Here’s a weird one: my take on a 1950s Noir/ghost story.
When he figured it out, Drake McConn was on his third smoke break, leaning against the grey marble of the Dallas Morning News building. He stared at the front page of that day’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram. THE FARMER SLAYER STRIKES AGAIN, the headline read, stamped black above a graphic photo of a man in overalls lying dead in a pasture, glassy-eyed, a smear of dark blood across his temple. In the relatively plain background, behind the crime scene tape, McConn could just see the outline of a handsome man in a rain slicker and a felt fedora, a press card sticking up from the hatband. Himself.
Sensational though it was, this was Maude Drooby’s picture. McConn had last seen it curled and drying in Drooby’s dingy apartment, clipped next to her shots for the week on a metal wire she’d stretched across her bedroom. He’d seen the photo when he came out of her bathroom in his towel after his morning shower. That was last weekend. McConn frowned. Today was Tuesday.
He glanced at the article’s byline. Ace Maven. Of course. For a month and a half now, the bastard reporter had been stealing McConn’s articles for the Star-Telegram. The quotes were the same, as were the details Maven included. The articles printed practically his own words. He had to admit that Maven’s stories did use better vocabulary, but any decent journalist knew that kind of thing only bogged down the story, made it sound stilted. His Dallas readers didn’t take to such highbrow stuff. No way the shit-kickers in Fort Worth had the brains for it. Still, it was Maven’s work that made the front page, not McConn’s. Maybe those cowboys out in the sticks didn’t care about world events like the Communist threat, or pressing matters like Senator McCarthy’s views on the war. The fact remained that Maven continually beat McConn to the front page, and today’s article was no exception.
McConn folded the newspaper in one hand, then took a long drag off his cigarette. The wind flapped his trench coat around his knees. He grimaced. It was getting colder. He checked his watch. Five more minutes.
Over the last month, McConn had taken to buying a Star-Telegram every morning to check for stolen articles. On the rare day that McConn didn’t put a story out, Maven didn’t either. That Arlington murder story was his, just like his piece on the disappearance of the Dewitt girl, or the expose of the prostitution ring run by Red sympathizers in the upper echelons of the Dallas Country Club. All Maven seemed to write were the stories McConn had already written himself.
McConn looked out on the flat grey parking lot, on shined sedans and coupes that gleamed like jewels on the pavement. His own black Oldsmobile was parked next to a beat-up station wagon. Colin Grant, editor-in-chief. McConn leaned into another gust of wind and flicked the butt of his cigarette to the curb.
Whenever Grant emerged from his corner office, McConn expressed his concerns about Maven. He was a menace and a phony, and the Star-Telegram had frankly no right to print Maven’s work; couldn’t Grant see that? They were being robbed, robbed! But Grant always seemed to be only listening halfway, his sharp black eyes floating over the most recent proofs, searching for any last-minute flaws before sending them down to the presses in time for deadline. That’s when McConn took matters into his own hands.
He called up the Star-Telegram. No dice. Apparently, they’d never even seen the elusive Maven. He always sent his secretary to drop off his articles, to pick up his checks. All they could tell McConn was that the secretary in question was attractive, in the dumb way most blondes were. She didn’t like to talk much, probably because there wasn’t much in her pretty little head to begin with, the man at the Star-Telegram joked. Then the paper dismissed McConn with a sharp warning: if he so much as thought about suing the Star-Telegram for copyright infringement, they’d have him over a barrel sooner than he could say Ace Maven.
He’d even spoken to Drooby about it. For a woman, she was surprisingly insightful when it came to reporting. McConn had noticed her for her looks, but over time, he came to realize that she was as ruthless with the red pencil as he was determined to get the best stories on his beat. They made a great team. Why wouldn’t he ask Drooby for her opinion? As his photographer and his typist, she was essentially a secretary, wasn’t she? It wasn’t crazy to assume that she might be able to help identify Maven’s woman. But the one time he’d brought it up, he was in bed with her, running his fingers along her bare spine. She’d only pressed her lips to his ear and said, “Shhhh,” before ducking beneath the sheets. He smiled a little, thinking of her body, the way she always smelled like rosewater and darkroom chemicals. Drooby was certainly useful for more than just clerical matters; unlike his timid wife at home, Drooby was fearless.
But how was Maven getting access to his work? The only other person who saw his writing before it went to press was Drooby. He walked a few steps, scuffed his shoes on the sidewalk. Then a creeping dread filled his veins. She would never—
He shoved the newspaper under his arm, pushed through the rotating door. His shined leather oxfords clacked satisfyingly as he crossed the polished marble floor to the elevators. A caustic feeling rose like steam in his chest. The elevator dinged to the fourth floor and the paneled wood doors opened into the newsroom. He made his way to Drooby’s desk, pushing past the men in rolled shirtsleeves and women in tweed pencil skirts rushing between desks with sheafs of paper in their arms. The clatter of typewriters at work filled the dusty air. McConn could see Grant pacing in his office, arguing with someone on the telephone and smoking a cigar. Drooby was at the water cooler, laughing at something one of the other secretaries had said, looking as vapid as ever. Quiet, McConn pulled open the drawer of her desk. Inside, along with some pencils and loose paperclips, was a little black book. He opened it. There, on the first page, the only entry: contact information for the editor-in-chief of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. From across the room, Drooby caught McConn’s eye, flashed a smile. He dropped the book, pushed the drawer shut, and stepped away from her desk. McConn decided to swallow his rage, for now. He would handle the problem later, in the cool blue of her little apartment downtown. In a feline motion, Drooby took a seat and looked hard at the fragmented poem in the spool of her typewriter, running a finger along the edge of the paper.
“Have you been reading my diary, Mr. McConn?” she asked, then turned to arch an eyebrow at him.
McConn forced a smile back, did his best to keep his voice light. “Just looking for a piece of paper,” he said, and tapped the little spiral notebook in his shirt pocket. “I always forget.”
Drooby’s lips parted in a smile, but her brown eyes held the same cruel expression they did when she was working through a particularly difficult grammatical problem, or writing a new line of poetry.
“Silly of you,” she said, still watching him. McConn felt her betrayal sear into him. She was a liar. She had lied, stolen his work, and now here she was, mocking him in front of everyone. The photo in the paper under his arm seemed as though it would burn a hole in his jacket. Looking at her now, at her small, fox-shaped face, he wondered what else she had lied about. There was no way he could wait until the end of the workday. Drooby needed to be dealt with now. But not here. He cleared his throat.
“How’s the poetry coming?” he asked.
“Oh, you know. Slow, as usual,” Drooby said and shrugged. “Nothing like your articles, speedy and efficient.”
“I should think not,” McConn said. “I’ll leave the poetry to you.”
“Probably smart,” Drooby said. “Where journalism is a dead body surrounded by white chalk lines, poetry is a difficult phantom, ever racing away.” She laughed, placing her hand with its long white fingers on his forearm. “Listen to me. Ridiculous. How was your smoke break?”
“Insufficient,” McConn said. He grabbed her elbow, pulled her face close to his. “Come on,” he said. “I’ve been dying to get you alone.”
She batted her eyes, then stood and swung her coat around her shoulders. “Whatever you say, boss.” McConn winked at her and ripped the sheet of poetry from the typewriter, folded it into a little rectangle, and stuck it in his hatband next to his matches. Drooby grabbed her purse and followed him out for the last time.
Back at her apartment, Drooby and McConn slammed into each other violently. Up against the bar in the kitchen, they rattled the spirits in their glass decanters. Down on the bedroom floor next to the radiator, their breath rose, spectral. McConn could see the name Ace Maven ghosting through Drooby’s eyes. When they were naked, McConn felt her tense beneath him. He lifted her fragile body to the long desk, where her most recent photographs bobbed, bloated cadavers on the surface of three plastic tubs filled with developer, stop bath, and bleach. He dropped her on the table, sloshing chemicals. She brushed her nose along his shoulder, bit his collarbone. She dug her fingernails into his back. He pulled away, the metal wire where she hung her photos bumping against his fedora. Drooby tried to stand, but McConn grabbed her brittle wrists in one hand, pushed her back against the table.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Drooby yelled.
With his free hand, McConn reached for the metal wire and pulled until it ripped from the wall. Curled, drying photos scattered to the floor and fell into the tubs of liquid.
“You’ve been stealing from me, Mr. Maven,” he said.
He wrapped the wire twice around Drooby’s skinny neck.
“Drake, no—“ she said, and her voice came out fuzzed and weak.
“I’m only here to take what you stole, to collect on what you owe me,” he said, and let go of her wrists. In one swift motion, he yanked as hard as he could on both ends of the wire. The sharp metal slid through her frail skin and arteries like cheese. She coughed and the blood came haltingly at first and then in a steady pour, gurgling out of her throat onto her fallen photographs. His palms stung where the wire had cut them. He watched the pool of red around her body spread. Blood dripped from the table in thick streams.
He pulled her poem from his hat. Then he struck a match, lit it on fire over her dead body, and threw the burning sheet of paper at her makeshift darkroom. Flames grew and jumped along the legs of the table. The phantom forms of people bubbled and cracked in her photos. Drooby was slumped on the table, an unresponsive pile of flesh. McConn watched the flames climb over her spine, crackle in her hair. He felt nothing, only stared. Drooby’s skin blistered and smoked under the fire. Then a sudden shudder rocked her whole body, and she sat up with a sudden jerk, like a marionette pulled upright. She ran to the kitchen.
“Drake!” Drooby yelled, and McConn heard the sound of turned faucets, of water pouring into the metal sink. “Help me put it out!”
McConn looked down at his hands. Two matching horizontal cuts were still there from when he had pulled down the wire, when he had strangled Drooby. Only now when he looked, the metal wire stretched across the bedroom as though nothing had happened. The cuts were painful to the touch, but they had already started fading. He looked up at the burning darkroom before him. The photos clipped to the metal wire started to smoke and warp. The odor of spilled chemicals, sticky and dark like blood, rose from the soaked carpet where the tubs of stop bath and developer lay overturned. McConn breathed through his mouth.
Drooby ran into the room, carrying a pot filled with water. She heaved it toward the flames, and the water hissed into steam. Casting the pot aside, she rushed to her closet and pulled on a nightgown. McConn watched her, disbelieving. She looked almost blurry as she moved through the apartment, but maybe that was just the smoke. Drooby threw his slacks at him and he yanked them on. She picked up the phone on nightstand and dialed 9-1-1.
“Fire,” she was saying. “213 Elm. Yes. Please hurry.”
When she disappeared outside, McConn followed her, his hands stinging.
The next day, everyone in the office brought Drooby some kind of condolence: flowers, Bundt cakes, cards. Even Grant pitched in for a floral arrangement, though he was pretty miffed about losing the photos set to run that week. It seemed that Drooby was rattled, but by all appearances she was the same old Drooby, sweet and coy, quiet, hard-working.
Still, McConn felt something sinister lurking beneath her newly repentant demeanor.
“Afternoon, Drooby,” he said as he passed her desk to drop off a draft of his new story. The office clacked and rang around them, as it always did. But just beneath it all, McConn could hear a sound like flames crackling. It got stronger as he moved closer to Drooby’s desk.
“How’s everything at your mom’s place?” he asked politely, picking up one of the cards on her desk. His fingers smudged through the air, as though they were made not of solid flesh. He dropped the card in fear. Drooby frowned at the page stuck in her typewriter. Clearly the fire hadn’t affected her futile obsession with her idiotic little poems, anyhow.
“It’s fine,” she said. Then she lowered her voice. “You have every right to be angry with me, but you didn’t have to burn down my damn apartment just to make your point.”
McConn placed his hand on her shoulder and immediately regretted it. Her skin didn’t feel like skin but like ice water, more liquid than solid. He jumped when she turned to face him. Her features had been scrubbed down, erased. Two burned out holes had replaced her quick brown eyes. When she spoke, the twisted gash that was her mouth didn’t move, but a deep slit at her throat gushed blood as red as her editing marks.
“You destroyed my photos, my poem,” she said. “Your writing wasn’t worth that.”
McConn’s palms started to burn. The skin around his new scars was dissolving. It bubbled and cracked with the sick noise of popping grease.
The rest of the office went about business as usual. It was as though nothing were out of the ordinary, as though this—thing—wasn’t sitting in their midst, searing people’s hands off. He tried to walk away from her desk, but he found that he could not move from the spot.
“What are you doing to me?” he hissed.
Drooby just pushed a strand of her hair behind her ear. Small blue sparks snapped at her fingertips, and soon, her entire body crawled with fire. Flames singed the desk where she rested her elbows. The chair burned beneath her.
“What am I doing?” she laughed. “You of all people should understand the concept of editing.”
“Editing?” McConn asked. Brown burnt spots speckled her already face, and sheets of her skin flaked away to burn in the air like newsprint. “Editing what?”
“Reality,” she said. “You are a superfluous detail in this reality.”
His ears filled with the sound of flames, and he could not move. Grant approached the desk with brows furrowed.
“Excuse me, Ms. Maven,” Grant stopped and rapped on the edge of the desk by way of introduction. “You were saying?”
McConn felt his breath quicken.
“Just thinking aloud,” she said, with a smile. She glanced at McConn and curled her fingers into her ponytail.
“Well,” Grant said. “I just wanted to say nice work. He tugged on his sport coat. “That article you wrote about the apartment fire was gold, pure gold.”
“Writing is my life,” Drooby said. McConn could see a hint of fire in her lips.
Grant flicked the brown felt hat on her desk. He nodded toward a large brown spot on the floor next to her desk. “What’s this? It looks as if something burned.”
“Oh, that?” she said. “You’ve got me. I have no idea.”
As Grant walked back to his corner office, Drooby turned to McConn one last time, looked him hard in the face. Then she reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, but he couldn’t feel it. All he felt was flame.