By Clark Zlotchew
Now, I’m a very good person; anyone who knows me will tell you. I like people, I regularly contribute to a bunch of charities, can’t even refuse a panhandler who asks for a handout, especially if he says he hasn’t eaten all day. But in my line of work as a private investigator, I’ve dealt with some really nasty people. Tough people. Dangerous people. But I, Barney Armstrong, have been tougher, nastier, more dangerous. Yet there’s one big, gaping flaw in my character. Women. Hey, what can I say? I like women. A lot. Sue me. I have to admit, though, that flaw turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Life-changing consequences.
I was in Fredonia, a college town in Chautauqua County, a beautiful rural area in western New York State, for Homecoming Week at my alma mater. I had hoped to reconnect with some of my buddies whom I hadn’t seen in about ten years and say hello to a couple of my professors. Once on Main Street, I parked and stopped in at the House of Flavor. It wasn’t crowded, so I took a booth. A couple of minutes later I saw this beautiful face on a gorgeous, spectacularly curvaceous body closing in on my table. She wore a black miniskirt and a blood red tank top. It may be hard to believe, but the sight of all this loveliness heading my way made my heart beat faster, my hands turn cold and clammy. Yeah, me, Barney Armstrong, tough private eye who knows his way around women. I was ashamed of myself, feeling like a high school nerd facing the head cheerleader. It’s true, I swear. I wouldn’t admit this to many people, though.
When my many-splendored server finally reached my booth, she leaned down very close to my face. I noticed the nameplate pinned to her blouse: Chastity. Chastity? An odd name, I thought. Her long chestnut, peachy-smelling hair brushed against my cheek and lingered on my shoulder. Placing her hand on my upper arm, she looked into my eyes and murmured, “What can I do for you, mister?”
Now, I realize this is a perfectly normal, ordinary question for a waitress, sorry, a server, to ask a customer, yet her extreme beauty, her tone of voice… Now, I’m not a fool; I know that one of the tricks used by servers for increasing their tips is to touch the customer, usually on the arm or shoulder. But there was something about the way she did it… I felt my neck and underarms dampen my shirt. Wondering, no doubt, why I didn’t answer her question, but just sat there, gazing at her, she straightened up, placed her hands on her hips, and looked down at me with a smirk. “I’ll give you a moment to gather your thoughts, mister,” she said, and sauntered away with a maddening swing to her hips.
I finally broke out of a kind of reverie and tried to concentrate on the menu. Anyway, when she returned, I ordered a BLT. Long story short, she brought my lunch, and I ate. She came back and asked, in that seductive tone of hers, “Will there be anything else you’d like, sir?” She asked this in what seemed to me a suggestive tone. Or was that just my imagination? All kinds of thoughts and images raced through my mind. You know what I mean. My underarms distilled even more perspiration. I just smiled and asked for the bill.
I was daydreaming when I heard my server purr, in a very confidential tone, “This is all for you, stranger.” She breathed the message, with the heat and humidity of her breath warming my outer, middle and inner ear. And maybe the cockles of my heart. I abruptly turned and looked up at her. My eyes traveled up and down, searching for what, exactly, she was referring to. What was all for me? I wondered. Reading my thoughts, she again regaled me with that self-satisfied smirk, and pointed her well-manicured index finger at the tab she had just slipped onto my table.
I left a twenty-percent tip on the table, stood and went to the cashier. While waiting for the cashier to process my credit card I stared through the glass door at the park across the street. It was beautiful. I suddenly became aware of Chastity’s scent enveloping me. I turned to my left and found that she stood at my side, about six inches from me. Close encounters of the gorgeous kind. She looked past me, her gaze resting on Barker Commons. Her eyes still on the park, she murmured, “Beautiful, wouldn’t you say?” Her question slithered out in an insinuating tone, sending an electrical current up and down my spine. Did she mean the park or herself? Either way, yes. Since I hadn’t answered, she turned her head to peer into my face with those big brown eyes, looked me up and down, and then shifted her weight to her left foot, a motion that swung her hip against me. She remained in that position for a good long while. I exaggerate; it was probably only eight to ten seconds. But it felt much longer. I would definitely have to visit the local Rite Aid to invest in a stick of antiperspirant, unscented, if I was going to keep running into her. I was transfixed.
I made up my mind to regain my normal cool. Heart beating furiously, I said, “How about we get together this evening?”
Her eyes widened for a second, she studied me for a suspenseful five seconds, then smiled and purred, “I’ll be at the Shadows Lounge from about nine o’clock tonight. It’s on Water Street between Charlie’s Barber Shop and Darwin’s Health Club. You’ll love it. Why don’t you stop by and we can see what develops.”
See what develops? I was surprised but thrilled. Now, if I was going to see her, I would have hoped to be alone with her, but okay, let’s see what develops.
# # #
After heading over to the campus, attending some events, I got together with a few buddies and we went downtown to Flynn’s Bar & Grill, had a few Sam Adams and a hot dog with fries and a good session of catching up and joking around. But, at 8:40 I excused myself, paid my share of the bill and headed to the Shadows Lounge on Water Street. The garish red neon sign beckoned a block away. When I reached the place, I opened the door and my ears were immediately assailed by high-decibel punk rock. Waves of incompatible perfumes, blended with human sweat, swept over me with a nauseating effect. I was a little early; she had said from nine o’clock, so I sat at the bar and ordered a Stella Artois.
I was halfway through my second beer and checked my watch: nine-twenty. I was really annoyed. Time and tide and Barney Armstrong wait for no man, or in this case, no woman. With great regret I finished my drink and started to slide off the red plastic-upholstered stool to stalk out of there, a rage burning in my stomach. I said, “great regret,” but it was a stronger feeling than regret. It’s like when you’re a little kid and your dad promised you a bicycle for your birthday, and when that day comes, he doesn’t even make it to your party, but comes home after you’re asleep, probably drunk. As usual. And, next morning, no bicycle. So, I felt cheated, abandoned, forsaken, messed up. I know it was crazy, but that girl just had a certain quality that got to me. I was crushed.
Just as I slid off the stool, I saw her coming out of the gloom. Apparently, she had been in an extremely dark corner of the room. I felt as though a thunder bolt had struck my chest on seeing her suddenly appear, coming straight toward me. I felt like jumping for joy or belting out an aria from Puccini., or dancing flamenco. Instead, I controlled myself and was about to sound collected, even cool. I was going to put on a mild smile and casually say something like, “Oh, hi, Chastity.” And maybe stifle a yawn.
But she spoke first, “I told you I’d be here at nine o’clock.” Somehow, it sounded like an accusation. She put me on the defensive.
“Chastity,” I said, “I was here at eight-forty-five.” Hell, here I was making excuses to someone I just met today!
“Well, why didn’t you come over and say hello?” She looked angry.
“I didn’t even know this place was so big. I didn’t see you and thought you weren’t coming. It’s dark where you were.”
She was wearing high heels, a close-fitting black top and tights the color of her skin that brought out all her wonderful curves with agonizing clarity. In spite of all the unpleasant odors I noticed when I first walked in, I was now conscious of Chastity’s scent, an intoxicating blend of roses, vanilla and some kind of spice, and maybe her own personal scent. I didn’t want to defend myself to her; I just wanted to hold her in my arms and lose myself in her. I impulsively reached out to embrace her, but she put the flat of her hand on my chest to stop me. That was her purpose, but the effect of her palm on me increased my desire. I was confused.
Suddenly, she said, “Come on over to my table.” She turned and, as she fully expected, I followed, watching her sashay like a ship in a gently rolling sea. When we pierced the gloom of that corner of the room, I saw there were two men and another girl at the table. I was the odd-man-out, it seemed. I didn’t like this, not one bit. What the hell?
Chastity pointed to the couple across from her and said, “that’s Stacy and Mark,” pointed a thumb at the young man closest to her, and announced, “he’s Brendan.” Then she looked puzzled for a moment, giggled while placing her hand over her mouth, looked at me and said, “I just thought, I don’t know your name.”
At this point, I wasn’t too sure about my name either. I looked around the table, gave everyone a friendly nod, and said, “I’m Barney.” There were mumbles around the table that I took to mean “pleased to meet you,” or something similar. Brendan stared at me, or maybe glared is more like it. I didn’t like his face. Too damned handsome.
Chastity put her hand on my forearm, sending a warm tenderness that traveled up my arm, into my shoulders, my head and torso and down my spine to my pelvis. All this as I gazed at her gorgeous, lovely, incredibly sexy face. I had never been so affected by a woman before.
She parted her lush pink lips, revealing sparkling white teeth, and spoke, “Listen, Barney, would you go to the bar and bring me the house specialty? It’s called the Ground Zero. Oh, and you should have one, too. You’ll love it.”
I’ll love it? She seemed to love that sentence.
That woman just had something about her. I reluctantly but unquestioningly, obediently broke visual contact with her, which took great effort, stood and went to the bar. I think I would’ve jumped off a roof if she told me to. I brought the two Ground Zeros back to our table. Chastity put her hand over her mouth and giggled while looking at Brendan. Can’t imagine why. The cocktail was a bilious green and made me think of split pea soup, and I wondered if I should drink it after two recent beers. I just stared at it.
Chastity was already sipping hers. I liked watching her use the straw, but I said, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea for me; I just had two Stella Artois…” I figured the two Sam Adams were too long ago to count.
“Stella Ar… What’s that?” she asked.
“Beer. It’s a Belgian beer.”
She frowned and chided me, “Oh, don’t be such a chicken… Uh… Barney. She had to search her memory bank to locate my name. You’ll love it.” Had she forgotten my name for a moment? But that was understandable; after all, I just told it to her a bare few minutes ago. Then she pouted. Or was she sending me an air kiss? Looking into those big brown eyes shaded by thick, long dark eyelashes, I figured if she says I’ll love it, I probably will. Yeah, I was operating on nothing but solid logic here. Ha!
I took the straw out of it and drank directly from the glass. I finished half of it in two seconds. It was too sweet. I suspected, by the taste, it contained a healthy dose of rum, a bit of gin or vodka and lime juice with too much sugar. Something like that. I felt very warm and started to perspire. My stomach seemed to engage in battle with those contents. Chastity was slowly sipping hers and chatting about who knows what with the others. Suddenly, I felt better. I felt energetic, stronger. I really, really enjoyed watching Chastity chatting and sipping. Couldn’t take my eyes off her. Until my rapture was interrupted.
Brendan spoke, “So, Barney, what do you do?” For some reason, his tone seemed mocking. Or was that just my mood?
At this moment, all eyes were on me, waiting for the answer to this earth-shaking question. I had to think for a moment. What did he mean by do? “I do lots of things, Brendan. I eat breakfast, go to the bathroom, get dressed…”
Brendan broke in, “C’mon, Barney, you know what I mean. For a living.” He sounded pissed off. I really didn’t like this guy. Then I thought, why not tell the truth? He probably won’t believe it. “I’m a private detective.”
“Yeah, right.” He frowned.
I just looked at him and smiled. I looked at Chastity, who not only seemed to believe it, but looked impressed. I was impressed with her impression, or is it impressment? I looked at her and couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Then pretty-boy Brendan said, “Okay, I guess I can believe you’re a dick.” He smirked after he said it.
I understood. The guy was a real wit. I really did not like this creep. But I didn’t want to start a row. I don’t think fighting is fun and games; like you might see in some movies; the results can be very serious. I only use my fists when absolutely necessary to protect myself or others. But just as I was thinking of a good comeback to his snarky remark, Brendan Q. Bastard slid closer to this gorgeous woman and did what I would have loved to do: He put one arm around her shoulders and placed his disgusting open mouth on hers, while his other hand cupped and pressed her left breast. This lit my fuse.
She pushed against him, got her mouth free to hiss, “Stop it, Brendan, this isn’t the time or…” Her mouth was once more covered by his, while she beat her fists against his chest. But then stopped pounding, visibly relaxed, giving in and seeming to enjoy it. This enraged the hell out of me.
I tell myself I was seeing all this from the angle of a lady in distress who needed to be rescued. Now, looking at it objectively, once she gave in, she couldn’t be considered “indistress.” But it was the scene just before her surrender that burned its way into my brain. And, let’s face it, I was jealous. And under the influence of alcohol, which is something I’m not accustomed to.
My vision narrowed to a laser beam to see them, and them alone, through a red haze that contracted and expanded with the loud pulse throbbing in my temples. My guts clenched into a knot and, losing all control, I launched myself over the table at Brendan. Still lying across the table, I grabbed his collar with my left hand and unleashed a rapid-fire series of right-fisted punches on his jaw and temple. I heard screams and yells but as though they were very far away, then, nothing.
The next thing I knew, I was in bed in what looked like a hospital room, nauseated, a tremendous headache pounding me, an IV in my arm. A uniformed policeman and a man in civilian clothes stood by my bedside. The civilian, who turned out to be a police plain-clothesman, said, “Ah, you’re awake. Good. When you’re feeling more up to it, I’ll be back to ask you some questions. You’re gonna want a lawyer.” He turned to leave, took one step and turned back to say, “Oh, and you should know: You’ve been accused of murder.”
Clark Zlotchew’s poetry and newer short stories have appeared in literary journals in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, South Africa, India and Ireland from 2016 through 2021. Three of his 17 books consist of his fiction: an espionage/thriller novel, a military/action novel (under a pseudonym), and an award-winning short story collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort, 2011).