As I rest against the worn desk of my office, I hear the clickety clack of my secretary’s typewriter right outside the thin wall. In a short while, someone I know will enter my business, head to my office and reveal that they need my skills to save them from their troubles, which will always seem far simpler than the tangled mess they would end up becoming. And even the times I have wished with all my heart to stay away from all of it, the people involved wouldn’t let me be until I forced myself to endure through it all again.
I have closed my eyes to try to control my breathing, but I hear the tapping of heels approaching my secretary’s desk. I wouldn’t forget that rhythm in a thousand lifetimes. Then I hear her muffled voice as she introduces herself to my secretary, Doris. Seconds later, the door to my office opens. It’s a woman in her late twenties wearing sunglasses and dressed in a black flared dress. She walks inside and closes the door behind her. As she stares with black holes for eyes, as dark as her own, she smiles, parting her painted lips.
“Hello,” she says.
Betty again. The old rollercoaster. The first impression always jumpstarts my heart, no matter how long I’ve known her. Every man dreams of having a such a woman concentrating her attention on them. She knows it, and and how to use it.
“Hey,” I say. “What can I do for you?”
She sits down in the leather chair in front of my desk and crosses her legs. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Although in the following days I will learn to hate her all over again, I missed her long, painted fingernails, her shiny, straight black hair, and how she handles herself on her high-heeled shoes.
She takes off her sunglasses, which belonged to her mother, and her dark eyes meet mine.
“Mr. Fairfax, I want you to find my husband,” she says. “He left me last weekend and I need you to find him.”
Fairfax’s Finest, a private investigation company I own and run, has been built thanks to solving cases that the police couldn’t or wouldn’t. I’m known as the best in town. Then again, I can’t be proud about it, can I? Anyone with my knowledge would ace every case, would know them by heart even if they wished to forget them.
I want to take a deep breath, but I contain myself.
“Sure, I will find whoever needs finding,” I answer with my raspy, weary voice. “Work with people I’d rather avoid, dredge up the past, and poke around the lives of others. Usual state of affairs. You have caught me a bit more worn down than usual, so I feel like asking something new, Betty MacDougall. How often do you feel as if someone is staring at you, someone you don’t ever get to see?”
For a second her pleasant, calculated smile wavers. She has asked herself how come I know her name. Then again, she came looking for the best.
“Never,” she answers, her voice flat. “Should I? Who has been spying on dear old me, Mr. Fairfax?”
“You might want to ask that question to yourself, madam,” I say. “You came to me for a reason. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t heard of my work.”
She ponders that for a second.
“True,” Betty answers. “I can pay for the best, which is the level of skill I require. My husband, poor old Roy, is a troubled man. Suffers from chronic melancholia, you see, and any little misunderstanding might trigger him to simply run away from those who love him. It just happens that he’s good at hiding, and this time, in his confusion, he has left with something that doesn’t belong to him.”
Good old Roy is hiding in Whitstable, and he has indeed fled with something that didn’t belong to him. It just happens that it didn’t belong to Betty either.
“What has this thief of yours stolen from you?” I ask, barely performing my part.
“He’s not a thief, he’s my husband. And the missing item is a music box. He took it with him.”
“What’s so special about it?”
“It belonged to my mother,” she explains bitterly. “The person I loved the most and whom I will never get back. I’m not sure why Roy took the box from me. Maybe he wanted a memento of our relationship. To be honest, it might be the case that he has already lost it along the way, the silly bugger. However, I won’t give up on either.”
“Of course you shouldn’t.”
“I’ll pay you to find him and retrieve the music box. You can charge extra to prioritize it.” She challenges me with her stare. “Roy tied my hands, I’m afraid. I don’t think I have any other choice but to deal with this nonsense.”
She opens her purse and takes out a thick wad of bank notes. She peels off a few so new they aren’t even creased, handing them over to me.
I briefly examine the money, even though I have already held these very same notes. Of course Betty is so carefree about money, given that she never worked hard to earn it. Well, I suppose that she does consider it working hard, in her peculiar way.
“You handle a small fortune very casually, Betty MacDougall.”
“It’s only money. In the scheme of things, it isn’t that important.”
“That’s true, but I would imagine that someone who never had enough wouldn’t throw it around so much.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about it. I have more than enough, even for my simple lifestyle. And I make sure to put some aside for a rainy day. It isn’t raining anyway.”
I can almost see her eyes narrowing as she declares this last bit.
I cross my arms and hold Betty’s stare with the blankest expression on my face. I’m not reacting to her charms, and if there’s anything my dear old Betty hates is not being able to play people like an instrument.
“Few would call your lifestyle simple, Mrs. MacDougall, if they knew about it.”
She smiles, the cold grin I know best.
“You’d be surprised, Mr. Fairfax, about what some people have and others don’t.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised about anything. That’s a experience that I miss. I am aware that you could pay for anything in this town and it wouldn’t affect your finances.”
Her eyes narrow.
“You have my attention, Mr. F. Are you going to tell me that you did preliminary research on someone you didn’t know was going to walk through your door?”
I take a breath and lean into her personal space. Her face is so expressive when she’s annoyed. I open my palm to reveal a silver crucifix on a heavy chain.
“Do you recognize this?”
For a brief moment I wonder if she will try to snatch it out of my hand. But she’s too smart for that. Her eyes narrow again as she looks at the silver cross pretending to see it for the first time.
“Should I know any random crucifix that many of the people in this wretched town happen to own?” she says with an amused yet dismissive tone.
“This isn’t your average crucifix, darling. It has a history that goes far beyond this old town.”
“I really don’t have time for riddles, Mr. Fairfax. I can see why you come with such recommendations if you manage to unnerve even your clients in such a manner. But I have more important things to do than play a guessing game with you.”
I smile. All I have left is to either be swept by the current or indulge myself.
“The man that last owned it was an eccentric to say the least. He was also an infamous murderer of many young women, along with being a pimp. He used to lure women with promises of work as a model, dancer and the like. Those ladies had come into America and quickly fell into such debt that they felt forced to prostitute themselves. In return, he got them addicted to various drugs and abused them to his heart’s content.”
Betty’s face doesn’t change from its annoyance, except for the briefest of flickers in her eyes. As if she’s trying very hard to not let me see something.
“A veritable monster, and an uncouth subject for small talk.”
“But that’s history now,” I continue. “This crucifix was found in a bathroom stall with prints all over it. In another room of that floor, the police kept busy handling the poisoned corpse of the man that the crucifix had belonged to.”
“So?” she says with a grunt. “Another dreary tale in this boring world.”
“One of his whores ended up in prison for his murder. Lord knows she had enough cause, and she had already attacked him with a knife before. It just happened that the prints on this crucifix didn’t match those of the woman who now rots in jail.”
“So?” Betty repeats. Nobody would be able to read her expression even if they knew.
“She’s innocent. We’ve never been able to figure out who the real murderer was, but we know it wasn’t her. Still, I couldn’t pin it on anyone.”
“Do you make a show of trying to solve previous cases by framing for murder your new clients, Mr. Fairfax? I suppose it must have worked one time or another.”
I smile at Betty as the familiar warmth spreads through my chest.
“This is evidence that you murdered someone, and that none but your victims knew what you are capable of.”
“I’m capable of a lot, that’s for sure. The world deals in proof, though. Surely you know that, investigator.”
“I’m fairly certain that you can’t bluff your way out of this one.”
She sits there in silence for a minute or two, staring at the crucifix. Then she smiles. It’s a dark smile that makes my blood run cold. A power of hers, one you never become immune to.
“You are playing a strange game,” Betty says. “I wonder what your connections in the police would think of you accusing random young women without any proof. If this is a prank, you are boring me, but if you are as serious as you pretend, you’re going to regret making me into your enemy, Mr. Fairfax.”
“In polite society, to kill me you would need to catch me sleeping, because I wouldn’t taste any of your food nor let your lips near mine.”
“Ah, the toll it takes. Is that it? You are confusing me with any other beautiful, young woman of the many cases you have dealt with, one that made you learn to look over your shoulder. After all, we pay people like you to endure what we don’t want to bother ourselves with.”
I shush her, which breaks her practiced charm. The holes show for a brief second what lies inside. I point at the ceiling and look up, then back down to Betty’s haunting eyes.
“It’s getting stronger. You feel it now? The chill of the gaze upon you.”
“No,” she says, intrigued, “What do you mean?”
“There is a presence.” I take a deep breath and step away from her towards the window. “There always has been. And yet you have never been able to notice it. Even a woman as cunning as yourself.”
I turn my back on her, but she calls out to me. I look over my shoulder. I want to witness as much as her as I get to see, after all.
“Mr. Fairfax…” she says, trailing off. She shakes her head slowly. “You are a man full of surprises. First the crucifix, now talk about some invisible presence watching us. Are you a man of God by chance?”
“No. It’s not a god, at least none of the ones we know. This presence is real, and it demands something from me. From us.”
I turn back around. Her eyes look at me from head to toe and then they dart over to the door of my office as if someone else is going to enter.
“Oh, you are a strange one,” Betty says, “A charmer and a mad man. A deadly combination.”
I yearn for the pain.
“You have a birthmark on your left inner thigh. It has the faint shape of a dove.”
Her eyes widen and her hands fly to her lap in case I had been looking up her dress. To her credit, she does an admirable impression of someone who is merely embarrassed. Then she steels herself.
“I didn’t take you for such a dirty man that you would violate with your eyes a woman whom you have barely met.” Betty’s voice alternates between sounding flattered and creeped out. “Any of my lovers must have spoken to you, and at length, it seems. Is it that as an investigator you feel obligated to learn every private detail, no matter how little it concerns you?”
“Nobody has spoken to me about you, not yet. I found out about your birthmark while staring at it from so close that I could tickle your inner thigh with my nose. Many times I have traced the contour of that little dove with my tongue as the pungent aroma of your oven-hot, butter-smooth insides warmed my face.”
A silence overcomes Betty, and I don’t pressure her to answer.
“I feel dirty now,” she answers in a low voice while avoiding my gaze.
“You have nothing to apologize for. Your body is a temple, and some of us have been dedicated to worshipping at the altar of your smell.”
She sputters a quiet laugh.
“Are you hoping for me to stay quite a bit longer, in case you want to scratch behind an inner thigh or two?” she asks while challenging me with a seductive look.
“I will always be here. That’s the only thing I can count on.”
I continue to stand in silence and Betty stares, trying to read my thoughts with the look in my eyes.
“How many other women have you said this to?” she asks me, semi-seriously.
“You’d be surprised. You have been performing such exhilarating deeds, Betty, without feeling anyone looking over your shoulder. That’s what fascinates me the most about all of you.”
Betty is confused, and that troubles her. A woman like her needs to control the situation. If any of her potential puppets escape from their threads, they can run around cutting other puppets free.
“And how many of them have you fallen in love with?” she asks.
“There’s the average man’s love, and there’s what you ignite in others. You are a whirlwind, Mrs. MacDougall. The main producer of hopeless infatuation.”
She does not thank me for my words. She stands up from her chair and walks up towards me with a haughty strut in her hips. She won’t blink.
“I have had enough of empty games, Mr. Fairfax. You do know too much about me and you won’t reveal how. I can’t make you unlearn, and I need your services. Will you accept the plentiful amount I will pay you for your uncanny abilities, or have I merely wasted my precious time?”
Before I know it, her hands move slowly up my chest and towards my collar. Her slim fingers begin to pull at the knot of my tie as her dark eyes capture my gaze. Her fingers slide down the silk fabric until they reach the top button of my black business shirt.
“Hmm, now this is in the way,” she says as if speaking to herself.
“I can see how it would be bothersome.”
“Well, I could just tear it off you…” she says with a little more force.
“If I were to help you, that is, as I have many times.”
She clenches her jaw and pouts, narrowing her eyes at me. Then she stops with the seductress act and drops her hands to her side.
“Let’s end this fantasy. Despite whatever you have been told about me, by sources I assure you I would be glad to learn about, I have never met you before the moment I walked into your office. Treat me as such for now. Until we get to know each other better, that is, in the course of your investigation.”
I raise my hand to close my thumb and index fingers around her perfect chin. Her eyebrows twitch.
“I would accept your money, which would quickly lead me to figure out where your so called husband Roy Morris is hiding in fear. While I would stake out the place, you would insist of making one of your houses my base of operations for the time being. You would present yourself to me with some of your finest sets of lace lingeries, which along with your voluptuous body and your delicious smell would drive most men wild. It would only take a couple of glasses of whiskey for me to submit to you, and more often than not I would only pretend that I needed the motivation, even though I would have signed into your seduction from the very moment you walked into my office. I would enjoy your smell, your touch, the feel of your body in my arms, the embrace of your insides gripping me tight. I would want nothing more. And you have made an art of sucking cock, Mrs. MacDougall. Many would sacrifice their entire lives to die in your warm insides again.”
Betty blushes, her chin still caught in my fingers.
“And ever since the first time,” I continue, the weariness evident in my voice. “I haven’t been able to blame you about any of it. Not the string of powerful men whom you seduced and discarded, some into a very early grave, only after their properties managed to end up in your hands. Someone invented you. Maybe the overseer, the invisible presence. Maybe that gaze only enjoys you, although not to the extent that I have done, and the rest of it is window dressing. And you would keep performing through every stage of our journey, not knowing you have done it over and over. It’s just that this one time, as in a few other cases, I am not remotely in the mood of dancing to the tune.”
A smile twists my lips. I don’t like smiling; just not my style. It must look so wrong on my hard face.
“But I enjoy the irony of having you,” I add, “the master of puppets, dance to a puppet master that you will never be able to sense.”
I have broken her. I can tell, even if she doesn’t understand half of what I’m saying. A crack in her facade, one that is slowly spreading further and further. She looks up at me, my fingers still wrapped around her chin. Her face twist into a grimace.
“You must be the best in town,” she begins in such a low voice that could pass for a whisper, “able to worm your way into any person’s mind through words alone. The weak would open up to you, give up all their secrets. It’s just too bad that I’m only made out of secrets, Mr. Fairfax. Nothing else sustains me. You won’t be able to dismantle me with your tricks.”
I release my grip from her chin, and I can see the color starting to return to her face. Before she turns her back on me, she opens her mouth to say something else, and then closes it again.
“Write us a happy ending this time, Betty,” I demand. “Because otherwise we will head into a wall.”
For a second, Betty looks like she’s going to face me and make another snide remark, but she resorts to speaking over her shoulder.
“I will not talk further until you either accept my case or refuse it. And only one of those options will keep me in your office any longer.”
“I accept, then. You’ve got yourself a detective.”
She finally turns towards me, first with a winner’s smile, head held high, about to strut towards me with the grace of a dancer. But something in my expression tells her that neither of us will benefit from my decision.
“You will first listen to the information you need about my husband,” Betty says firmly. “You have been acting too strange for me to start wagging my bank notes around.”
“As you wish,” I sigh, walking over to my desk and picking up the bottle of whiskey and two glasses.
“No thank you. I’m not supposed to drink,” she replies.
I pour myself a double serving of the brown liquid and swish it around in the glass, sucking it up through my teeth as its fine texture touches my taste buds. Then I rest on the edge of my desk again, facing my old flame.
“I want to prevent you from wasting your enchanting saliva, Mrs. MacDougall. Your supposed husband, Roy Morris, that naïve painter that had the misfortune of falling in love with you, or with your charms anyway, put two and two together and is hiding for his life. That musical box contains the proof of how you acquired your last house and two cars, as well as a significant increase of money in one of your bank accounts. The poor idiot is way over his head, as he doesn’t understand how many men you control. Just once, I became one of them.”
A wicked expression crosses Betty’s face.
“You’re a liar and an idiot, Mr. Fairfax. No man could resist my charms that easily. You’re a weakling, scared of what might have happened with me.”
“What you have done to others, more like it. No, I have never been afraid, just disappointed.”
I take out the crucifix again, and when I hold it up, Betty widens her nostrils and clenches her teeth.
“In a couple of days you would have tangled me into having two innocent men killed,” I say. “You would have made sure that I remained satisfied and pliable. We are way too easy to manipulate, as you well know. And it would have taken me three more days of mayhem until I correlated the prints we took from this crucifix to those you left on a bottle. At first I would have never taken you to be so strong and ruthless that even a murderous pimp, the owner of the biggest prostitution ring in town, would have danced to your tune, but from then on, even as I performed my role I have never underestimated you. And although any kiss could imprint your poison on my skin, I have never had enough of you.”
Before I finish speaking, Betty searches her purse. She takes out her Browning pocket pistol, then holds it as if she were revealing a winning hand.
“Don’t ever play cards, Mr. Fairfax. You don’t know when to stop talking.”
I cross my arms.
“Are you going to shoot me in my office, Betty?”
“You don’t get to call me by my first name.”
“I prefer to call you by what you really are. A killer. Someone who kills people for money. It’s alright, though. You are made this way.”
I place the crucifix back inside my chest pocket. I smile warmly, and it creeps Betty out.
“Instead of ruining yourself ahead of time, let’s enjoy ourselves,” I suggest. “I’ll go get my car. I will drive us to our favorite restaurant. We will get to forget about runaway husbands, mobsters, prostitutes, and our inevitable ends.”
Betty’s hand is trembling. She’s too intelligent to kill a man in a place where even if she murdered my secretary on her way out, she would be caught in a day. But no man had ever gotten into her head like I have. We always had such an effect on each other.
“You never stop, do you?” she mutters between her teeth. “You still think you can charm your way out of this.”
“I haven’t been able to charm my way out of any of these nightmares.”
I step forward, and as a reflex, Betty lifts her hand holding the Browning, pointing it towards me. Even when I sense her about to squeeze the trigger, I make no effort to slap the pistol away, grab her wrist or step out of the way. The hot lead flattens against the right part of my chest, punching my ribs, tearing through my lung. I should have fallen to the floor, but I don’t. I have missed this pain.
I cough out blood. It’ll get harder and harder to breathe.
I hear my office door opening, and my secretary, Doris, peeks her head in. She wouldn’t have suspected a potential client attempting to murder me. She has no clue yet what kind of devil she let through. Doris sees me standing with my hand on my bloodied chest while a woman points a gun at me. She screams like a schoolgirl.
I smile while I drool blood.
“It’s okay, Doris,” I say. “You can close the door now.”
Before my loyal Doris decides between rushing towards Betty in a futile attempt or closing the door and fleeing, Betty flips her pocket pistol towards her. The second bullet leaves the gun and flies straight into the forehead of my secretary.
“I’m sorry about this, Doris,” I say before her dead body could even tumble to the floor.
Betty is breathing hard, and stares at the corpse for a moment before turning sharply towards me.
“You’re the one who should be apologizing. A man who can’t keep his mouth shut is a sorry sight.”
Even though I have done nothing but unsettle Betty this time, she doesn’t anticipate me striding towards her to close the distance. When she moves her gun-holding arm to point at me, I grab her wrist right next to my ear. With my free hand I cup the back of her head. I have always loved the feeling of her silky, lustrous hair against my skin.
“Shut me up like you love to do.”
I press my bloodied lips against her red ones, and invade the wet insides of her mouth with my rough tongue. I bite her upper lip with my teeth, and she winces. I keep on savoring the taste of her blood as it goes down my throat. Her Browning falls to the floor with a loud thud, and then her fingers tighten around my shoulders hard enough to hurt. I have ached for the pain she doles out.
Betty is no longer gripping my shoulders to push me away, she’s holding on to me. Her tongue isn’t hiding from mine, and instead caresses it with a rhythm we’ve never had to agree on. I feel a shiver run through Betty’s body. She doesn’t pull away even when more of my blood than saliva flows into her mouth.
“Darling,” she whispers.
I look deep into her dark, unknowing eyes, and into her depraved soul. I have learned to savor the times when our souls connect so intimately. In this moment, everything is perfect. I embrace the cycles of humiliation, the madness of performing for a play that none of the other actors know how it ends. If every blue moon I get to face my Betty again, I shall dance to the end of time.
My lungs have filled with blood. My legs are failing me. I don’t want to cough into her mouth, so I pull our lips apart. Betty tries to follow my tongue with hers, but I turn her head, hug her tight and then sink my teeth into the firm flesh of her neck.
She moans in pain. I drag her down to the ground. She shivers more than struggles against my chest. I bite through the thick skin, fat and gristle, and then gritting my teeth with a final push through the squishy sounds, I feel them pierce flesh, nerves, muscles and blood vessels. The blood is gushing into my mouth, and I’m swallowing as fast as I can.
Her body convulses as her moans turn into gurgling. I’m still sucking on the hole I’ve created when I hear the faint sounds of police sirens approaching outside. I have neighbors, after all. But we’ll both be gone when they arrive.
Betty and I, we endure for the pain. The pain we get to feel, the pain we cause to others.
I want a last look as my heart fails. Dark red blood oozes out of Betty’s mouth and her nostrils. Her eyes flutter as she stares at me with intensity. She doesn’t have long. It’s alright. It’s a good way to die.
I lick the side of Betty’s face, just above the blood welling out of her ear. Even if I could speak, she wouldn’t hear me anymore with the blood that’s now clogging her ear canals and getting into the ear drums. The light fades in her eyes before my own heart goes out.
You haven’t pulled your gaze away, haven’t you? I knew you wouldn’t, no matter how grim it gets. Whatever you are, whatever your role has been in all of this, you witness me getting sent back to the starting line of each journey, and you follow it to the end. I am way past raging in vain. This time I wasn’t rebelling: I needed to refill. Thank you for giving me my old lady again. In a short while the world will go black, and I’ll get back to work.
Some notes about how this story came to be:
- As I was looking through my archive of notes for what I could want to write later, I came across the concept for a short story I had passed over plenty of times before, and that originally came to my mind some years ago: that of a private investigator who knows he’s in some fictional world, and who has had to relive the same twenty or so cases over and over again, maybe when someone reads or watches his stories. I don’t know why he had to be a private investigator, but it seemed cool, and I needed something to do this morning. I finished it late at work in the afternoon.
- I prompted that the protagonist started in the typical setting of a private investigator. GPT-3 came up with the tapping of heels about to enter his office. That brought to my mind the whole femme fatale thing, so I quickly put together a background in which she wanted to use the private investigator to hunt down someone who could destroy her whole criminal empire, whatever kind of evidence the guy actually had. I also found intriguing the fact that the protagonist was well aware, and had lived through, all the deceit she had to offer.
- Actually, it was GPT-3 who came up with Betty’s excuse of her intending to hire the protagonist to find her husband. It was through that that I set up the rest of the background.
- GPT-3’s line “She opens her purse and takes out a thick wad of bank notes. She peels off a few so new they aren’t even creased, handing them over to me” gave me a good sense of the kind of power the protagonist was dealing with.
- GPT came up verbatim with “I take a breath and lean into her personal space. Her face is so expressive when she’s annoyed. I open my palm to reveal a silver crucifix on a heavy chain”, therefore creating the whole subplot of the pimp and his crucifix. GPT-3 also came up with most of ‘The man that last owned it was an eccentric to say the least. He was also an infamous murderer of many young women, along with being a pimp. He used to lure women with promises of work as a model, dancer and the like. Those ladies had come into America and quickly fell into such debt that they felt forced to prostitute themselves. In return, he got them addicted to various drugs and abused them to his heart’s content’, although I edited it significantly.
- I like the idea of the protagonist flaunting the evidence that eventually would set the chain of events that would cause Betty’s demise, if the protagonist went along with the plot.
- I don’t know how the “reader” or “experiencer” of the story, whom the protagonist senses as an invisible presence, actually checks out the repeated events that the protagonist lives through. But the protagonist doesn’t know either.
- I love getting into sexual stuff when GPT-3 is on the other line, because it’s great witnessing the AI squirm and in general deal with it while retaining its dignity.
- The lines ‘You have nothing to apologize for. Your body is a temple, and some of us have been dedicated to worshipping at the altar of your smell’ were entirely GPT-3’s. I love the creative bastard.
- Betty getting handsy with the protagonist to manipulate him was GPT-3’s deal, and also Betty getting annoyed that she wasn’t getting a proper response.
- The lines ‘I lick the side of Betty’s face, just above the blood welling out of her ear. Even if I could speak, she wouldn’t hear me anymore with the blood that’s now clogging her ear canals and getting into the ear drums’ were GPT-3’s almost entirely.