Posts Tagged 'murder'

Bodily fluids

It was a hot day in the city. A bead of sweat trickled down her neck, and she thought to herself I really have had enough of bodily fluids for one day. She took a tissue out of her bag and wiped at the back of her neck. The tissue, sodden, shredded immediately, and she looked at it in disgust.

The man at the falafel cart made a sudden hooting sound at her, “Hey miss Lady,” he said, “here you go, here you go.” He held a handful of napkins out to her. Her first impulse was to throw her soggy, sweaty Kleenex in his face and curse his children, but she did realize it was just her bad day speaking. She calmed herself, set her face in a civilized gracious neutral, and accepted the handful of napkins, sopping at her neck, her forehead, even down the front of her shirt (turning slightly aside as she did this).

“Thank you,” she said, stiffly, but sincerely.

“No problem, Miss,” the falafel man said. “You want a drink, I got Orange Fanta and Root Beer, nice and cold?” She admitted that an Orange Fanta would be pleasant, and he fished one out of his cooler.

“I’d give it to you for nothing, you know, only I work hard for the money,” said the vendor, with a look that suggested he’d been watching her cross the plaza every day as she left the labs.

“That’s okay, but thank you so much,” she said. She paid for the Fanta and left a tip that was too large, just to put that distance between them. The falafel man’s face fell just a little, but he smiled and waved, bravely, as she left, crossing the plaza to the bus stop. The number 17, as always, he noted.

When she arrived on the scene this morning, the day was already hotter than anyone expected this early in the year. The university, with its hardwood floors and wide open windows, seemed foreign to her, accustomed as she was to grey walls, formaldehyde, fluorescent lights and the chilly certainty of dead flesh in drawers lining the walls on three sides.

There was a pool of blood still oozing from his head when she got there, reaching into the pile of student papers on his desk. If only the campus police had responded immediately to his call – his hand was still on the phone – they might have gotten there before this final student assessment. As it was, she put on gloves, gathered the papers, lined lightly in spilled blood, and put them in plastic bags for later examination.

(Writing activity: Group member Andy brought a handful of incomplete sentences with him to group. Everyone wrote the partials down, then we wrote for 20 minutes, using as many of the incomplete sentences as we wanted to create a fresh narrative. Here are the sentences Andy contributed – But I work hard for the money, said
– A pool of blood still oozing from his head reached into the pile of student papers on his desk. If only
– The ship had reached warp speed, and soon the distance between them would eliminate their love, unless
– Pat was in seventh grade with only a hint of facial hair beginning to appear, and dreams that were
– It was a hot day in the city, a bead of sweat trickled down her neck, and)


Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1928.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. You know, you’ve seen it before. Maybe it’s even been you.

We are a pretty clever set, I fancy, but we have a good many advantages. Being solitary is not one of our advantages. We are joiners, we support, we advocate, we are featured in our local papers. We are social and cultural, we contribute to our communities. You know us.

The people I love the best jump into work head first. This was a surprise to me at first, but in retrospect, I can see that this was, I don’t know, predictable or inevitable. Predictable or inevitable – how are those words alike, how are they different?

When I met Ginger 20 years ago, she went by Jinx. She was a red-headed girl, newly married and boisterous in her outlook. “Is marriage a constraint or a comfort?” She asked during gin nights in our newly married club in the Silicon Valley. This was a very good question at the time, much discussed, and support groups supported questioning and affirmed affirming. Her eyes were often red.  She does not go by Jinx anymore. Or by Ginger. She goes by her birth name, Elizabeth, or Betty, and that suits the person she is now.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. When I realized she was ill I was transported suddenly and unexpectedly into those years before, when our advantages were both meta-analyzed and taken for granted. She looks ill, like a charcoal sketch of herself drawn by a weak hand, smudged and only recognizable to me who watched the sketch being made.

 The past is a zesty remembrance some days, and a muddy sack cloth clinging, dragging me down on others. She never knew how robustly her love defended me against the collapse of my pride. Or maybe she knew. Maybe we talked about it endlessly, that spiraling rondele of confessional friendship that is as reassuring as a nursery rhyme. Fri Felipe Fri Felipe duermes tu duermes tu. Toca la campana toca la campana, tan tan tan, tan tan tan.

I hear the church bells ringing this morning. The birds sing non-denominational songs. The Ginger-that-was left her husband and that predictability to marry a king of an exotic country, the UAE or Morocco or some such. I won’t say which one, and I should say that Ginger, Jinx and Elizabeth are not her real names. The king has had his revenge, and Ginger is home again, here in the cool foggy land on the west coast of the great experiment.

She is living with me, secretly, in hiding, and she is ill. When I answered her call, it was late for now, but early for then. Around midnight. Meet me in the Mission District, I will be wearing a mud cloth jacket that hangs below my knees. I took her home to my second divorce apartment in the Haight – little remnants of that early assumed privilege. She is feverish and talks a lot. I know too much – I suppose she will have to kill me, but that is a joke not to be repeated.

“I have someone else’s eyes in my head” she says, she moans, repeatedly, for hours until the fever has broken and then she looks pale again and docile as a china doll.

The king does not know yet that she still lives, and it will be a challenge to keep it that way.

A romantic mystery of the usual kind



Alene, Iris, Susan and Jill met for drinks once a month at the lounge in the Sorrento Hotel. By agreement, each one of them brought a secret with them, to share openly or by implication. A well rounded Malbec, assorted crudités, fresh bread and then cognac brought them to a peak of confidentialities every month. Some months, these were served with great whooping laughter, other months the four heads pulled together over low tables and they leaned into their secrets. In their twenty years together, they’d told a number of scandalous stories, some romantic ones, some sad and mortal. This year was their first brush with murder.

“What kind of hell would we live in if we all revealed our secrets?” Jill started, while the Mediterranean plate was passed around. She scooped kalamata olives, crusty bread and a roasted bell pepper tapenade onto the small bread plate. Setting it down, she picked up her wine. Looking over the rim of the glass, she assessed the effect of her words on Alene, Iris and Susan. All three of them, hands raised halfway to their mouths, had paused. Eyebrows raised, their faces made one unified statement: Why are we here if not to reveal our secrets? Here at least, if nowhere else? She tipped the glass, and the warm earth tones of the Malbec delivered red for strength. She set the glass down and began again.

“It was right after last month, after Alene wrote that check to Cosmo, remember?” she said. Alene looked around – yes, they remembered, even after the third bottle of wine. Cosmo and his specialty auto body and paint shop. Yes, even now all Alene really remembered was a smell of turpentine and the bright glaring lights and the tattoos on Cosmo’s shoulders and then the hydraulic lift and lower that explained to her forever after the appeal of the low rider. She blushed and picked up a large caper berry with the stem still attached. She put it in her mouth and sucked, watching Jill to see where this story was going.

“At the end of the evening, we said goodbye and said be careful, the roads are wet.” Jill continued. Her voice was flat. Iris picked up her bread knife and cut a thin slice of the chilled butter. She waved the knife at Jill and said, “Yes. Continue.” Jill looked at the knife and touched her throat. They could see a pulse, jittering at the edge of her collarbone, and her face, suddenly strained and strange. A stranger.

Susan pushed her hair behind her ears, attuned to something new.

“Let’s go to my house,” she said. A first. As a group, they’d made the decision to never tell tales where the walls might hear them. She waved down the waiter, paid, and 40 minutes later they had all reconvened in her living room.

“I got home that night and I was lonely. The lights were low and there were no stars.” Jill continued. The women sat clustered on sofas in front of the fire, the flames shaking their faces. I can see our twenty years passing in the flames, thought Susan.

“Wait. Look, I can’t say it. I can’t. Just look.” She pulled a photo out of her purse and handed it to Alene. Alene looked, dropped it suddenly, then picked it up and put it on the table in front of them. They all looked – that familiar face, known and unknown the way the very famous are – and the sudden, shocking realization that he was dead. Barely, freshly, horribly dead.



Her brother, Dennis, was her mother’s favorite. Iris’s hair was red, not blonde. She bit her nails. Her mother’s name was Charlene, and Dennis was a bully and the model for all her future husbands. “Iris-itis” was the nickname given to her by Dennis and his friends when he was fifteen and she was twelve, with big gap-toothed teeth and ink stains on every skirt she owned.  When he was sixteen, he tripped on a rock at the edge of a ravine near a half developed sub-division and broke his neck. Two years later he suffocated under the weight of a pillow, an accidental death that Charlene recreated in mixed media non-representational art for the next 15 years, until she died of mixing paint fumes with cigarettes and valium. She passed out and fell face down in a clay piece that was wet and sticky, and never came up for air. Iris went to art school on the insurance, and bought a little studio in a pricy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, where she worked when she was not in Seattle. Iris, like her namesake, liked wet, cold climates, and disliked both sunlight and morning.

When Iris first met Susan, they’d been out making the rounds at the espresso cafes that were so much a part of life in the pacific northwest. No point in being a morning person in the far north. Iris had moved there completely at random, getting away from the relentless sun and endless daylight hours of the southwest, and settled into the vampire routines of the northerly climates quite naturally. Eventually, she settled on a job in publishing that allowed her to work afternoon hours, which left night-time for studio work and morning for sleep. She quite liked her pale complexion in the rain forest among the ferns; her red hair lit up the woods like a dangerous flame, a suggestion of things not quite right, ready to erupt, sudden, violent heat pouring down the mountain side.

Zola labors

She refused a cigarette and did not want to sit down.

“I have been jealous before, don’t think I haven’t. This just isn’t it.” She said. She paced and the light in the room was hard and white. She was soft and brown. Soft and brown and angry, in more trouble than she knew. Too young, this girl. Odds were against her, if you want to know the truth.

“Tell us again why you shot him,” said the younger man, who might have been good looking if it weren’t for the bad skin and that expression. A flat expression, flat like a sidewalk, that gave nothing back. Zola stopped pacing and smoking for a minute to look at him. She had the cigarette hanging out of her mouth, like she’d practiced when she was learning how to smoke, and it was burning her eyes. She wiped them dry, and put the cigarette out.

“Going to tell you again that I didn’t shoot him. You got a hearing problem?” She said and she looked at him and dared him to tell her fuck-all. She rubbed her big belly and said she needed to sit down before she went into labor. The younger man looked away, sudden discomfort marking his face, adding to the acne scars and he looked too young to be hard like a sidewalk. She felt sorry for him, with that bad skin, maybe he might not be such a bad guy if…

The older man interrupted this line of thought with a sudden hard bang on the table. Hey, she thinks, suddenly energized by loud noises at this late stage of her pregnancy, these two are playing good cop/bad cop with me. The fog and the hormones cleared like a rough weather front all of a sudden and she played her one and only card. Childbirth. Clutching the belly, she crouched suddenly down and commenced a good primitive wail, like she’d learned in that Lamaze class her social worker had been taking her to. She leaned, she wailed, she tried to pee herself but couldn’t quite manage it. Bubba one and two couldn’t tell, though; she’d scared them already with that first round of deep breathing.

Zola prayed to the gods of delivery to spare her from an actual early labor, and they were listening. She was out of the hard tile room with the sharp white light and into the warm unconditional arms of her social worker and a maternity ward, where she spent the next three weeks as a ward of the state, eating good and with blankets, stuffed animals, and unlimited cable TV. They cut off her cigarettes, but this was better than jail and interrogation, she figured, and when she did finally give birth to that hairy little girl, she was happy to see the pink skin and the long newborn fingers, and all in all, she was glad she scared holy crap out of a couple of redneck cops if it led to this cadillac delivery, all nice and clean like she’s a lady with full medical coverage and a husband somewhere waiting in the hallway to come in after all is birthed and bathed and settled to pretty rights.

On more than one occasion in the life of Zola Gorgon, she’d fallen into a hormonal trance that convinced her that all was well and safe and easy. On more than one occasion, she’d snapped out of it in time to avoid permanent damage. This was one of those times.


Inspector Morse and the needlepoint murder


Inspector Morse brushed aside the corn husk and the corn silk that lightly covered the body. Beneath it, and innocent looking it was, lay a brave little embroidery hoop, with a needlepoint sampler half done. “We all wander in this vale of tears. Find happiness in …..” it read. The thread dangled off, an incomplete thought hanging there, expectant.

“No needle,” Morse said, to himself. He felt tired. “Another day, another corpse,” he said under his breath, imagining this cheery motto done nicely on a pillow cover in his Aunt Edna’s parlor. Loved his Aunt Edna, he had. Still missed her cookies. What was that she’d done with marshmallows and chocolate bars? Well, she’d been gone a long time. He shook himself back to the present, where this corpse was sitting quietly in her chair, hand still holding the hoop as if ready to take one more stitch. Eyes open and staring out, or past. Contemplating, those eyes might almost be.

Morse thought he’d have a nice vacation, that had been his intention. That’s what brought him to this quiet old town of aunties, church fundraisers, and bakeries. He’d pictured himself sitting in someone’s front room with a cup of tea in one hand and a plate of jam tarts in the other. But death follows the inspector, he told himself. He brushed the ashes off his suit jacket and damned himself for starting to smoke again. He damned the nice local constable who asked him, just as a matter of courtesy, to come in on this needlepoint death. He considered ways to excuse himself, pointing out the obvious: elderly women die in their sleep, it is 3 in the afternoon on a warm summer day, and she’d obviously nodded off, permanently. He opened his mouth to say so, when the young officer held out his hand and gave Morse the corn husk.

“Way I see it,” he says. “Is she’d about finished with the corn – she made corn dolls and sold them like Indian made for tourists in the states – that’s how she kept a little extra money coming in. Anyway, she’d done with the corn and set it aside to do her needlework.”

“Yes,” Morse said, almost leaving off the question mark. “And then?”

“Well, I guess she must’ve fallen asleep, don’t you?” The young man’s red eyebrows wagged a bit, and he looked at Morse for help. Morse looked again at the quiet body, the corn, the needlework. Why am I here? He asked himself, feeling foolish, feeling automatic. The automatic inspector. His eyes scanned the chair, the hoop, the thread, then up to the woman’s face. Her face was upturned, eyes china blue, her expression pleased, expectant. Her hair was slightly mussed. He thought she might want to reach up and tidy it, just a bit. He leaned over and looked at the back of her head, where the hairpins would ordinarily keep her hair well contained. There, at the base of the neck, he saw it. A small red dot, a shiny metallic point. A needle, neatly inserted into the base of her skull. A murder, here in the quiet village where he’d come to regain his sanity. He sighed, and fingered his pocket for his smokes. Time to step outside and think, for just a moment.

Writing practice, 25 minutes. See the Inspector Morse TV series, or the books, by Colin Dexter, for more on the source of this character.

Gothic gloss with murder

 How it was, or how it was bound to have started, I guess, or maybe I know or maybe it isn’t even true at all (they say I lie, they say I lie all the time – do I know if they are telling the truth or not? – I don’t know).

It was bound to have started, as they say, on the same page. There we were, all of us, on the same page, in the middle of this uncanny medieval fully realized dog and pony show.  Ladies with purple implanted contact lenses and breasts so light and separated they were practically meringue. On the day the crews arrived, there was a merenge band and a procession, and then the pagan crowds and extras attended masses and tasted the unintentional solace of cream, a golden orb, a reconversion, a moment of voluptuous forgetfulness with penance on top.  

So it was like this, the beginning of this story, which took place on a set and was therefore not real even in its beginnings, and the cast was a cast of characters that lived both on and off the set and there were beginnings, endings, and continuations. There were masks throughout, masks assigned by directors, masks assigned by convention and the agreed upon.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was a yet another remake of Frankenstein, directed by (say) Kenneth Branagh, and let’s say it is cast with a dozen high-dollar stars. On this morning, the camera glides and turns and hovers over gothic stone and tumbling water falling over statuary in a grey English garden where everyone’s skin is chapped. The skin of Our Star is chapped and she is absolutely diva mad, diva mad. A local boy runs to the village apothecary and brings back a substandard brand of chapstick and a tub of udder cream at the recommendation of the storekeeper, which causes hooting and mooing and a general heightening of awareness that no-one much likes this particular diva, although of course with that bright white skin and the translucent eyebrows she is absolutely the right bride for this particular wedding.

After that, there is a shift in the ranks. In the gaffs and grips and best boys and best girls and extras and sandwich bringers there is a presentiment of death, and filming moves into the time of a crazy moon, shining iridescent, from some angles shining blood red, from others a wet, untouchable white, shimmering in damp English air.

The girl has been wearing her peasant costume for a week now and has begun to believe in herself. Her vowels stretch and flatten, and she has started chewing on her consonants, like some old weaving woman from central casting. She is much petted and pampered; this is the girl who put the udder cream in a small ceramic jar with a picture of zaftig sirens dancing in a pinkish white circle all round the edges. The cool cream sooths the diva’s skin, and the girl photographs well. The filming continues and the villagers light their torches and roam the streets just a little lit by the extra ale the film work is bringing them, and altogether the village and the film crew feel that things are as they ought to be. Fish’n’chips, yes, ale, yes, pretty girls with floating bosoms, yes. Plenty of things to slap one’s knees about over a pipe in the Fox n Swallow with your mates.

When things happen and there is a budget several times larger than the annual GDP of a small struggling country, sometimes people forget who they are. Which is to say that when it all started, back there as I was saying, there was no actual attempt to murder either the boy or the girl, who were only extras in the village that isn’t a village, the village that is a set of strong lights gathered around an ancient stone building, where villagers lit their torches and then the children were burned truly and spectacularly by the masses, who discovered method acting that day, what with the ale and the witchy moon and the presentiment of death.

Unless of course I am lying about the whole thing, which is what I’ve been told and which I’m not sure that I believe or don’t. I do have the sense that I was an extra, too, or actually that I am an extra still.  There was the mob scene, then the blind bearded fellow, then the little girl (who was too old for the part, I told them, but see nobody listens to me particularly). And next thing you know you’re packed in the back of a truck and hauled off to somewhere safe. Or maybe you’re just disappeared, looking for a fresh  costume, one without the ashes and blood, or a vehicle that can drive in the darkness outlining the ring of strong lights around the stone and the bonfire, or looking for some exit from this airless place where you’ve gone to examine the changes, the gloss, the notes on the edges of this page.


The door of the camo van slid open. A pale man with a slithering walk and drooping posture climbed out. He wore a monocle; he had the vacant look of a man in shackles, ashamed, unarmed, nearly naked. Behind him came a second man, a big gorilla of a man with a grin that said ignorance, villainy, an angry ape shit monkey balls testosterone case kind of man. The kind of man you wouldn’t want to meet on speed-dating night. The kind of man whose inside is bound to be different than his outside; at least that’s what his mama always hoped.

There is a smell to the two of them, the way they move as they leave the van: compact, tightly wound, a conviction of violence even in the automatic whistling of the big man.

It’s odd, giving birth to these two brutes, one in an Italian suit and narrow expensive shoes, the other we assume with heavy brows and a flat broad voice. And yet there they are together, luring us into an underworld darkness, emerging from this panel van with bad intent, flagrant villains. No need for delicate psychic sensibilities to pick up on the reeking desperation of the pale man. He is sweating slightly, dabs at his thin mustache, thinking circular process thoughts: decisioning, coming to a compromise we can all agree upon, agreeing on a way to deny destiny, to bypass the interrogatory moment – here, can’t we all just be friends?

But the truth of the matter is that, no, we can’t all be friends. We can all have this vague feeling at times, so much commonality: we all have furniture, we all have cubicles, we all have moments of twinning with the office mate, the colleague, the incidental intimacies of work pulling us together. As these two had been pulled together. To steal diamonds, to sell guns, to sing the grateful song of the triumphant earthworm, unarmed yet ecstatic static cling bringing them together for crime, for punishment, for watching as their time together draws irresistibly closer to its unnecessary, violent end.

William thinks about butterflies, cranes, loose bright squares of origami paper, striped cotton sheets on a clothesline in his mother’s house when he was 12. Running through the sheets as the wind blows on a warm August day. The only shade in the ratty little yard. Something pushes him, pushes against his back. His future pressing down, so far from Tulsa, where this brute is not friendly, they’ve played cards and killed people, at least on paper, together.

Toby thinks William is German, but he is not; he’s just a skinny blonde guy from someplace Toby’s never been. There’s a lot Toby doesn’t know. Nothing important though. Need to know a few things. How to read a map. How to drive as if invisible. How to deliver the right severance package to the right corporate fuckup. Toby likes peaches, apple pie, remembers his own mother as if she’ll always be 35. She smacked him once in awhile, took the bus to work at the A&P, liked to bake when she had a little extra time. He and William used to talk about their moms, when they were out on the road together, killing time.

William’s achieving a form of buddahood, detaching from this moment, floating weightless away from Toby, from criminal intent, from judgment. He feels light, almost good. Toby takes him to breakfast, nice place, chilled grapefruit, quiet courtyard in a garden café. He eats his omelette, then William’s french toast and spoons the egg from a porcelain cup. They are best of friends at this last meal. Toby picks up the check, “I’ll get it, that’s ok, least I can do,” and they leave. Back into the windowless van and uptown where a final meeting will be held, lists will be made, consensus will be reached. By everyone but William, who will be attending this meeting at least in spirit, but will already have received his last, passionate kiss.

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May 2020