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The International Writers Magazine: Hard Boiled

A Long Night in the Old Town.
Robert Hillum

It had rained all day. It always rains in the city. By 9pm the streets were slick with the toils of a rough day. In tiny rivers flowing down either side of the road a few idle pieces of rubbish sail into the darkness of the overflow holes. The occasional puddle of oil and water had mixed together throwing a rainbow of colour across the road.
I stepped onto the road and the water swirled at the impact of the foot fall. Little did I know my life would be sent into spinning ripples by the end of that night.
I was heading to the lower west side, rich, but with rough edges all the way around. If you wanna disappear in this city, find yourself a dark hole with slow music and a thin veil of smoke to hide your eyes, this was the place to go. It’s hard to hide in the darkness of a city so full of light. Bright green and red create a sickly shimmer that’s thrown across the buildings and the paths that line the ground like veins, pulsating with each breathe of the city. With these neon nightmares illuminating all the darkest shadows of the interweaving alleyways, those who yearn for dark, go to the ground. This is where I was going. This is where I knew she would be.

I walked down the steps, anticipating the atmosphere that would greet me. A high class hideaway with light so dim it cast shadows about the room, leaving the corners only to the imagination. Outsdide, it was illuminated only by the small red light, and a flicker of a face inhaling from a thin cigar. Inside, slow jazz drips from the walls. Resolute drinkers sit with their backs to the music. She would be there on the stage singing a slow 30’s croon in a harsh rasping voice that aches with sexual desire. A red dress maybe, tight and close to the skin, falling away from her curves in a delicate sensual way. I had tracked her this far and would not lose her tonight. I had worked for a long time trying to find the dame, and I had the feeling tonight was gonna give me the answer to the question, and where we were going. At the bottom of the steps, I pushed open the door, preparing myself for what would face me.
"Southern trees, bare strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."
Exactly as I thought.

She was lying across a piano in the very centre of the stage. It was a sparkling green dress, slinky but still tight enough to see every contour of her body. The colour matched her eyes and complimented her skin so well that she looked like dream. Her voice was like morning and just as beautiful.

I stood at the bar for a while and ordered my drink. I’m sure you’re interested in what a guy like me drinks, but it really isn’t important. I took a slow sip and swirled it in my mouth and swallowed; my eyes never left the stage or the woman mesmerising the audience. The last time I had seen her perform was in 2040 in Las Vegas, and she was amazing there as well. Then her husband croaked. So with all the questions, she disappeared, lost in the woodwork.
When she finished her set and after the flush of applause she came to the bar and ordered a drink, but I managed to avoid her gaze. She had the usual run of suitors come up and ask to buy her dinner some time, but she always turned them down with a coy smile, and a look in her eyes saying ‘You can't handle this.’ I stepped behind her and ordered an ‘Alexander, no cream.’ I knew what was coming next, but she was always lightning fast. I couldn’t block the incoming swing, and she wasn’t like other women, so this one was coming closed fist and fuck the nails. The fist slammed into my cheek, but I was still tough as old boots, so I barely stepped back. I caught a slight hint of her perfume, still the same, after so many years.

We sat together in a quiet dark corner and got reacquainted over the next few hours. Between sets, we talked about where we had been and what we had been up too and who we had been with. The war that seemed to have been going for decades and the prevailing truth about the future of our country. A smooth sax solo and been rolling out into the bar for some while and the night crawled on. I finally told her why I was there.

She looked at me with a sad smile that told me she knew. You don’t mess with people like her and expect to get away with it. Between us we had stolen a sum total of 500,000 000 Euros. The best looking bunch of 10,000 Euro notes you ever saw. That might not seem too much now, but when we did it, that would have bought you the world. She told me she hadn’t spent a single penny of that money. She still had the case we took the money in, and she carried it with her always. She had been too paranoid that they would trace the cash and find her. Now without spending a single penny of it, they managed to anyway. With the ‘Segregatory Act’ that passed through parliament 20 years ago, she couldn’t do anything without being watched. No one could really. In one sweep cash became illegal.

We were clinging to the glass but still sinking into the shifting sands, heading for the long drop.
She took my hand from under the table and led me downstairs into the residential section of the bar. Her room was small, no windows and a single television on the wall as the only entertainment. She reached under the bed and pulled out a silver suitcase. I hadn’t seen it in years. A little tattered and tarnished but still shinning new like the day we stole it. We kissed, passionately just for those few moments, we were 60 years ago in the King Jazz Club in Soho. It’s a shame this kiss ended the same as that one.

I hadn’t heard machine gun fire in years. But you never mistake the sound. With modern weaponry it was all energy blasts and shock webs, but you never forget the choking rattle of a full clip being emptied into a room, then the dull falling thud of 20, 30 people dropping to the ground. At last, resolution. I grabbed her hand as she grabbed the case and we did the only thing we could. We ran. Like the fires of hell were licking at our ankles, we ran.

We rushed up the stairs into the street through the fire exit. Dawn had just spread across the horizon and the neon glow had started to fade away. The gunfire had come from inside the bar, and maybe, just maybe, if Lady Luck was feeling generous and wasn’t one of those corpses left in the bar, we would escape unnoticed. We hit the path at a pace, sliding on the wet floor and into the street. She had carried that case with her for so many years and it was really starting to drag her down.

That’s why when I saw her fall, I wasn’t surprised she let go with such ease. She fell to one knee, throwing the case into the air, soaking that green dress. When I felt that hot sting in my back I understood why she went down so easily. Getting shot when you’re younger isn’t a big deal, and I knew the pain well, but we were old and slow, medical advancement has come so far, but in the end, I just wanted to lie down. I felt more bite into me, but didn’t feel the hot sting that usually accompanies them. I was already beginning to feel the cold. I watched her lying in the road and she was watching me. Our eyes met and I could see those beautiful gems, just like a dream in the darkness. Then I noticed purple paper raining down upon us. It always rains in the city. They drifted to the earth and landed in the puddles of water. Mixed with oil. Mixed with blood.
© Robert Hilllum November 2007

Robert is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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