A Short Story by Russell Thayer
It was early Friday night at the New Orleans Swing club, the band just setting up in warm stage light. Vivian wore a purple dress because it looked good under waves of auburn hair, and she hoped to dance later with elegant brown-skinned men in silk suits. She’d planted herself at the bar next to the sassy red-haired waitress who was always cadging drinks in her stained uniform, a jumpy hepster too young to buy them for herself. Vivian had money these days, plenty of it, and always said yes to the thirsty girl. The handsome dark-skinned bartender had just placed a schooner of Lucky Lager in front of each of the ladies, but before they could touch glasses in unspoken acknowledgement, Vivian felt a hand grip her shoulder.
“Come with us, Miss,” said a man who sounded like a cop. He flashed a badge in her face. Smiled with yellow teeth. Maybe he was a cop. Upholder of the law. Maybe he was the killer she’d been waiting for. Defender of a different set of rules.
“Go to Hell,” said the waitress, not happy to have the beer spigot shut off so soon.
One of the cops shoved the girl off her stool onto the dust and peanut shells. The bartender then got angry, and one of the men pulled a pistol out of his jacket just to shut everybody up. To cool things down.
After allowing Vivian to slip into her coat, her ears ringing with tension, she was marched outside to a beat-up Pontiac waiting at the curb.
An hour later, she was still seated between the two gunsels on the front bench of the roaring Torpedo, no beer, no hot jazz, and no future. Why they needed to waste all this time ferrying her out to the woods to blow her head off was anybody’s idea.
They stopped in Stockton for gasoline. She felt a pistol shoved inside her open coat. These men were fools. She had no interest in making trouble for the boy who pumped gas.
“May I get out and visit the washroom?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said the driver.
“But I’m uncomfortable.”
“Fuck you,” whispered the man on her right, who pressed the barrel of the pistol harder against her breast.
What had she done to deserve all this effort? Why couldn’t they just let her get on with her life, her shifts at the dress shop, modelling engagements, her evenings at the clubs? But she knew why. And she’d known it might come to this one day. Still, she couldn’t ever say no to the money.
It was the third time she’d been hired to get a designated man drunk at a club, and it was different than helping a jaunty young waitress stumble toward ruination. That girl knew what she was doing.
Vivian had been told many times that she was extremely pretty. Extremely. The word frightened her with its power, its authority. The man on the hook, usually a prominent lawyer or politician, would invariably say that she took his breath away. He’d drink too much because of it, kiss her a bit to prove his point, then let her steer him to her hotel room, let her do it with him, wildly naked, while another man watched them from a locked closet, taking pictures of the whole thing through a small hole in the door. The man on the hook would pay the blackmail fee in the end, all would be forgotten, and Vivian would get on with her life, a little richer than she was before.
But not this time.
They pushed on through Sonora and into the mountains. Vivian guessed that a foot of snow had fallen in the last week, and the Torpedo curved onto a logging road under the clear night sky and out of sight of the highway. After a mile, the automobile rolled to a stop. Vivian’s heart began to beat heavily, the urge to urinate growing ever more powerful.
“Get out,” said the driver after killing the engine and easing out the door.
Vivian slid under the wheel, pushed along by the second man. Getting to her feet, she felt her bladder give way. The warmth of the urine turned cold as it steamed down her leg.
“Oh, Mike,” said the driver, sniffing the air. “She’s scared to death.”
“I don’t know, Eddie, I thought these whores had some guts.”
“I’m not scared, you mugs. I told you before I had to piss.”
“Take your clothes off,” said Eddie.
“Come on, Sister. It ain’t that cold. Me and Mike wanna see that fine frame in the pretty moonlight.”
“How romantic,” said Vivian.
“Lose the clothes,” said Eddie, pulling out a knife, unfolding a six-inch blade, “or I’ll cut ‘em off.”
“Just shoot me you worthless punk.”
“The boss said we should make you suffer a little. Everything off. Then we’ll see what happens.”
Vivian popped the buttons, then dropped the heavy gabardine coat onto the snow. She could feel the fur collar brushing against her calf, the breeze licking at her uncovered upper arms. She knew what was coming next, and how much the man who’d ordered all of this nonsense hated her. She’d heard his wife had divorced him, that the photos were sent to her even though her husband had paid the full price for prints and negatives. None of that was Vivian’s fault. She just happened to have been there when the photos were taken. It was a job she’d been paid to do. Nothing in all of this was her fault. This shouldn’t be happening.
“Now the dress.”
Vivian willed her skin to stay calm, to keep from shivering. She didn’t want to give the bastards any satisfaction. Her numbing fingers worked the buttons. Soon the dress was at her feet.
Her hands fumbled at her back to undo the clasp, letting the thing fall off her shoulders. She gave in to the cold and folded her arms across her chest.
“Now that lacy deal. What do they call those? French knickers?”
“Really? French knickers? Jesus Christ. You can’t leave me one stitch to die in?”
Eddie shook his head.
With a sigh, Vivian peeled down her underpants. She wasn’t wearing stockings, so when she stepped out of the step-ins she was naked in the frigid air. A forlorn animal. Only her shoes remained, pumps with an ankle strap. She pushed them down into the snow, hoping Eddie would forget to ask her remove them.
“Hey, Mike. You want some of this while it’s still warm? She’ll even pretend to like it for a couple hundred bucks.”
“Nah, Eddie. I ain’t in the mood.”
“Prettiest gal you’ll ever make,” said Eddie with a sly smile. “And it’ll be her last time, too,” he added. “Somethin’ to think about.”
Vivian thought about the snow instead, how it didn’t scare her as much as they thought it would. As a child, she’d almost frozen to death in a blizzard while hunting with her father in the wild, burned-out mountains near Wallace, Idaho. People from the mountains knew that dying in the snow wasn’t so bad, not like drowning was purported to be. You just gave up and went to sleep. Alone and cold. It’s how she ended every day.
With her quick mind, Vivian noticed Mike trying to light a cigarette in the thin breeze, then kicked Eddie between the legs as he smugly spun the knife in his fingers. Bending over with a moan, Eddie fell to his knees, dropping the knife. Vivian squatted to dig the knife out of the snow. Mike looked over at her just as she stood, then began to reach for a pistol inside his jacket. With a quick slash, Vivian cut at the back of Eddie’s neck, getting more collar than flesh, then grabbed her coat and darted into the trees on the other side of the car. Mike fired his pistol twice, missing her with both rounds.
She was down the hill with an explosion of movement, sliding naked on the snow, praying she wouldn’t hit a snag. When the ground leveled out, she rolled behind a stump, lay flat, panting, and looked back up the hill. There was no sign of the men. Flopping onto her back she stared through her breath at the stars overhead, her eyes following the path of the milky way. Glancing around at the near terrain, struggling to get the thick coat over her aching shoulders, she could tell that she was at the bottom of a steep gully. She would have to travel downhill to get to somewhere safe before she froze, but the road switch-backed every few hundred yards, so she might fool them again and turn uphill after crossing it. She imagined the car just sitting up there, waiting for dawn. She should be dead right now. They’ll wish she was.
The coat warmed her up for the moment, but she couldn’t feel her toes anymore. The area had been cleared in the last decade, she judged. Ten-foot saplings grew between the stumps. Getting up, she awkwardly started to run in the sodden pumps.
After a hundred yards or so, Vivian stopped. A set of human boot prints stretched across the snow in a line, level with the contour of the hillside. She squatted to examine one of them. It seemed fresh, the edge soft, the hobnails well-defined in the moonlight. Following the tracks for another few hundred yards, she came upon a dead elk. One of the back quarters had been removed and a gut pile lay off to the side, not yet disturbed. There was no heat left in it.
The neck of the elk had the most fur. She knelt in the snow, her gabardine coat protecting her knees, and cut the hide away from the flesh with Eddie’s knife. Just as her father had taught her. Soon she had a section large enough to wrap around her legs while she sat in the snow.
Like the snap of a twig, a whiff of smoke caught her attention, crisp and tart on the piney air. It must be coming from the hunter’s fire. Could she wait here until morning, until he returned? Studying the wind, she could tell from which direction the smoke came. It wasn’t far. Cutting the hide into two squares, and then slicing thin strips from the rest, she managed to fabricate a rough foot covering, tying the soft fur around her bare feet with the strips she’d made. As she finished, she heard the sound of an animal in the brush and imagined a bear coming for the gut pile. Then two quick barks made her spirits soar, and a small mutt with border collie markings raced up to her. It stepped into her lap to lick at the salt on her face and eyes.
Then a man appeared along the trail of footprints that led away from the kill. He carried a rifle, wore an untidy gray beard, a wool cap, and squatted next to Vivian to offer her his gloves.
“I heard two gunshots, Miss. Don’t tell me you’re hunting out here in the middle of the night.”
“I’m the hunted,” said Vivian, only slightly wary of the stranger. “They’re up there. Two men.”
“Why are they after you?” he asked.
“Maybe I taste good. What does it matter?”
“You can explain yourself later. Let’s get you back to my cabin. This is Penny,” he said, nodding at the dog, who sat and panted happily. “Can you walk?”
“I made moccasins,” she said, pointing stupidly at her feet, smiling like a little girl.
“How in Heaven did you think to do that?” asked the old man, laughing a little.
“I’m from Idaho,” she said.
* * *
“Squelch that lantern,” said Vivian as the man opened the door. “Those gunsels will have heard the dog. They’ll be looking for a cabin. It’s a job and they have to do it.”
“Just relax,” said the man. He’d been carrying her over his shoulder since the moccasins fell apart. “I’ve got my rifle.”
After setting her down and extinguishing the kerosene lantern, he pulled a chair to the window. “Take your coat off. Stand by the stove for a bit.”
“I’m naked under this. Do you have something I could wear?”
The man walked to an old trunk and stirred up the contents before pulling out a flannel robe. He kept his eyes on the road that wound up to his cabin while she slipped from one covering to another. A real gentleman.
Vivian tried to explain why the two men were after her, but it sounded crazy and cheap when she said it out loud, and it was crazy, a story so worn out it wouldn’t even make a dime store paperback these days.
“You just stop talking and relax,” said the old man. “I don’t care what you did.”
“I’m Vivian,” she said as she turned to warm her bottom against the stove. “I owe you my life, for what that’s worth now.”
“I’m Jack. That’s my wife’s robe. She’s dead. You’re safe here.”
“Thanks,” said Vivian. “It’s good to know the score.”
* * *
Dawn came crisp and clear around the side of the mountain. Jack spent the night at the window while Vivian slept on a cot, in a sleeping bag that she never wanted to crawl out of. They’d let the fire die in the stove in order to eliminate the smell of smoke in the air. The cabin itself was hard to hide.
Her eyes were closed, but Vivian heard Jack let an anxious Penny outside. Within seconds, the dog began to bark as it ran down the road, announcing the arrival of an automobile.
“Is it a Pontiac?” Vivian mumbled from inside the warm bag.
“Yup. They’re here,” said Jack.
Vivian sat up and pushed a curtain of auburn of hair out of her eyes.
“They’ll remember Penny’s bark from last night. They’ll know. We’ll have to fight it out.”
“These men are strangers to me.”
“I’m not asking you to kill anyone,” said Vivian as she wrapped her naked body in the robe, “but they’ll kill us both if we let them. Were you in the Great War?”
“Nope,” said Jack. “And I was too old for the last one.”
Vivian began to move about the room, squeezing her hands together. The cabin was very cold. Penny scratched at the door, and Vivian opened it a crack to let her in. She could see the men standing behind the open doors of the car. Waiting.
“You must have a pistol, Jack. For bears. When you hunt.”
“There’s a cannon up on that shelf by the door. It packs a wallop.”
Vivian stood on her tiptoes and brought the pistol down. It swung heavy in her arm. She popped the cylinder to see if it was loaded. It was.
“My dad had a pistol like this. Model 27, isn’t it? He taught me how to shoot. Is there a way out the back?”
“Through that window. I don’t think they’ll see you.”
Leaving Jack to be questioned by the men, Vivian lifted the sash in her robe and dropped out onto the snow. The chill bit into her bare feet, but she wanted to be connected right to the ground as she did this thing. Again.
It was winter that first time, too. She was just sixteen, a runaway, and she’d slogged back through gray slush to the trucker who’d picked her up outside Kellogg then sold her by the end of the day to three men at a truck stop in Coeur d’Alene. In the cab of the truck, the whoring money hot in the pocket of her denim trousers, she’d taken a heavy wrench and crushed the skull of the sleeping bastard. Confident she could do this again, she crept toward the front of the cabin.
“Is anyone at home?” Eddie shouted. “We’re police detectives looking for a young woman.” She could imagine him holding that badge of his in the air.
She heard the creak of wood as Eddie stepped onto the porch. He turned to smile at her as she appeared, a blood-stained handkerchief tied around his neck. The smile died as she raised the pistol.
The slug ripped into Eddie’s chest, exploding out the back in a red mist. The recoil caused Vivian’s bare feet to slip in the wet snow and she went down onto her backside. Mike took a few steps toward the side of the house as she scrambled to get up. He could see through the porch railing that she was struggling. As he stepped around to take aim at her, a bullet shattered the window, knocking him down. Vivian got control of the pistol, finally, and blew a good percentage of the top of his head off.
Then she sat in the snow in a wet flannel robe and began to giggle like a teenager.
* * *
One other thing Vivian’s father had taught her was how to field-dress a buck. After changing into a set of Jack’s clothes, and an old pair of his boots, she stripped the two men, standing over their naked bodies with Eddie’s knife. Both men were in manageable pieces in under ten minutes. Jack had left her to that task, setting aside their guns and car keys before taking the clothes, wallets, and badges away to burn in a steel drum. It seems they were cops. Oakland PD. After Vivian finished butchering her kill, she loaded the pieces onto a sled. The temperature would reach the mid-forties that day, melting the thin red snow in front of the cabin. Jack suggested a spot nearby where they could dump the remains, and they enjoyed a pretty walk in each direction.
Back in the cabin, Jack patched the broken window with a square of cardboard, then filled a large canning pot with snow and set it on the crackling woodstove to melt. He dragged a round galvanized tub next to the stove and dumped steaming water into it before filling the pot again.
“You go first,” he said. “I’ll fry up some steaks. Maybe open up a can of beans.”
“You’ll make me fart like a Basset hound,” said Vivian as she stripped off the wool shirt and wet dungarees, naked again, but feeling safe and sound.
“You’ll still remind me of my wife,” said Jack.
“Ow, Jesus that’s hot,” said Vivian as she settled into the water.
“You got blood all over your neck and chin. Let me find a cloth and a bar of soap.”
“Thanks. This is nice once you get used to it.”
Jack dried Vivian’s hair after she finished dumping water over her head with a small sauce pan. Then she stood up in the tub and dried the rest of herself with the coarse towel. Jack watched, close, but not too close. Vivian was used to men staring at her. Sometimes it bothered her. Sometimes it didn’t. Right now, it didn’t. She exchanged the towel for an old sweatshirt and a pair of clean boxer shorts when she was finished.
They ate together at the table off tin plates. The elk was lean. The beans were hot. Penny chewed on a thick bone she’d dragged into the cabin, and Vivian felt like a little girl again. Back in Idaho. It was an unsettling feeling, but for the moment she didn’t mind the old life.
“What are you gonna do with their vehicle?” asked Jack.
“First I’ll drive it up the road and find my dress. It’s a Norman Norell original. Paid good money for that thing. Don’t have much of a plan after that. I guess I’ll head back to San Francisco, dump the car somewhere. I hope this reckoning is over. I really do. I need to get on with my life.”
“I’ve still got my house on Potrero Hill,” said Jack. “The garage is empty. You can park the car there and use it when you need it. Use the house, too, if you have to hide out for a spell. Taxes are paid every year. I keep the power and water on. I’ll sell it one day, but until I do, I wouldn’t mind thinking of you walking around in it. And you’re welcome up here any time you need to get back to the woods. It ain’t Idaho, but we can do some huntin’.”
“Thanks, Jack. I’ll keep that in mind.”
He handed her a key, and she held his hand in hers. Maybe she would go to his safe house on Potrero Hill. It was too dangerous to go home.
After dinner, Jack melted more snow on the wood stove, then took a bath himself. Vivian sipped coffee at the table and watched him, as he’d watched her. His body was firm and she guessed he wasn’t as old as the graying beard had led her to believe.
By the light of the lantern, they played gin at the table. Eventually, Jack yawned and threw down his cards.
“That’s enough fun for one day,” he said, getting up to crawl into his sleeping bag.
Vivian followed him and sat down on the edge of Jack’s cot. She pushed around the grey hair on his chest. He looked up at her and scratched at his beard. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled.
“What are you doin’?” he asked.
“You’ve probably thought about this since the moment I got here.”
“I might have done, but you can just leave my thoughts to me.”
“It’s paid for, Jack. A dozen times over.”
“No, it ain’t. But you can snuggle your cot over here right next to me. I got a pint under my pillow.”
After dragging the cot close, Vivian blew out the lantern, climbed inside the sleeping bag with a shiver, and balled up the musty pillow before settling her head. She could still hear Penny gnawing on that bone near the wood stove’s dying embers.
“Tell me about your wife, old man,” said Vivian as he passed the pint to her. “Was she very pretty?”
“Extremely,” said Jack.
Bio:Russell Thayer’s work will soon appear in Evening Street Review, The Phoenix, and The Ignatian Literary Magazine. It has appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review, Close to the Bone, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington and worked for decades at large printing companies. He has cooked a lot of meals, watched a lot of French films, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife of thirty-five years.