shirts and black penny loafers. Today, he was sporting a charcoal turtleneck against the wind, black slacks and grey sport coat and black Flexi Oxfords he’d purchased on his last trip to Guadalajara, Mexico.
“Of course, there are a lot more places. More potential for expansion. I’ve avoided them so far. The far east, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, China, even Australia. They’re so far and so costly. To make a one city call and return and then repeat that. I’d have to go and visit several countries without returning. That would be costly and timely. And, I guess I am just not that ambitious. And, other agencies cover those quite well.”
“Sure, Larry. I feel confident to do that. And thank you for training me so well. When do you plan to leave?” Maddy was wearing a pale wine blouse, yellow sweater, and dark grey slacks and one inch wedge black heels.
“As soon as I can make arrangements. Unless we do this, we’re going to lose more business to the big National Travel Magazines.”
“You mean like “Conde Nast Travel and others like that?”
“Hey, I did teach you good. So, it’s agreed. I go and you take over, right?”
“I feel ready, whenever you are.”
Larry did some research on Santiago, Chile, which is the first South American city he considered visiting. He was thinking of side trips to Patagonia and to some of the known sites there, like the Parque National Tierra del Fuego, and the Glaciar Perito Mareno. Some of the best hotels in Santiago, he discovered, were the Sheraton, Merriott, the Inter Continental Santiago, the Ritz-Carlton, Noi Vitacura and several others.
He had also been thinking of looking for one or two Investors to broaden the business even further. When he shared this idea with Maddy, she suggested Cordy as a good prospect.
“Cordy has told me several times he has some extra savings he is looking to invest, if he can find a suitable company to put his money. You want me to ask him, or at least mention it to him?”
“Hell yeah, I also had him in mind. I’m glad you told me. So, he’s already entertained the idea. Have him come and see me ASAP.”
Larry had no idea of just how ambitious Cordy could be. He needed to be in control of everything he was involved with. And, unfortunately, Larry was not so astute as to have noticed his growing interest in Hi-D, Hadley’s nickname.
“Hey, Larry, sorry I haven’t contacted you earlier. I’ve been rather busy with some corporate stuff. From what Maddy has already told me, I’d be honored to invest in the company. Do you have the time right now to discuss it?”
“Sure, come into my office.” For over an hour they hashed out the details, and right off, Cordy pulled out his bankbook and wrote Larry a check for twenty-five thousand dollars as a first investment, with more to come if and when it was necessary.
Two days later, Larry left for Santiago. Maddy dropped him off at the ever crowded SFX, and watched as his plane ascended into the horizon. It was a cloudy day, limiting the sun to peek between the gaps. Back at the office, she got busy arranging several trips prospective customers had previously discussed. One was to Panama, another to Rome and Spain; a combination deal.
* * * * *
Hadley had arranged that after the Spring Semester ended, she would take a year’s sabbatical and spend more time at the agency, and try to do some writing. The Spring Semester had been hectic trying to keep up with all the changes brought by Reagan’s closure of the states mental hospitals. The new mandate from the Department of Mental Hygiene, was for each of the fifty-seven California Counties to establish a Community Mental Health Center to assume responsibility for the care of those being released from hospitals in their own counties.
Cordy casually dropped by more and more often. He kidded he needed to keep abreast of his investment. Maddy at first welcomed his unscheduled visits, but then began to entertain some suspicions as to his true motives in making these visits. She felt conflicted over whether to mention these things to Larry when he returned. For the most part he was absent from the office during Cordy’s visits. Then, she decided that he was just building his ego through his usual flirtations, and that there was nothing substantial to any of it. She loved Cordy with all heart and needed to believe he loved her the same way. He’s just being a man, a flirt, and just want’s Hadley to admire him.
Several weeks after Larry had returned from Chile, he departed for Prague for a several days, leaving his wife and Maddy to run things. One day when the lunch hour arrived she had a customer and told Hadley and Cordy, who had again dropped by for lunch, to go ahead and she’d try to join them as soon as she could. They were going to Maddy’s old café, which was close by.
When they were settled in a booth and had ordered chicken salad sandwiches with grapes and dill pickles and coffee, Cordy eyed Hadley and grinned.
“Honey, can I ask you a personal question?”
“What? Oh, I suppose. But before I agree ask the question. Then I’ll decide.”
“I’ve noticed Larry always makes the decisions at the office, although he does listen to Maddy’s suggestions. He always makes the final decision. Even when we all go out to dinner, it is usually Larry’s suggestions we wind up eating. It occurs to me he possibly has some sort of an inferior complex that he’s compensating for. Is he that way he is at home, with you?”
“I don’t think I fully agree with your picture of Larry. He is a very loving and attentive husband. We don’t have any children because of me, not Larry. His only issue in that regard is his absolute refusal to consider adopting.”
“See, that’s my point. Why can’t he consider your feelings in the matter and not rough shod over you? If he sincerely loves you as much as you say, he’d be more considerate. I know if you were my wife under those circumstances, I’d behave differently.” At that point, Maddy came in and joined them. That ended Cordy’s digging for dirt on Larry.
* * * * *
Larry’s business was improving with more and more South American contacts and established tours. When Cordy realized the potential of the business, he began scheming. Not only did he want to own the business outright, but to get Hadley to fall in love with him. He wanted to get rid of Maddy and marry her. He knew then that he loved her.
Years before, he’d taken on a lawsuit brought to him by the owner of a local disco. The owner was being pressured by a shady character to whom the owner owed money. The guy wanted to take the disco over for himself. The owner wanted Cordy to sue him in a civil suit, for a Court Order to Cease and Desist. Instead of going to court, he threatened to notify the DA to being criminal charges of Extortion against him. The end of it was Cordy advanced the money to pay the guy off for a small percentage of the profits for a limited time.
Since this disco owner knew a lot San Francisco’s underworld characters. Cordy in strict confidence asked the owner to get him in touch with a hit man. For this, he would give up his percentage in the disco and add an ample bonus.
This meeting was arranged in the private office of the owner’s disco. The hit man’s name was Rollo de Angelo, out of Tampico. He was in the country illegally. Cordy offered him ten thousand dollars once the job was done; two thousand down and the remainder once Larry was dead. He emphasized and overly stressed that it absolutely had to appear as an accident. No suspicion on himself was permissible. Rollo took the money, guaranteeing success. Cordy added a final stipulation: “It has to be done soon.”
Two weeks passed and nothing had happened. Larry was arranging for Maddy to go to Paris to secure new tours with established hotels there. It was an easy assignment. She agreed, but told Larry she needed Cordy’s permission; or at least, should discuss it with him. He agreed.
While Maddy was in Paris, Cordy set up secret meetings with Hadley, who was becoming more enamored of him. She confessed she and Larry had been having some serious disagreements lately over her taking the sabbatical and her frequent visits to the agency. She recited their latest conversation.
‘Honey, the agency is a business and not a place for family to hang out. You and Cordy need to reduce your visits. It is just too disruptive.’ “I think the real reason is he’s getting jealous of you. You’re richer and handsomer than he is.”
After that brief but firm conversation, she began wondering if Larry had designs on Maddy and just wanted the two of them out of the way. Her suspicions pushed her closer to Cordy as her confidant.
After waiting for two weeks, Cordy became disgusted. He paid the disco owner a visit and inquired about Rollo. “I hate to tell you this man, but Rollo was picked up by Homeland and deported. I don’t think he’ll be back any some time soon.”
Damn! And, I’m out two thousand dollars. His next thought was to ask the owner for another hit man referral, but then changed his mind. He would wait awhile and see what else might develop. If Hadley would agree to leave Larry and marry him, he would divorce Maddy. Then there would be no need to have Larry killed. That idea, of course, disallowed his taking over the business. But, he asked himself, What is the more important thing I want? And it was Hadley without question. He concluded that at the next meeting with Hadley, he would discuss that proposal, and if she agreed, they would tell Maddy and Larry their marriages were over. Hell, maybe those two might make a marriage themselves. He liked that idea; he would feel less guilty.
He called Hadley, setting up a meeting at the “Top of the Mark Restaurant,” Ben Sweig’s, famous Mark Hopkins Hotel on California Street, a short distance from the majestic Grace Cathedral. He had rented a room before she arrived. He wouldn’t mention that until he was sure she was available.
“Hi, sweety. Thank you for joining me. I’ve missed seeing you.”
“Why? It’s only been a few days?”
“Because that’s how I feel about you. Don’t you know how much I love you? I want to be with you every minute. I want marry you. Divorce Maddy if you’ll divorce Larry. I can handle all the details. I know you do care for me. The question is, enough to realize what we can make together?”
Hadley listened to him in silence. They had ordered a lunch of scallops, salad, with wine. Her mind was racing. Her married to Larry had been a long one, and everything loses its glamour with time; everything so routinized. She knew she did care for him; maybe not to the same extent he loved her. I think I could he could make me happy. And, he is rich. I could retire my job at the university and try to write that novel I’ve been putting off for so long. Before lunch was over, she had decided to go along with Cordy’s idea. And, when he told her he had booked a room in the hotel, she only grinned. “Okay,” was all she needed to say.
“Great, I’ll tell Maddy tonight. I do love you, honey. Do everything to make you happy. You’ll see and never regret your decision
* * * * *
“Does it give you pleasure to play this role of a haridan? I realize you’re justly angry. But you’re mature enough to face reality without all this raving.” He was wearing sand colored Chinos, brown loafers and a green golf shirt.
“You damned right, I am justified! I thought I knew you. Ha! How stupid I’ve been not to have realized what was coming. How long you been fucking that seductress? A month? A year? My god, Cordy, what possessed you?” She had on dark brown slacks with a beige silk blouse, and hush puppy slippers.
“What does it matter now? My bags are packed and setting at the front door. I’m not changing my mind.” They were standing a few feet apart in the well-appointed kitchen, with granite counter tops and double aluminum sink. She had started to brew a pot of coffee, and had stopped in mid-air when Cordy came in to say good-bye.
“We’ve shared everything. Planned our future old age together . . . I’ve been a loving and faithful wife, I’ve trusted you in spite of watching your many flirtations and said nothing, and what’s it gotten me. Why the hell did you even marry me? You said you loved me. Why?`
“I don’t care to discuss that now. It’s too late. I don’t give a damn what you think. I am only sorry that I’ve hurt you so badly. But it makes no difference. What is done is done, and now I’m leaving.”
“You’re a selfish son-of-a-bitch! Wait till Hadley finds out . . . ”
“Goodbye, Maddy,” and he turned toward the door.
In a rage, she grabbed up a butcher knife off the counter, quickly closed the space between them, and plunged the knife into the back of his neck up to the hilt. The tip of the blade came out on the other side, dripping blood and splitting his Adam’s Apple. He silently slumped to the floor. Statute like, she stared down at his lifeless form. Blood had splattered on her hands, face and silk beige blouse; she paid no attention. Then, she slowly returned to the task of brewing the pot of coffee. When it finished perking, she carried a cup to the oak wood kitchen table and slumped into one of the hardwood chairs with a thick red cushion. With shaky hands, she lit a cigarette, leaned back, crossed her legs, and using both hands, silently and deliberately sipped her coffee. End.
Tolu Daniel is a writer and editor. His essays and short stories have appeared on Catapult.co, The Nasiona Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, Prachya Review, Elsewhere Literary Journal, Expound Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, Saraba Magazine, Panorama Journal, Arts & Africa and a few other places. Longlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. He currently holds editorial positions with Afridiaspora, The Single Story Foundation Journal and Panorama Journal.
THE SMALL MARGINS OF FRIENDSHIP