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La belle dame sans merci

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I saw pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried--"La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!"

 

You want me to tell you how it happened, don't you? You want to know what how I got involved in this goddamn mess. I had my reasons. One reason, to be exact.

 

You know what they say when these sorts of cases come up. The French say it best. Cherchez la femme. La femme fatale.

 

I should have known Margaret would be trouble the moment I set eyes on her. It wasn't that she was gorgeous--which she was, but L.A. is full of gorgeous women and a guy like me knows where to find them--or that the first words out of her mouth, in a voice that could have raised the dead in the filthiest possible sense, were, "Either buy me a martini, pretty boy, or say something that convinces me to stick around. You have thirty seconds."

 

Well, maybe it was that. I made sure to buy her a drink before I opened my mouth. I did get a kiss for my trouble, eventually, later that evening, pressed against those tacky velvet curtains that hide the stage door as the band played Stardust in the other room. Then she disappeared into the powder room and I didn't see her till six months later when she walked into the annual Christmas bash at the Lancaster mansion on Sunset Boulevard on the arm of none other than Mister Lancaster himself.

 

"You've moved up in the world," I told her when I finally caught her beside the punch bowl. "I don't like women who stand me up."

 

"I don't like men who presume."

 

"That would explain Lancaster. You'll roll over him like a streetcar."

 

Margaret smiled and exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke in my face. "Wouldn't you like to know."

 

***

 

A week after that, she walked into my office and pulled an envelope from her purse that all but advertised that it came from a bank. "I'd like you on retainer, Mr. Suffolk."

 

"To do what?" It was a low blow, but she hadn't played fair. "We are a full-service establishment."

 

"Don't be crude. I need to find out where she," tossing a photograph onto my desk, "is spending all her time these days."

 

It was a black-and-white studio shot and it took me barely a second to recognize the woman. "Just read Confidential. It'll tell you all you want to know and more about Eleanor Cobham."

 

"She's up to something. She and that husband of hers. I can smell it. I want to know where she's been going over the past two weeks." Margaret leaned forward in a cloud of perfume and placed the cash envelope in my pocket. I covered her hand with mine. "Let me go."

 

"I'd take a kiss."

 

"In lieu of cash?" She raised her eyebrows. "I'd never have pegged you for a romantic. Isn't that the sort of thing that undoes a man in your profession?"

 

She was the sort of thing that undid a man in my profession. She knew it too; I could see it in her eyes. Her hand moved, fingers closing just below the knot of my tie.

 

"Last chance." Her breath tickled my lips. "Just say the word and I'm gone."

 

"Not a chance in hell."

 

The desk kept her tantalizingly far even as she kissed me, and she disentangled herself with the ease of a snake. I was balanced precariously over the desk, my face no doubt comically disappointed, for she smiled. For a moment, she looked like a girl.

 

I held out my hand. "Don't go."

 

I wish I could say she stayed. I wish I could say I threw the money back in her face and sent her packing, pride intact. But my wishes don't matter, never have mattered to Margaret. I took everything she gave me and thanked her for it though I longed for more. I'd met my fair share of dope fiends and I was no better than them.

 

For her, I perjured myself in court to get Eleanor Cobham blacklisted and every door closed in her husband's face. True, my retainers increased and I found myself in possession of a tidy sum of money, but if I'm honest with myself that didn't matter a bit.

 

"Twice your usual," was what she offered me to kill Eleanor Cobham's husband. I'd never killed a man before--why would I need to, in my line of work? And I didn't need the money. It was the look on Margaret's face, balanced on the edge between impatience and boredom. She could have a dozen other men as enthralled as I was, ready to fight for her at a snap of her fingers.

 

And I could not bear that. Idiot that I was, the thought made me sick. So I took the revolver she gave me (wrapped in a silk scarf that still carried a faint memory of her perfume) and I went to the hotel where Henry Lancaster's uncle was staying now that his wife had been taken into the custody of the state for suspected links to the Soviet Union and their house was still being searched.

 

I nearly turned around five times before I killed him. I shoved the pillow down over his face and held it there for what seemed like an eternity while he struggled under my weight. I tried to think of Margaret, but all I was able to summon was the terror that she might turn me away if I didn't finish this. Finally, finally, his movements slowed, then stopped.

 

I stayed where I was for a full thirty seconds more, just in case. I'm not a mook. Well, not that sort of mook, in any case. There's something a bit nobler, surely, in being a fool for love.

 

I saw her once more, though I didn't know at the time that it was goodbye. She did--I'm certain of that. There was something in her face that might even have been regret. We were good, Suffolk, weren't we? I should have asked her why she used the past tense, but I didn't. I'm the sort of fool who knows what he is.

 

No, I know she won't come for me. She's sucked me dry, got everything out of me that she wanted. I'm used goods.

 

I'm sure I'll see her again, from far away. Maybe on a newsreel if she gets her way and her husband wins the election. She'll forget me the way she forgets all the others. She won't notice if you kill me. That'd mean she'd have to acknowledge I meant something to her.

 

***

 

Mayoral candidate Henry Lancaster awakened on Sunday morning to yet another grisly surprise on the front lawn of his Hollywood home: a severed head. The head was later identified as belonging to one William P. Suffolk, a private detective previously employed by Mr. Lancaster's wife Margaret to investigate Mr. Lancaster's aunt, noted star Eleanor Cobham. This incident comes on the heels of the already-infamous investigation into the death of Ms. Cobham's husband, and the L.A. Times has been told that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Lancaster is available for comment.

 

The location of Mr. Suffolk's body is unknown, as is the identity of his killer. Remember, you heard it here first. Off the record, on the Q.T., and very, very hush-hush.