Secrets of the Heart
Mildred was frightened. She sat at her office desk and breathed deeply, trying to calm down. She looked at the envelope in front of her, the one that had dropped so innocently from a pile of business mail intended for the detectives. It was just a white, non-descript envelope, or so she had thought, but now she knew that it was from Harry and she felt a wave of terror and dread wash over her. She still had not talked to Foil like she planned to and now she deeply regretted this. It seemed like an error on her part not to have gone to him immediately when she received Harry’s first letter. But she had hesitated, fearing her past, afraid of explaining too much about her mistakes and possibly losing the admiration and respect that she felt the detectives gave her. She was afraid of being too seen by them, especially by Foil, who she deeply respected and admired. And in her own mothering way, she loved him, though only in very brief moments did she let herself really feel these emotions. When she thought Foil might die in FAH’s last case concerning Warehouse 1, she let herself weep for what she believed to be that impending loss. And the utter relief that she felt when he lived made her even more devoted to him in her heart. But that also made going to him after Harry’s first letter seemingly impossible, even though this surely would have been the smart thing to do. Yet, she continued to feel that she didn’t want to reveal too much to any of the detectives. She was worried that she just might, in a moment of vulnerability, say something . . . well, she didn’t know what she might say, but she was worried all the same.
Weeks after the first letter had arrived through her mail slot at home, she had hoped that letter would be the last, but now she realized that she was very foolish to believe this would happen. Harry wouldn’t leave her alone and she knew it. He wanted something, but what? Surely, it couldn’t be her he wanted, but something he could get through her or take from her. She suspected that he wanted more of her money and that he would try to wheedle his way into her life again, believing that she was the same woman he had met so long ago. Usually, she would have handled these sorts of problems on her own, but this time the letters themselves were written in such a way as to make her feel scared, worried and threatened. She and Harry were strangers at this point in their respective lives, but in a way, Harry knew her better than anybody, even the detectives. He knew about her past, the child that she had lost, her Ronald, and all the secrets of her heart. She had allowed Harry into her life in a way that she had never done before nor since; even with her husband, Cecil, she had not opened up to so completely in the way that she had trusted Harry. She was in such a vulnerable position in her life when she met him. She should have listened to that first niggling feeling when she sensed that she didn’t like him, but she was lonely and alone. And she didn’t want to be either, so she pushed that feeling aside and moved forward into the newness of being desired again and it was such a lovely, delicious feeling that she never wanted it to end. She was blind with love, silly and very foolish at the time.
Sitting at her desk, thinking about her past, she remembered the feeling of being desired and needed. She thought about the physical moments between herself and Harry, the stolen kisses, the hand holding, the long walks just the two of them in their cocoon of growing love; she really hadn’t let herself think about those times for years. And now, alone in the office, knowing that the detectives were out, she let her mind wander for a time, strolling down memory lane of that one blissful year when everything was so beautiful and lovely. She didn’t wander along up to the point of being robbed by Harry, but stopped short of this horror to linger over what she remembered of the loving moments. These she allowed herself to feel again, sitting on the old, wobbly office chair that Arms had never quite fixed well enough. In her memories, she could see the rays of sunshine that hit the flowers and the dewy grass on the mornings that Harry would come to “scoop her up” as he liked to say and carry her away to a long day of fun and play, just the two of them. It was a dream that she reveled in as she sat in the Swine’s Detective agency office, staring blankly at the white sheet of paper that she had pulled out of the unmarked envelope. But she couldn’t help her heart from moving forward to the day that ended it all. Her mind wanted to keep turning over the dreamy moments, but her heart would not allow this and suddenly she saw herself standing in the bank and learning of Harry’s horrible betrayal of her. And the beautiful dream was shut up and put away forever once again.
She looked around her and marveled at her dreary office in the detective agency. She was so used to it that she often didn’t really even look at the dark paneled walls and the dusty windows that let in the hazy California sun. She had long since given up trying to get the detectives to bring some real light and color into this space. She had accepted their insistence on the usefulness of the rooms as they were and the lack of need for any plants or even pictures on the walls. She had managed to bring in a few tiny succulents which sat under the lamp on her desk, soaking up what little artificial light they could, but that was it. Still, she accepted the detectives’ ways and stubbornness; the office served its purpose and she made sure to keep the inner workings of the place in tip top shape. And now as she sat looking at Harry’s scrawl on the white page, she felt determined to talk to Foil that very day. She hoped that she could find a time to speak to him when the other two detectives were busy or absent. In that way, she could be assured of at least some privacy in explaining her situation about a former lover and his reappearance in her life. It would be embarrassing to admit what she saw as her weaknesses to Foil, but it had to be done. It did not occur to Mildred to speak to either Arms or Hog; in her eyes, only Foil could help her with her problems. And Harry’s latest missive was even worse than the first one. She read his words out loud to herself.
My dearest Mildred,
I’ve thought about nothing but you for weeks now. How I long to be holding you again and to feel your body against mine. I know we were destined always to be together. You have never left my heart. I see great things for us in the future. We will do so much together, just you and I.
Your ever loving, Harry
The language was so familiar, so personal, as if no time had gone by at all. What did he mean by he saw “great things for us in the future?” She felt threatened and almost cornered by him. It was as if he was in the room with her, he had such a distinctive voice, she heard it as she read the words aloud and she felt an intense dread of what was to come. He didn’t say where he was, he didn’t mention even wanting to see her, he just seemed to be suggesting that their lives should resume as if nothing had happened at all. It was eerily creepy and a shiver ran down her spine as she sat in the warm office. Recently, she had felt as if she was being watched and now with this letter sitting in front of her, she knew she was being followed. “Oh, what am I supposed to do now,” she said out loud and suddenly she felt completely defeated in life. She almost cried then and there, but stopped herself for she didn’t want the detectives to see her in an emotional state. She hoped upon hope that Foil would be able to help her and to stop the letters; just receiving two of them haunted her horribly.
She heard the alley door open and the detectives come in from being out to lunch, they were talking to one another and laughing about something, perhaps a shared joke? Mildred didn’t know, but she felt an immediate sense of relief with them in the building. She realized that she had been sitting so still that she was stiff from the tension of reading Harry’s letter. Arms came around the corner into her tiny office, holding his brown fedora in his hands. He looked preoccupied and said to her, “Mildred, I’ll need those files on the Barnard case as soon as you can dig them up.” As she said, “yes, sir, of course,” he turned as quickly to leave as he had to come in and she listened to him walk down the dimly-lit hallway to his office. She could hear Hog follow Arms and Foil go into his own office. Now was not the time to approach Foil and anyway, she had to find those case files, but later she hoped that there might be a possibility to speak to him. She knew that she would not be able to handle Harry on her own ever again.
The case files for the Barnard investigation were found; he was a local man who needed help wrangling some squatters off his property. He had called in Arms to do the detective work to unearth dirty information on any of the deadbeats that he could possibly find. This wasn’t the most exciting work for Arms, but it was lucrative and right now that was what mattered to him. For Mildred, the rest of the workday sped by as she was in constant motion helping one detective after another. As the day neared its end Mildred knew she had only one chance left to ask Foil if she could speak to him before she left as usual. She packed up her belongings, including the empty plates that once held the sweet treats that she always brought into the office to feed the detectives. Hog had snatched up the last of something on the plate, as he left early to go home. She sat for a moment listening to the silence in her little office and wondering if she dared to approach Foil with her problems. On this evening she had some luck because Arms was heading out to speak to Mr. Barnard about his woes with the squatters and probably would be gone for some time. Hearing the alley door close on Arms, Mildred rose and walked to Foil’s office, knocking on his door gently.
“Yes? Come in,” she heard Foil say, and she opened the door, standing nervously for a moment before forcing herself to speak. “Sir?” it was sort of a question and Foil who had looked up when she entered said, “yes, Mildred, what can I do for you?” He expected that perhaps she had something to tell him about a case or some message to relay, but instead she said, “Sir, may I speak to you for a few minutes on a private matter?” If Foil was surprised by this request, he did not show it, and simply said, “yes, of course, Mildred, come in and sit down. Well, what can I do for you?” She stepped into Foil’s rather dingy office, so like all the others in their agency and sat down. Mildred was very nervous because she didn’t quite know where to start. She looked down at her hands, the pink nail polish seemed too flashy for the dusty space. She smoothed her bright floral skirt, took a deep breath and looked up at Foil. He was looking at her with a sense of patient kindness. He liked Mildred and always had; she had proven herself in his eyes to be incredibly dependable, responsible, and highly efficient in their detective business. When he felt that he needed an exceedingly trustworthy woman to be a support to Alice, he immediately thought of Mildred even though he had never ventured to ask her for anything so personal. It did not occur to Foil that she would say no to his request. Perhaps this was his privilege as a man that he believed a woman in his employ would help him no matter what, but Mildred was devoted to Foil in her own secret way and she was perfectly fine with the arrangement.
A Haunted Past
Foil waited for Mildred to begin and wondered at her interest in speaking to him and not Arms or Hog. “Could it be because I asked her for a favor?” he wondered. Yet, he sensed that Mildred wouldn’t take such a request as an invitation to be even more familiar with him. No, she was coming to him because of something else, yet he was unsure what that something was. He looked at her sitting across from him with her perfectly curled dyed blonde hair, her rather heavy makeup, and her bright clothes. She brought a splash of color and joy to the dreary offices. Foil admired her tenacity in putting up with the three of them day in and day out. Mildred, he felt, had a very good heart; she certainly spoiled the boys with her delicious treats and she always laughed at his jokes, whether they were any good or not. “Sir,” she said hesitantly, “the private matter is something very personal and I didn’t even want to bring it to you, but I am frightened and I need your help.” Mildred spoke in a nervous voice, one which Foil recognized as not at all typical of her confident, brisk demeanor.
Mildred felt awkward talking to this young man for whom she worked and who was almost the age her son would have been, if he had lived. For a fleeting second, she saw Ronald’s young face. “Sir, the matter concerns my past.” She paused. Foil didn’t say anything, but just waited for her to begin again. He had learned that it was best to let people sitting in his office talk at their own pace; nothing was gained by impatience in these situations. “Long ago,” Mildred began again, “I was married and had a son.” Even saying the words out loud in that dingy space felt somehow wrong and unseemly, yet it was a simple statement of fact. Mildred was looking down at her lap, she couldn’t bring herself to look up. The pause was moving into seconds, but she didn’t speak again. “Go on, Mildred,” Foil said gently. Hearing her name, prompted an immediate, “yes, sir,” and she continued haltingly. “Well, you see sir, my son was killed, hit by a car sir, and my marriage didn’t last after that.” Again, a pause. She had hoped it might all come tumbling out of her quickly, but she was having a hard time talking to Foil. She did trust him, but the language of her past was hard to bring out into the open when it had been buried for so long in her heart. Foil cleared his throat and this made her look up involuntarily; he smiled and prompted, “and your marriage ended? And after that?” But this was the hard part, the intimate part. All the other information had simply been part of her life, simply statements that had to be said to get to the moment when she had to stop being the efficient manager of the office, purveyor of delicious sweets, all round Girl Friday. Now she had to reveal a part of herself that she had not told anybody, not even her closest friends, but she had to say it to get on to the next statement of facts so that Foil would understand implicitly why everything had occurred and why now her world was so full of danger and fear.
The minutes were ticking by. Foil didn’t have anywhere to be, so he sat and waited for Mildred to speak. He knew enough about the human heart to see that she was wrestling with something and couldn’t figure out how to say it. There was no way for him to help her, except to wait for her to speak. He genuinely respected Mildred, trusted her and believed her to be a true gem of a person. He could wait. “After my marriage collapsed, I was so lonely.” There. She said it. Foil didn’t say anything. He had heard in her tone a sense of desperateness, a harkening back to a past that was still very painful, and he felt that speaking was unnecessary. In that moment of revealing her deepest secret to Foil about herself, she felt utterly exposed. It was not that she had just been alone, but the all-important fact in this story of hers was that at the time she was so lonely that she could feel it in her bones. It permeated every cell of her body and she ached for companionship and care in her life. She had friends, but losing a child and her husband meant the loneliness was all around her, in every action, in every movement, and in every single minute of her existence. She was consumed with loneliness and the loss she felt. This had almost driven her mad. She couldn’t look up, but forced herself to go on, aware of the fact that she had already sat in Foil’s office for far too long. “Then I met a man named Harry. At first, I didn’t like him much, but he was persistent. He gave me gifts and took me places and then I wasn’t lonely anymore.” The young woman of the past was speaking now, remembering that feeling of being seen and taken care of by a man who desired her. It was a revelation and felt at the time like an utter gift; she had been lifted out of her despair and was suddenly in the light of life again. “And I . . . I . . . I fell in love with him.” And here, Mildred forced herself to look up at Foil and to face her life through another man’s eyes. But she saw no trace of judgement.
“It was easy to fall in love,” Mildred continued, her voice soft and shy. Another personal revelation, a hurdle to get over and one to move on from quickly. It was easier not to look at Foil when talking about herself. The very hard part was over and she went back to the facts of her case, for that is what all this information was to become if Foil helped her with Harry. “I thought we would be together always and I had many plans. I was young and lost in a dream world, but I learned the hard way that he was only out for my money.” Her voice hardened here and Foil heard once again the human heart’s emotions. The betrayal, the pain, the disappointment, and the loss. It was all there in the word “money.” Mildred uttered it with contempt and disgust. “I saved a lot. I worked hard sir, every day, just as I do now. I was never any different. I saved my money and every Friday I went to the bank with my paycheck. And all the while I was planning, planning my life with Harry.” She spoke his name for the first time. She realized that she had not said his name out loud to anyone else, but herself. The office was warm, she was warm too. Now, she was brisk, the story needed to be told and she was spending too much time in Foil’s office. “One day Harry went into my bank and pretended to be my husband and stole all of my money and left town, I don’t know where, and then I had to start all over again. And now Harry has come back.” The last words were final. She looked up at Foil. “Sir, that’s my story. It’s been a hard one to tell, but the facts are all there.” She was efficient in her statement. She had told Foil the truth about her life and now she waited for him to respond.
“Does Harry have a last name?” asked Foil, preparing to jot down a few notes. This question surprised her. “Yes, sir, it’s Stone. Harry Stone or so he told me. That might be a lie too, sir, like so many things that he told me. A few I discovered myself and a few came to me over the years since; pieces of information that I put together and realized as I got older. Age does bring wisdom, as they say,” and here she managed a little bit of a chuckle, thinking about the stupidity of her past. “Yes, well, that’s true, I’m sure Mildred,” said Foil not wanting to dwell too much on the age part and thinking that this case, such as it was, might be an easy one to solve. “And what kind of communication have you received from this Harry bloke?” asked Foil, feeling that Mildred would at least appreciate him tackling some of the basic pieces of information first and moving away from the emotional aspects of the situation. “Yes sir, I’ve got those letters in my office, shall I get them?” Mildred, ever the organized one, reverted back to her efficient tone for her own case. “That would be helpful, Mildred, yes get the letters and I’ll look them over,” said Foil, feeling that their intimate moment was over and relieved to give her something to do. Mildred was out and back in a jiffy, handing Foil the two letters she had received from Harry within the last month. To her they were rife with threats and suggestions that filled her with worry and fear. Foil read them, but did not see the same meaning in the language. He was quite aware that Mildred was a woman of soundness and did not get alarmed easily. If she believed they were a threat, then they were to her. Yet, he still did not see the situation as one that couldn’t be managed fairly easily.
Finding this Harry Stone wouldn’t be too hard, he was sure of it. “What does he look like, Mildred,” asked Foil. “Oh, sir, I haven’t seen him in 20 years. But I’m sure I would recognize him now. Back then, he was tall and thin. He had wiry, curly greyish black hair and wore a close-cut moustache. He wasn’t the most handsome of men, but he still managed to woo me.” And here she stopped, recognizing that she was saying too much about herself again and not really wanting to continue. The description wasn’t much to go on, so Foil tried again. “Where do you think he might be now, Mildred? Did he have any family in the city? Where did he work? What about his friends?” So many questions and Mildred felt that she should have had the answers, but she did not. As much as Harry had known about her, which was quite a lot, she never knew as much about him. She was ashamed to even admit that she knew so little about this man who she had once planned to marry. She wanted to give Foil more information, but felt at a loss. Then she remembered that she had met his sister. “Sir, there was a sister, but I’m not sure where she is now. I remember he did talk about her quite a bit. Now, what was her name?” Mildred paused and thought . . . “it was a name that always made me think of flowers, sir . . . Daisy? No, that wasn’t it. Hyacinth? Hm, that could be it, but I’m not sure. Violet? No, that’s Hog’s sister’s name. Oh, I’m getting confused with my own memories.” Foil simply waited as Mildred went on her own train of thought. She could picture her; she had small and delicate features and was very kind; no hard edges like Harry occasionally showed to her. And then it came to her, Jasmine! “Sir, Harry’s sister’s name was Jasmine. Perhaps she is a Jasmine Stone, sir,” suggested Mildred, relieved to finally be able to offer a definite piece of information to Foil. “Okay, that’s something to go on,” he said, writing the name down. “Can I keep these letters, Mildred?” he asked, automatically putting them away in a desk drawer, even before she consented. “Oh, yes sir. Absolutely, sir. Thank you, sir. I’m so very grateful to you for helping me,” and she stood to go. “Yes, Mildred, I don’t think this will be too hard. I’m sure I’ll find this man and it will be possible to get him to leave you alone. A bit of forceful persuasion always helps a man out of town. That’s what you want, isn’t it, Mildred?” said Foil quickly, as he saw a brief moment of doubt pass over her face. “Oh, yes sir! Of course. I want him to leave me alone forever,” and she turned to go.
She felt relieved to be handing over the letters and Harry’s sister’s name to Foil. And she felt confident in Foil’s ability to find Harry and remove him from her life. She had great trust in the detective’s sleuthing abilities and felt that she had made the right choice in speaking to him about her private troubles. But as she opened the door to leave, she thought of something and paused turning to Foil with an appealing look in her eyes. “Yes, Mildred, what is it? Do you have more information to share?” No, she hadn’t, not really, but she wished for something else from him. Discretion. “I was hoping, sir, that this situation could just be between us two. Just you and me, sir. The other detectives don’t need to know about my little life problems, do they?” And Foil recognized in this request how important the situation was to Mildred and how inconsequential it was to him. “Yes, of course Mildred. There’s no need to tell Arms or Hog about your predicament. We’ll just keep it between us,” and he smiled at her kindly. She felt reassured and for the first time in many weeks, there was a tiny lightness in her heart.
Arms looked at himself in the rearview mirror. He was sitting in his car, waiting for Hog to show up. It was one of those humid southern California nights when everything was just a little bit too hot and sticky for his liking. The rain had fallen, but barely relieved the heat and he already felt uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing. It was the same suit that he had worn to see Mr. Skeffington on the day he had first met Ruby. Up in the hills of the rich and wealthy, he had felt out of place, not dressed up enough, but here in the lowlands he was in his element. The suit transformed him into another kind of man in this environment; he could blend in with the many gigolos who frequented the Frolic Room. Yet, in his own estimation he didn’t look quite suave or handsome enough. The men who patronized this speakeasy were skilled predators and knew how to seduce a woman. Arms was rusty in this department, but he had to play a part and he was determined to discover as much as possible about this Ralph Smith who Ruby claimed to have met on the nights that she had snuck out of her father’s mansion in the hills. Well, that was if he could find him at all. Arms smoothed back his jet-black hair and peered into the rear-view mirror again. He applied a bit more pomade to tame the curls that kept escaping, wiping the remainder on a spare cloth that he kept in his car just for these purposes. He opened his glove compartment, pulling out a small flask. It’s silver patina glinted in the streetlight that shone into the front seat of his parked car. Arms took a large swig of whiskey, and tasted the smooth bitterness and felt the burn as he swallowed. He was annoyed by Hog’s lateness. His friend was typically on time when he was needed. Arms glanced at his watch and noted that Hog had missed their planned meeting of 10:00pm by 15 minutes. “Where the hell is he?” Arms growled, looking out at the street and taking note of the men and women who were walking into the Frolic Room. It was the typical crowd for a Saturday night, a lot of smooth-talking men and cautious women; the Pantages Theatre, which sat right next door had let out earlier and the easy path was straight to the bar.
Then Arms spotted Hog strolling casually down the street towards him; he had a cigarette in his hand and he was dressed to the nines. Hog always knew how to wear a suit and he exuded a relaxed air. Arms clocked Hog’s easy swagger and felt his own annoyance rising at being made to wait. But Hog was a good front man for Arms and together they would work the place over and try to find their mark, the illusive Ralph Smith. This was Hog’s stomping ground; he came to the Frolic Room to win at cards and knew the place like the back of his hand. Arms got out of his car and felt the damp, hot air of the night against his face. He was already sweating and the weather wasn’t helping. The bright lights of the Frolic Room looked inviting and he welcomed the atmosphere of this particular neighborhood. It was both seedy and upscale, the speakeasy attracting a wide variety of people from all walks of life. It might not be easy to find this Ralph Smith guy, considering the crowd of the night, but he would try. “Arms!” and here Hog walked up to his friend, as if he were right on time. “Where the fuck you been?” Arms barked at him, showing his temper. He didn’t like to be made to wait, even for a friend, and Hog felt that he was in dangerous territory if he didn’t smooth the way a bit. “Hey, take it easy pal, I just stopped to pick up a pack of cigarettes, nothin’ serious, let’s go, come on,” and Hog stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, moving away from Arms, who followed right behind him. Arms was annoyed and needed a drink. The two men moved into the nightclub, walking into the main smoky room and made straight for the bar. Arms walked through the crowd of theatre goers, scoping out the scene casually. Any one of the young men he saw that night could be Ralph Smith, if the man even existed at all. Suddenly Arms felt weary and tired and worst of all, aimless. His usual driven sensibility to find the truth, to seek out the clues, and to keep to his plan seemed without purpose. He was searching for a needle in a haystack or in this case a gigolo in a nightclub where every single young man looked the same. He felt in his bones that it was going to be a long and weary night.
* * * * *
Arms leaned against the brick wall down the street from the Frolic Room and took a swig out of the flask he had pulled from his car. He looked at his watch. It was 2:00am and it had been a hard and somewhat tiresome night, as he predicted. Hog hadn’t won enough to matter; he was off his game and Arms didn’t know why. His friend had gone home. But Arms didn’t have anywhere to go and he was frustrated at himself for not finding out enough about Ruby or Ralph Smith. The heat had let up a little bit and he could feel a gentle breeze around him, but it wasn’t enough to alleviate the moist heaviness in the air. He wasn’t sure what to do; the case seemed stalled and he felt sure he would need to return to see Ruby, but when or even why. Would she tell him another story or the truth next time? He wasn’t sure and he didn’t think he really cared that much. The case, such as it was, felt tedious at this point in the early morning hours. He took another swig and let the whiskey take its effect, though lately it had taken more and more of the drink to even matter to him or make a difference. Then something caught his eye and he turned to see Lupita, one of the many hostesses, as they were so cleverly called, walk out of the shadows towards him. The Frolic Room was closing down for the night and he was sure she was heading home. Her red dress clung tightly to her slim body and he watched her move with interest. She was a beauty alright; a little worn around the edges, maybe, but a beauty all the same. And he had liked her smile that night when she spoke to the regular customers. He had clocked her as soon as he walked up to the bar; she worked there to lure men to cough up cash for drinks. A sweet smile here, a gesture there, and she seemed to promise something more, but if things got too heated the bouncer, Murray, was always there to step in and protect her. Arms had seen her work the room for hours, but she never approached him. He noticed her and as he made his way through the bar, showing Ruby’s picture to every smooth-talking man there, he was aware of Lupita’s presence and of her red dress, which showed her curves and hinted at something just out of his reach.
A car drove slowly down the street; Arms watched as it creeped along just behind Lupita. He perked up and took note, waiting to see what would happen. “Hey baby! Look at you, sexy thing, come over here and give me some” yelled a voice from inside the car. Lupita took no notice and kept walking, but Arms could see her begin to move a little faster. The car drove slowly along, following her as she walked alone away from the Frolic Room towards the bus stop, where she would catch the 2:30am home to the other side of the city. The job paid more than anything in her own neighborhood and even though it was a risk every single night to walk alone, she did it for the money. “Hey, sweet thing, come over here! Daddy’s got something for you,” the voice rang out again from the car. A man’s voice, dangerous and dark and with no intention of letting up. The street was deserted and the sound of his voice boomed out against the buildings, but nothing stirred. The predator saw his mark in Lupita, but he did not see Arms. Arms watched as Lupita came parallel to where he was standing and he moved away from the wall, stepping into the light so that she could see him clearly. She had been looking straight ahead, determined to keep walking, but when she saw him, she seemed visibly relieved and smiled warmly. “Oh, Mr. McKenna, hello,” she said to him. He fell in beside her smoothly like he had been waiting for her all along. The driver suddenly sped up and drove past the two of them with a screech of the wheels like he had a point to make, leaving them to walk together in silence. Arms didn’t touch her or talk; he was a gentleman, yet, he found her highly desirable and attractive. Being near to her, even after such a long night in the crowded and smoky speakeasy, he could still smell her sweet perfume. He could hear their footsteps on the pavement as they walked together in the wee hours of the night; two souls who needed each other, but said nothing in the moment.
She seemed to feel safe with him and as they neared the bus stop, she turned to him and said simply, “thank you, Mr. McKenna. You are very kind. I’ll be okay now,” and she moved away to stand apart and wait for her bus. But he didn’t want to leave her. He nodded good night and started to walk away, but hesitated, turning around and saying, “it ain’t nothin’ for me to wait a bit.” He expected that she might refuse, but instead she gestured for him to stand next to her. It did not occur to him to offer her a ride in his own car. She would have refused anyway. Instead, he stood next to her under the canopy of the bus stop, sensing that there was no need for conversation. And then away in the distance, he saw the tiny glimmer of headlights and knew her bus was coming. She saw it too and turned, looking up the road. He watched her then and studied her beauty, the line of her face in the shadows and light of the streetlamp shining dimly down on the two of them. He traced the aquiline shape of her nose, her jawline, her cheeks with a touch of rouge upon them. Everything about her was simple and beautiful, yet striking. Her hair was drawn away from her face, to accentuate her brown eyes and the color of her skin, the shade of milky coffee. There weren’t too many places in LA for a Hispanic woman to work and make enough money to survive. Either she was a maid, a nanny, or a shop worker. Sometimes the local factories offered work to women in the barrio, but the pay was poor and the men got all the good jobs anyway. The Frolic Room was ahead of its time in the early 1950’s. Run by Delores, a strong woman of ill repute who didn’t give a damn about her image, but who cared deeply for the women who worked for her, Lupita had found a place where she felt safe and protected. And where she made enough money to help support her parents and a few younger siblings. But the walks to the bus stop in the dead of night were the downside to this job that she clung to. Most of the time she was fine, but on nights like these when men cruised the streets for trouble, she hated how far away from home she was and she dreaded the darkness.
On this night Arms was a welcome sight to her; she knew him from the Frolic Room. He wasn’t a regular customer, like his friend Hog, but he dropped in occasionally and she always noticed him when he was there. He was a quiet man in the midst of the chaos of drinking, dancing, carousing, the loud shouts of men at the poker tables, and the women who came for a good time but were wary of the men who cruised the speakeasy on more raucous nights. He sat at the bar or on this night, he walked around with a photograph of a beautiful young girl in his hand, showing it to the gigolos who came to preen and seduce the new girls. Sometimes he ventured into the back and played some poker, but it was always a half-hearted attempt. His friend Hog was the real winner night after night; he knew the room, the dupes who spent their money fast and furiously, and always cleaned up. Drinking little and very quiet, Hog was determined to fleece as many stupid men who would take their chances with him, he was sly and calculating. Nothing like Arms, who was slow in his deliberate moves; almost without interest, he played, losing sometimes, winning other times, but more there for the company of his friend, or at least that is what Lupita thought. She didn’t have much to do with the two detectives; she naturally stayed away from them, knowing that she should give them a wide berth. But she had always noticed Arms with his jet-black hair slicked back and his dark suit, which helped him blend into the crowd, but stand out in her eyes. She wondered about him; she was naturally curious, but had never spoken to him except to say hello in a casual way. He didn’t seem to pay much attention to her, but of course she was wrong about him. He liked to sit at the bar, out of the way in a corner and watch her move around the room, watch her with the men who she wooed into spending money on booze and then watch her as she passed them along to the girls in the back who would bring the men to new heights of pleasure and take what money was left in their quickly emptying wallets.
There were other girls, women really, at the Frolic Room, but to Arms, Lupita was different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he was attracted to her in a way that he had not felt in a long time. There was a grace about her movements, a gentleness that impressed him, even as she schmoozed with men. He bristled when they touched her, laying their hands on her, groping their way along her lower back. Yet she seemed to stand aloof from them and he found himself attracted to her independence and what he felt sure was a fiery spirit beneath the calm she showed in the speakeasy. “She is a woman who can take care of herself,” is what he thought every time he saw her. And there was something about this sense of Lupita that reminded him of his first love, Rose, though these two women were really nothing alike and Arms knew this in his heart. Lupita had a softness about her that Rose never did and Lupita was not from his past but his present. And that mattered to Arms, greatly. He wanted, no, he hoped, to leave the past with Rose behind and to find someone new. Lupita moved beside him and he was suddenly aware of an electrifying feeling between them. He turned towards her and looked into her eyes, brown pools of beauty and a face like an angel, or it seemed so to him. He was struck by his intense desire for this woman whom he had only spoken to once or twice, but whom he had watched for hours in the Frolic Room that very evening. She looked into his blue eyes with longing and kissed him even before she quite knew what she was doing. Theirs was a passion that only two people who needed one another desperately could experience. He held her close, lost in the moment, feeling the warmth of her body against his, the world shut out, he and she together, alone on the street. They only parted when the bus rolled up and Lupita was forced to pull away from Arms, leaving him behind in stunned silence as the doors closed and she took her seat for the long ride home. Sitting in her usual place, tasting the whiskey from his lips on her own, she looked back to see him standing in the light of the bus stop, holding his fedora, and watching as she disappeared into the night.