Arms sat staring at Lupita as she worked the room, the speakeasy loud and raucous at almost midnight. The place was full of couples come from the theater next door, young men and women in groups, and older, rich men eyeing the hostesses like Lupita who plied them with liquor and the promise of something more in the back rooms. No one paid much attention to the man who sat at the bar night after night, nursing an endless whiskey. He seemed to blend in with the shadows after a while and required very little from anybody. In time, no one noticed him at all, except Lupita. After their one fiery kiss that first night Arms had seen her walk out into the darkness, alone, he had felt the need to keep returning to the Frolic Room. In fact, he found that he couldn’t stay away. She was magnetic; “what is it about her that draws me in and won’t let go?” he wondered. He couldn’t tell, but returned to wait for her shift to end each night. He didn’t walk her out, but as the bar closed down, he always left a little early and waited in the darkness for her to emerge. Out the back door of the speakeasy and down the alley she would come, moving into the light of the street lamp that illuminated her for a few seconds before she reached him in the darkness, once again. He watched her shadow near the light, the outline of her body come into view in the tight dresses that she wore, which attracted so much attention from men, and he felt an electrifying expectation that was almost unbearable. Then he would step forward away from the wall he had been leaning on, to show himself. She didn’t pause in her stride like she did on that first night; they would simply fall into step together, side by side, at ease, but in silence. She was clearly comfortable with him, as the routine became a familiar one to them both. Still, she was reserved and private. It was like an old-fashioned courtship, yet Arms didn’t mind the slowness. He didn’t mind the time spent courting her. He saw in her a beauty that perhaps other men did not; she wasn’t traditionally pretty and she held herself with an aloof strength that appealed to him. Despite waiting and walking with her each night, he didn’t feel that he was necessarily needed, only that she let him come into her orbit and stay. He felt grateful for this allowance, but didn’t know why.
Each night they met he took in more of her, until he had memorized her face, her body, her walk and he could see her clearly as he remembered her in his dreary days. She always smelled good, no matter how long she worked or the number of men who pawed over her at night. The dresses she wore clung to her; work dresses, he knew, purposely worn to attract and disarm men and to arouse them. Bright colors, red, blue, purple, all with the effect of drawing men to her like bees to a honey pot. Arms knew that this was just a job for Lupita; he never felt that she was particular happy working at the Frolic Room, but that it was a necessity. Holding her purse in front of her as she came out of the speakeasy, she only seemed to relax when she was walking with him. He could sense her tension ease away and this made him feel wanted. They didn’t touch or hold hands. They barely spoke; she answered what questions he asked with simple responses until he had strung together a tiny life narrative that only mildly satisfied him. Arms didn’t recognize himself, but accepted this new way of doing things with Lupita because he wanted to be near her. And always a delicious kiss just before the bus arrived; the pattern became a familiar one to them both as the weeks wore on, but slowly he began to realize that he wanted more. Yet, he felt compelled to move at her pace, to accept her parameters. She had said nothing openly to him, but she hadn’t needed to. He would take what he could get and would wait patiently. But for what? He didn’t know and at this point in his life, he didn’t care, he only wanted to be in her presence.
He had completely abandoned the case of the missing jewels and the robbery at Mr. Skeffington’s mansion. He could think of nothing else but Lupita. He was apathetic even about the detective agency and the guys’ respective cases. She was like a narcotic, a drug that wrapped around his heart and his brain. Whatever was happening in his life that was necessary would be dealt with in the day, so that he could get to the woman he wanted to be with at night. Those fleeting minutes with her, the electricity between them on the street as they walked, the desire just under the surface and then bubbling up between them in those passionate moments of the kiss. What was she to him as they moved along in this strange ritual of waiting, walking and touching each other only in the wee hours of the morning at a grimy bus stop? He didn’t know, but felt he was under her spell, a bewitching and beguiling sense of being in a stupor of desire and of something akin to love. Being with Lupita didn’t feel like the emotions and newness of youth, the unreal sense of learning firsthand what it is like to be with a woman. At 34, Arms already felt like a jaded lover. Yet Lupita always left him a little lighter in his heart, a little happier in a way that he had never felt before.
Lupita and Arms hadn’t spoken much, even after all these nights together. He had learned that she didn’t live near the Frolic Room, the bus ride was long, at least an hour and that she still lived with her parents, though she was clearly close to his age. There were definitely siblings, younger ones he presumed, but she didn’t say how young or even how many. She had made a vague reference to an older brother, but Arms was unsure of his age as compared to hers. She didn’t wear a ring on her left hand, so he assumed she wasn’t married and never had been. He could tell she was a cautious woman, but in letting him walk with her at night, he had surmised that she saw him differently than other men. He wasn’t sure what the alternative would have been if she worked somewhere during the day. Theirs was a night attraction, born of necessity at first and now of comfort. He couldn’t tell if she trusted him completely but he knew she was attracted to him. The kiss, usually so perfunctory in a relationship, leading to more, was for them, everything. Yet, it was always at the bus stop, an entirely unromantic place; always after her shift was over, always for the moments before the bus arrived and swept her away from him. There they would stand together in the semi-darkness and she would turn to look directly into his blue eyes, reaching up to touch the shock of black hair that typically escaped after a long night in a hot, crowded bar. The silence between them was about the unspoken, the knowing and understanding of two people who were drawn to each other.
Arms relished these moments with Lupita; the secret privacy between them when they shared their kiss. Every night he wrapped his arms around her, placing a hand on her lower back and feeling her warmth and softness against him. She leaned into him, asking nothing but receiving everything that he could give her; safety and a sensual satisfaction that she had never felt before. He relished these moments with her, the look in her eyes as she gave herself to him and him alone. Theirs was a clandestine affair, intimate and isolated, yet entirely exposed as they stood together waiting for a bus. It would come not like a chariot at all but like the lumbering way of a vehicle that was old and tired, noisy and smelling of gasoline and exhaust fumes. And always Arms was the one left standing alone afterwards; still stunned by her kiss, still tasting her lips on his. This went on night after night. She was becoming everything to him.
And then one night she didn’t emerge. He waited and waited, but nothing. The bar had closed down, but she didn’t come to him. What had happened to her? This was an upset in his dreamy and daily routine and he was entirely unprepared for the intensity of his feelings at not seeing her as expected, of not knowing where she was or what she was doing or with whom. Suddenly, he was intensely jealous, close to rage thinking that she might be with another man instead of him, but this subsided as quickly as it had arisen for his steady, determined nature kicked in and he realized that he simply had to go find her. Moving away from the wall he had leaned on all the nights waiting for Lupita to come to him, he walked down the alley from which she always emerged. He passed the door that led into the bowels of the Frolic Room and saw that it was locked up tight for the night; he kept walking along in the darkness, cautious and careful. There were no street lamps here, the city didn’t see fit to light a path for drunkards, floosies and gamblers. They were on their own in this dark alley and so was Arms. He held his gun in his hands; he always carried it, he couldn’t be too careful and didn’t want to get caught with no protection, certainly not at night and especially when he walked with Lupita. He moved stealthily and carefully along, peering into the shadows, until he heard voices up ahead of him. The sounds carried down the empty alley; he stopped and listened. One of the voices was clearly a woman's; it was Lupita, but she wasn’t speaking English. The other voice, a man’s, was angry, aggressive and upset. “Who the fuck is he?” Arms whispered, and crept along, edging closer to the two people arguing together in the darkness.
Then he heard Lupita yell in Spanish, “No, mantente alejado!” Her voice despairing and pained. He wasn’t sure what she had said, but she sounded horribly afraid. When she cried out, “basta, basta!” Arms knew enough of her language to understand that she was telling the man to stop doing something, but he couldn’t tell what. “Nothing good,” he thought and felt his anger at the man rise and a desperate urgency to rescue Lupita. Reaching the end of the alleyway, he could see in front of him the outline of what looked like a black Cadillac and two people in the shadows. He felt anguish and a need to get to her, but in his haste, he carelessly stepped on something that cracked beneath his feet, probably an empty beer bottle. The sound bounced off the alley walls and caused the voices to go silent. Arms regretted not moving fast enough then, for the headlights of the car snapped on, and he saw Lupita in the light and the man who stood beside her. He looked vaguely familiar to Arms, a flash of recognition flitted across his brain, but didn’t stay. The pain in his gut from the bullet was instantaneous, like an erupting volcano of piercing flames, the hot lava streaming through his entire body and then a sort of hazy blackness, but without relief from the burning sensation.
Later, he remembered everything about Lupita in that one striking moment of seeing the woman he loved; the look of fear in her eyes, her disheveled hair, her swollen lip and the blood that trickled down her chin where she had clearly been hit, hard, by the man who held her in his tight grip.
An “Almost” Death
Alone in the dark, Arms willed himself to stand, to fight, to save the woman he realized that he was in love with, deeply, but his body wouldn’t function. He lay crumpled in a heap, smelling the filth of the alley, the acrid air of the LA night and felt the darkness press down around him. His body was failing, succumbing to the intense burning sensation of where the bullet had entered and lodged, who knows where? He felt that death was upon him and it was Lupita who flashed before his eyes, her face, her bloodied lip; he longed for her, his heart full of the love that he hadn’t let himself feel. The gravel of the alley pressed against his face as he lay on the ground; he tried to raise himself up over and over again, to push with all his might, but he couldn’t catch the breath he needed to exert any movement. The night was quiet and still. It was that in between time when people slept and early morning jobs weren’t starting quite yet. Arms thought of his friends, Foil and Hog. But it wasn’t their friendship that was in his heart, it was his deep love for Lupita that gave him the strength he needed to stay alive. His friends wouldn’t worry about him; he was a man who could take care of himself. Hog would be at home with his wife and children. Foil was probably in bed with one of his women. Arms knew they wouldn’t come looking for him, not soon anyway.
Of late, he had been floating through his daily existence, but lying there, pressing his trusty brown fedora to the wound in his abdomen with the little strength he had left, feeling the blood seep through his fingers and pool on the ground, he fought for his life. The pain was in his gut, but he could feel his heart break for the woman he loved, had loved ever since he first saw her. But now, was he dreaming or awake, he didn’t know. He only knew that he felt himself slipping away. The man wielding the gun and holding Lupita at the same time had simply wanted Arms gone, wiped away in an instant. He shot at him, watched him fall and thought the deed was done. But he didn’t bother to check for a pulse, there was no time. It didn’t matter to him, really, he had the girl and he just needed to get out of there. He’d seen the gun in Arms’s hand and knew he only had one chance to erase this witness. Shooting, he turned and dragged Lupita towards the waiting car, as she fought against him, screaming and crying. At one point, she almost escaped but the man’s strength was beyond hers. Wrenching her back towards him, he yelled at her cruelly, “muévete, puta!” and shoved her forcefully into the backseat of the car. The driver was quick to move then, turning around and racing off into the night. The final sound that Arms heard was of Lupita’s wailing as the car moved further and further away, leaving him incapacitated and suffering on the ground.
Arms wasn’t sure who saved him, when he was found, or how long it took to get to the hospital. His memories of the hours after being shot were hazy and sparse. He only knew that it was nearly dawn when he opened his eyes in a last-ditch effort of physical strength to see feet in front of him and felt movement around him, somewhat chaotic, but clearly purposeful. When they tried to move him, he cried out in pain and someone put a hand on his shoulder to keep him from hurting himself further. It was a kind gesture, he felt, and then he passed out, only to wake up in a vehicle, an ambulance, he realized later, aware of the movement through the streets and then nothing. He never saw the light at the end of the tunnel he expected to see; never felt called to the inner sanctum of heaven, or would it have been hell? There was just a sense of disengaging with the world and of being in and out of consciousness.
At the hospital, he was barely aware of his own body, let alone of what was around him, but he did hear voices; the doctors, the nurses, was that his mother’s voice? He heard her sorrow and anguished tones. His father’s? He was demanding something of someone, loudly. And then nothing, as he was whisked into surgery and blankness. Arms had been in a bad way in the alley, barely alive, having bled out considerably by the time the stranger found him and realized he was still breathing. Seeing Arms from afar as he walked down the alley in the very early morning hours and thinking, at first, that he was just a drunken tramp sleeping off his hangover, the stranger’s goal was simply to go around him without pausing. But in life, sometimes, it is those meaningful moments when we feel that we are directed by some higher power and something in the clothes of the supposed tramp made the stranger take notice of Arms and realize that he was severely injured. Was it serendipitous that the stranger had taken this route, as a shortcut, to his work that morning? He had never gone this way before, but something seemed to draw him to this new path. Later he would tell his wife that he wasn’t sure why he turned down the alley, but that if he had not, surely the man would have died.
Not until days into his hospital stay did Arms show any signs of waking and only for short spans of time. His wound and the blood loss had been so severe that the hours on the surgery table took their toll; he needed a blood transfusion and at one point the doctors were sure they had lost him, but he was revived and brought back from the brink of death under the skilled surgery team. By the time the doctors finished suturing his wounds and brought him out of the operating room, he was a shell of the man he once was. His parents, Maeve and Brendan, watched as their youngest boy was wheeled out of surgery and they felt their anguish together, just as they had done when they lost their oldest son, Michael, in the war. Arms’s prognosis was not a good one, but they would not leave his side until he awoke. And even then, they did not abandon their only remaining child.
Throughout the weeks in the hospital his mother stood vigil by her son’s bedside. Like a sentry, she marked the days of his care and recuperation, never leaving him for the time he stayed, fighting for his life, hanging on and inching closer and closer to health. As the only child left of the two she had brought into this world, she felt the pain of loss and refused to believe that God would allow her Conor, her own baby boy to die under her care. She poured all her mother’s love, strength and prayer into his healing. Maeve knew her son was a detective, but she did not understand the danger he put himself in on a daily basis in his job. She didn’t care to know too much, but only sought to be there with him by his side, making up for what she never was able to have with her older son whom she had lost too soon. Clutching her rosary and holding her son’s hand, she willed him to heal so that she could bring him home, healthy and in one piece.
His father, Brendan, ever the brave and steadfast Irishman, had felt the blow when he learned of his son having been shot in an alley on the other side of the city. Though he didn’t show it much and certainly even less after he lost his older son, Michael, Brendan was deeply attached to his youngest son, Conor. He wasn’t an overtly emotional man, but he felt the tears well up in his eyes when he saw the state of his son, as he lay unconscious in the hospital bed. There was fear in his heart at the possibility of more loss in his life. The horrors of war had taken Michael from him, but it was the streets of Los Angeles that held the most danger for his son, the detective. Brendan felt broken and torn asunder by the knowledge that he might also see his youngest boy taken from him too soon. This brought Brendan to his knees and he joined his wife in desperate prayers for his son to live. Unlike Maeve, he despaired for Conor, but still he begged God to spare the life of his child.
When his parents’ prayers were answered, and Arms finally opened his eyes to the world, they felt great relief and joy. But they saw that their son could not focus on anything around him. Arms felt confused; the room was unfamiliar and his sense of what had happened stopped at the moment he was shot and then heard the wailing voice of the woman he loved trail off into the night. His mother waited patiently for his first words and was utterly surprised when he turned to her and spoke a woman’s name, “Lupita?”
Mr. Skeffington Makes His Point
“What you gonna do about it?” bellowed the man sitting in Hog’s office. This was Mr. Skeffington, who had come down from the LA hills to see Arms about the jewel theft in his mansion. It had been weeks since there was any response from the detective he had hired and he was furious at the slowness and lack of information. “I ain’t signed up for this! He told me he were one o’ the best and he’d get results! Well, hell if he ain’t gone and done a runner and me left with the bill! The guy showed up twice and now nothin’! I ain’t heard nothin’ and I paid good money too!” Mr. Skeffington’s face was red with rage, his doughy jowls making him appear pig-like. His booming voice filled the entire agency and everything around him felt small and claustrophobic. Hog kept his cool and refused to be intimidated. Mr. Skeffington ploughed on, paying little attention to the man in front of him; “I hired ya and you ain’t done nothin’ to find the jewels. My little girl’s beside herself and I want some answers!” The sound of Mr. Skeffington’s voice sailed down the hall to where Mildred sat in her office. She could hear each word of his thrown out in a louder decibel than the one before. When there was a pause in his tirade, she realized that he was gearing up for another go round at the detective. Mildred heard Hog respond with an authoritative calmness, “I would ask you to sit down, sir, and let me get to the bottom of this matter.” But Mr. Skeffington ignored this and raged on, finding a distinct satisfaction in yelling at the man in front of him.
On the day that Mr. Skeffington made his appearance, Mildred had arrived at the Swine’s office in the morning to find Arms wasn’t there. She was so used to hearing the familiar blues music from down the hall that when she walked in its absence was striking. Sensing that something might be wrong she checked on Arms and got no answer. Carefully, she eased the door open but the office was empty. She knew that the detectives kept their own hours; it was certainly none of her business if they chose to show up to work at a different time than she expected. But on this morning, mid-week, it seemed strange to her that Arms wasn’t in the agency, as he was always there before her. Always. Perhaps he was on a case that she didn’t know about or was sleeping off a hangover at home, though this would have been a rare occurrence, indeed. However, when Foil and Hog rolled in later, she was so busy with her work that she didn’t get a chance to ask them about their colleague’s whereabouts. Later in the day, when she heard the alley door open, she was momentarily relieved, believing that Arms had finally arrived, but instead an enormous man in a yellow checkered suit appeared demanding to see Detective McKenna immediately. In fact, now would have been too soon. “He’s not in, sir, may I take your name and I’ll get one of the other detectives. Please take a seat.” The gesture was ignored, but not the request for a name. “Just tell him, Skeffington!” barked the man and he stood defiant in the doorway, glaring at Mildred as she inched by him.
In their line of work, the detectives often encountered irate and angry clients. And it was Hog who dealt mostly with this particular breed. He had a knack for calming people down, especially when no one else did. Mildred knew this and made a beeline for Hog’s office. However, before she could even knock on his door or say anything, there was a looming shadow behind her and she turned to see Mr. Skeffington filling the small hallway. “I ain’t waitin’! See here, missy, yous need to get yer man now!” Mildred felt suddenly alarmed and frightened; she wondered if he might break Hog’s door down, but at that moment Hog appeared. This prompted Mr. Skeffington to almost shout, “about time one of yous detectives did something! I’m Wilbur Skeffington! Who do ya’ think you’re dealin’ with? I want answers, man! I been waitin’ too long! Where’s that dark fellow, the one with the fancy suit who come up to me home and didn’t do a goddamn thing after! Just bloody disappeared!” During this short tirade, Hog eyed the man in front of him and sized him up quickly. He could tell that Mr. Skeffington was just getting going on his complaints about Arms; he was like a giant train that wouldn’t slow down and Hog could do little to stop him, though he sensed that Mr. Skeffington was not a violent man just one full of hot air. “This way, sir,” said Hog formally and he pointed towards his office. Mr. Skeffington walked in and Mildred felt immediate relief as soon as he moved away from her. She walked back to her own office, listening to him yell at Hog, “I’m tellin’ ya’ the man owes me! And I got friends who can gets me things, you betcha! I ain’t just sittin’ on this. You gonna take over my case? I ain’t leavin’ till I get some answers! Goddamn detectives! I paid good money for the one who called himself the best, but shit! I ain’t heard nothin’ for weeks, I tell ya’! This ain’t service! I’m an important man and I expect results! Now!!” And this final pronouncement came with the pounding of the large man’s fist on Hog’s desk. Mildred flinched at this sound of fury and shut her door, giving her a moment’s respite from the day.
She was thinking about Arms and trying to decide what to do about his absence. Her relationship with her boss was different than hers to Foil. Foil held a special place in her heart because he reminded her so much of her son, Ronald, whom she had lost when he was a child. She felt a mother’s fondness for Foil, though she never showed this outright. Instead, she found herself drawn to his open warmth. She knew he showed this to all women, but the clincher for Mildred was how Foil made her laugh. Her Ronald could make her laugh too and though she understood in her heart that they, of course, were not one and the same (for she did not believe in any of that reincarnation mumbo jumbo), she felt connected to him all the same and trusted him to always be kind to her. It was Foil who had turned to her to help Alice at the Convent of Angels. And it was to Foil she had spoken about the terrible threat of Harry and her deeply personal affairs. But Foil was not her boss. Arms had interviewed and hired her; he set her hours, paid her wages, and gave her the time off she requested. He was the one to call her in on the weekends when all three detectives needed extra help. It was Arms who ran the agency and worked so intimately with her on a daily basis in the office. Yet, they often spoke about nothing more than the details of case files, client bills or ordering supplies. Theirs was a mundane routine, which after 7 years was set in stone. The consistency of Arms’s presence in the office was something that Mildred realized she had come to take for granted. She counted on his blues music coming down the hallway every morning when she arrived. She listened for the banjo, the steel guitar or the country violin to fill her ears and in many ways, her heart. Often on slow days, he didn’t come out of his office until later in the afternoon, but she realized that he gave her a measure of comfort and when she came in that morning and found he wasn’t there, she felt quite alone.
It was as if they shared a partnership of some kind, relying on each other to fill the unspoken void of not having anyone at all. Mildred had no idea what Arms thought of her; she felt he respected her, believed in her abilities to run the office, to keep their appointments organized as much as they concerned the agency, and to bring a level of competency to bear upon their work as detectives. But on a personal level? Well, she assumed he did not think of her at all. Arms would not be calling her to request a favor, as Foil had done, and it would not have occurred to Mildred to speak about any of her personal problems with Harry to her boss. But she felt sure that only something extraordinarily serious would keep him away from his strict life routine. He was devoted to his job as a detective, to the agency and to the plans on which he based every single waking minute of his existence.
Foil was not in the office to consult about the matter of Arms’s absence. He had come in that morning, received a phone call almost immediately and had gone out. She was unsure if he would be returning. Hog was still handling Mr. Skeffington and she knew that this would take quite a bit of diplomacy, which would also take time. The yelling, though somewhat muffled at points, carried his thundering voice to her as she sat pondering how to move forward with her search for Arms. For she felt that it was necessary to search and to find him before too much time had passed. A sense of foreboding, based on so little, really just the absence of her boss, was growing in her heart and she knew that it would be up to her to find Arms. The detectives might be good at fighting and solving crime, but sometimes when it came to one of their own, they didn’t seem to have the sense that God gave them. They certainly had not noticed that Arms wasn’t there and they hadn’t asked about him either. Again, she wondered if they knew something that she didn’t, but there was no time to ask now.
With Mr. Skeffington’s booming voice still coming from Hog’s office, Mildred decided that it would be best to start with the local hospitals. She wasn’t entirely sure why she took this path, but she realized that she had no idea if Arms had any family in his life. All these years of working with Arms in close proximity to herself and she still hadn’t exchanged more than one or two personal pieces of information with him and these were hardly consequential at all. Hog was married and Mildred had met Laura, it was by chance, but it was still a meeting. She knew about Foil’s Aunt Eleanor, so there was some family connection there, but she couldn’t remember a time when Arms talked about much of anything personal. In other words, she knew of no one to call. He had never spoken about his parents. She had no idea if he had any siblings and she was further unsure if he had even grown up with a pet. He was simply her boss, but he was a good boss and she admired him. He was a dark horse to her, keeping himself to himself, yet his reliance on her and his clear trust in her abilities made Mildred feel respected and this mattered greatly to her. She knew that his absence was so unusual, so different and out of the ordinary to his routine that her own actions in the matter needed to be too. So, she got out the behemoth of a phone book and turned to hospitals. Los Angeles was a huge city, encompassing many neighborhoods; she was unsure of where to start, but she had to begin somewhere so she decided to choose randomly and began to call. She was very lucky and found him on the third try at the Pasadena Hospital in the northern part of the city. She couldn’t discover why he was there, only that he was and that visiting hours were almost over. Getting across the city at this time of day, for it was nearing 4:00 o’clock, would be difficult but she had to try. She did not think to talk to Foil or Hog about what she had found, where she was going, or what she intended to do. They would have to wait; her only thought was to see Arms and to make sure he was okay, though she suspected he was not.
As she gathered her things together to leave, she heard Mr. Skeffington’s voice rise to its highest decibel yet, “and that’s final!” the man practically roared with rage. “Yous betta’ make it happen, son! Yous detectives betta’ get results! I ain’t standin’ for it, see? Find me jewels and maybe, just maybe I’ll pay ya’! Mr. Skeffington had clearly made his point, for Hog’s door opened with a bang and the man readied to leave his captive audience. Mildred didn’t want to chance meeting him and being confronted by his anger; picking up her car keys she reached the alleyway door and moved out into the California sunshine, feeling the heat on her face and a palpable relief in her heart at finding Arms. As she reached her car, she heard Mr. Skeffington’s final parting shot ring out, “til then, move ya’ asses! Or goddammit, there’ll be hell to pay!”