The Blues in Black & White by Bill Capron
Chapter 1 – Mid-June – Sunday, 2:00 am
Death stalks some people, like that bad date that won’t go away, or that husband who thinks his rights supersede any court order. Jesse Black had been through both of those, she lived that kind of a life. She told her third husband, Ronald Dyson, he should have insurance on her, big time, because social security wasn’t in her future, but she wasn’t the only one, what with Ronald dead two weeks from an overdose. She said she didn’t know he was using, but women aren’t men, oblivious; she lied. That was jake with me since no one wants to admit they’re married to a junkie, and how much bad can one woman take in one lifetime. Jesse had had her fill; I cut her a little slack.
That night she performed on auto pilot. No one noticed, not even me, and I make a living noticing when I have an idea that I should be looking. The sadness dragged down the edges of her voice, but she was a jazz singer, and truth be told, it made the lyrics more profound, as if her history coated the words. Jesse didn’t see it that way; no, it was her voice, and it was her constant worry that the old devil Time was killing her pipes. She was wrong.
Jesse smiled as the audience clapped, like they were all having fun together. She hadn’t had fun in a long time, but she was a practiced actress on life’s tiny stage, so who was to know? When she finished her last set, she skipped the usual one cocktail and small talk and disappeared like a shadow into the night. Nobody saw her go. Nobody missed her. Well, not nobody. I saw her leave, but I didn’t think twice about it. That’s not normal for me, but I had my own concerns. That wasn’t normal either. Did she smile my way and wonder why on that night I wasn’t there for her?
It might have been a whisper in the wind, but not the wind, or a dark bat swooping after moths, or the rare warm day in June giving up its extra breath, a sighing soft susurrus. Did it spook her like when she was a child? The dark hadn’t scared her much since then. She was a vampire; sleep all day, rise at five, fix supper, read a book, minister to a still-tempting body and make the long walk to the jazz club. Everyone on her usual path knew her, if only from the reviews in the local papers, but they didn’t go to jazz clubs. To them she was that pretty woman with the unhappy eyes. She’d cast them a sad smile in the fading twilight, and they’d smile back, wondering who or what had spoiled her day. It wasn’t always that way, but when a happy smile is gone long enough, people forget it was ever there. If you asked them, they’d say she was always sad. I think they were right.
From the bar it was a mile walk through the quiet upscale streets of Northwest Portland. She’d set her normal pace, about twenty minutes door to door. Of course there were no smiles, sad or otherwise at that time of night. Did a cat cross her path and send a shiver up her spine? Did she turn quickly to scan the street, houses, bushes? It’s a nice area, so what was there to be afraid of? Maybe she turned again. Was there someone behind her, or in front of her? Of course not, you ninny, she’d tell herself. Did she look hard into the night? But she had no special powers to probe the dark. She was alone, but she didn’t feel alone. In my mind’s eye I see her picking up her pace so that all she heard was the soft clip-clop of her leather soles. Then the drizzle started and what sound there was, was absorbed by the thick air. I think she was as alone as she had ever been in her life.
It makes me hurt to think that she ran the last hundred yards to the front door, leaned into it as she turned the key, rushed inside and caught her breath. She stopped, of course, too shocked to close the door. The place was torn up, paintings ripped down, holes knocked in walls, stuffing pulled out of furniture. Was she angry? Was she scared?
Did she feel the presence before she turned her head? Did she recoil as the blackjack came into her vision? She couldn’t know it, but that was as good as it was going to get, because it went downhill fast after that.
That’s how I saw it. I wasn’t there, but I connected the dots from when she left the jazz club, to seeing her dead body, to what the police told me, the damp coat on the floor, the bruise on her right temple, other times I’d walked her home from the bar. I knew her well enough to know demons lurked, but I never asked. Jesse knew I understood about demons, about other people’s demons. I should have known more about hers.
We were two people very aware of the night, noir people. That made us different from the masses, but not special. Jesse thought it was our Achilles heel, a dark cloud sucking out the essence of life. I don’t feel that way, in fact, the opposite. She was noir in the soul, I am noir in the eyes. Where it sapped her, it invigorated me. Her curse, my blessing.
We were never lovers, never even thought about it. We were friends. She was not the kind of woman I could love, even though she was a woman I liked a lot. And we weren’t close friends as women know their friends, but really good friends as men know their friends. And my circle of friends isn’t that large, so it was more important to me than it was to her.
I would have walked her home that night, but I had a date.
Chapter 2 – Previous night, Saturday, 10:00 pm
Johnny’s One Note is a noir setting raised above the level of dark and dingy by the voices that echo from its walls. In another era you’d expect to find the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. It’s so special they clean it once a week and no one notices. And there’s the smoke, current and past, but it’s what we put up with for the music; it’s a wonder what great pipes will cover. Even then it needs the dark, because bright light makes it ugly, like that woman whose name you don’t know that turns up in your bed.
The pretty singer stopped at our table, singing ‘You Came a Long Way From St. Louis’ low into the mike. She crooned, “you’ve got them dropping by the wayside, a feeling I ain’t gonna know,” and the backup band, seeing her waggle her hand, went into a riff. She leaned between us and spoke in tune with the music, “What do we have here? CB’s got a date, and my what a pretty girl she is.”
The crowd clapped at my embarrassment; most knew me by sight if not by name. Jesse leaned into Marsha, and in a conspiratorial aside to everyone, “CB’s never brought a woman in here before. I’m jealous. You’re a lucky girl.”
Marsha’s smile was enigmatic as she leaned towards the mike. “Yes, I am.”
The singer straightened and frowned; she’d read beyond that ‘yes’, picking up a whistle no man can hear. Her soft lilt followed the music as she pointed a finger at me, but kept her eyes on Marsha. “CB, he’s a friend of mine, so you take good care of him.”
I felt the heat on my face.
Jesse swayed with the rhythm; she smiled, sadder than usual, and mouthed an afterthought. “I ever show up dead, I know CB’s going to bring them to justice. That’s the kind of guy he is.” The crowd was silent, they didn’t know what to make of it, they didn’t know what I do for a living. When she winked at me, there was a smattering of tentative applause.
She did all this with the combo repeating the same riff like it was part of the routine, which it was. She moved back to the stage. “For you first nighters out there, my name is Jesse Black,” another riff, “and I am a white girl who can really sing the blues.” An agreeing crescendo rose to meet her; she was why they were there.
Marsha wrapped a hand around my bicep and leaned her cheek against my shoulder. “You’re a regular?”
I put my hand over hers. “I come every other week. Jesse lives four blocks from me. We’ve known each other a long time, since I got to Portland. She’s lived the kind of life they make movies about; sad movies. She’s had her problems.”
Marsha swung her chair around the table so she could see my eyes; hers were transparent smudged gray clouds. “Everybody has problems, CB Green. Don’t you?”
I tried not to sound like Bogart in Casablanca. “My problems seem so small these days. Mostly it’s the waiting.”
“What are you waiting for?”
Don’t go there, I told myself, right before I went there. “For justice.”
She’d seen my last week up close, and she didn’t believe it. “You don’t get enough?”
An image of Rhonda flashed across my mind. “I’m owed a big one.”
She read my face and let it lie.
When the set ended, another pretty woman put a hand on my shoulder. I turned my head to Detective Maureen McMartin. I introduced her to Marsha who’d seen her picture in the newspaper.
“So, what are you doing here, Detective?”
Maureen put a ‘who wants to know’ tone in her voice. “What, cops can’t like jazz?” I waited; she wasn’t the jazz type. “I’m supposed to meet up with Doyle. You see him?”
Doyle is not a guy I’d miss, not at six-five, two-sixty with stiff thick gray hair I am told is Irish red, same as McMartin’s. Knowing them, it’s hard to believe they share that much. “No.”
She cast her eyes around the room. “Well if he shows up, tell him I had to go home to a warm bed and a daughter who is starting to wonder who I am.”
I nodded. “Sure, Detective.” I don’t call her Maureen; she doesn’t like to get that familiar with the competition.
Marsha is the same age as McMartin, thirty-five, but tall, thin, nice chest. She says her hair is auburn, which is a shade of red. To me it’s dark and thick, but nice. She put her other hand over mine. “There are a lot of pretty women in your life.” Marsha was on a par with any of them; she isn’t a vain person, but she knew that.
I answered a little too harshly, “They’re in their lives. I’m in mine.”
Her response was immediate. “Not their fault, I’m sure.”
I felt the heat on my skin again. “No way to tell.” I never know what anyone else is thinking; I don’t even try to figure it out any longer.
When the set ended, we talked a little bit about the pain and suffering of the last weeks and how much her sister Mary’s husband, Jeff, had meant to her. It wasn’t until his death that she admitted to the residual jealousy she’d felt for fifteen years, ever since she put the two of them together to keep him in the family. There was always the niggling thought, ‘What if he’d been mine?’ She’d convinced herself she’d gotten over it, but she was wrong.
I was listening harder than I needed to because there was a reason for the conversation. I was her confessor, and she was looking for absolution.
Marsha talked about her ex-husband, Andrew, about how, when his company folded, so did he, into alcohol. She never gave him the support he needed because her unrequited love for Jeff pretty much skewed their lives. Jeff’s death made life clearer for her. Death doesn’t do that for me. Then she got to the point; Andrew had stopped at the house that morning, said he had gotten his life together, said he wanted to come home and try again.
Sure, I didn’t know where this was going. “And you said?”
She parted with one of those little smiles that mean everything and nothing. “Yes. I said yes.”
I thought she made the right decision, but it hurt me to say it. “That’s because you’re a good person, Marsha, like Mary. It’s in the genes.”
She nodded; she believed it; it was true. I’ve met Mary’s daughter and goodness hasn’t skipped any generations either. I think the family is good going back a thousand years. I hadn’t thought about it before, but good may be as resilient as evil, though most of my work argues against it.
What would have happened if our date had been the previous night? I expected the result would be the same, but my pain would have been more. I was looking forward to Marsha Aldus, to being together for a while. I liked her a lot. I don’t meet a lot of people I like a lot, that way.
After the last set we finished our drinks, slowly, holding the moment. We had some meaningless chatter, the important stuff was done, swept away with my inchoate desires. Marsha was easy to talk to, and though small talk comes hard to me, I enjoyed it. I was missing her before she was gone. At the front door I hailed a cab. I gave the driver a twenty. I kissed her cheek and said goodbye. I stood a long time watching where she’d been, looking too hard at the hole in my life.
I walked the sixteen blocks to my three-story in the Northwest. I went in by the office entrance, parked my butt at the desk with my feet up to take in the black and white and gray. My office is colorless, but it doesn’t look real, rather staged as if it were a movie set. That’s my world, colorless. It is my color-blindness that makes me who I am; it sets me apart like Jesse’s voice does. I never regret my color-challenged retinas but at times being color-blind drains me; it has to do with lowered expectations absent the clashing swings of color.
Life has treated me exceptionally well, but it’s been a long while since I was in love, the high-school kind. I hadn’t really noticed it for a while, but right then it was this big shadow at the edge of my vision, like Jesse’s sad cloud. Was it a permanent part of my life? I hoped not.
I work in the big city and I am surrounded by single women, some of whom want me for reasons I can’t explain, but from the first moment I met Marsha, it was like they didn’t exist. It wasn’t so much that I liked her, it was impending love, and I was ready. Then before I even knew her, she was gone.
Gone girls. Yes, all the women I’d loved before, at least since about thirty when I became an adult, are gone, or dead, uncalculated misfortune or some such crap. I don’t subscribe to omens and fate and the like, but sometimes I see a dark future for myself without women, neglecting even the love component of it. It doesn’t scare me, but it draws me down at the edges. I don’t go out of my way to look for love, that is, I never feel forlorn. I have friends who can’t stand to be a day without a woman they can call their own; they’re half people looking to be wholes. I am not a half, but that might be because I have my job.
I am a born searcher. It is a natural part of being color-blind, that I scan the detail for what others see easily. They say, “It’s the red tape on that tree,” or, “See the robin.” I search for the shapes, separate them from the other grays; motion, shape, sound has always been important to me. It’s as if life is hiding things from me, but I find them, eventually, usually. I did my best to return the favor. Back when I was a puzzler, that is, making up crossword puzzles, it wasn’t enough to do it straight. I’d hide unheralded puzzles within puzzles, like a word ladder in a crossword, to see who’d notice. I was testing the world, like they did me with those numbers buried in the dots to ferret out the color-blind; so searching comes naturally to me.
Now I am a private investigator and searching is my life. I’m a perfect combination of fit, form and function. Life couldn’t be more interesting, discounting stakeouts which are inherent to the patois of my existence. Peeling back the flaps and looking into other people’s lives, that’s the hoot. It’s a searcher’s dream, and these lives are never what I expect; they are all different in ways I can’t anticipate. So I go into it, searching, without anticipation, wondering at how little I know about anyone else.
I was hoping to know Marsha Aldus …