Carlotta stood leaning her weight against the heavy wooden desk in her office... and looking out through the greasy, dirt smudged window at the cars below her as they rolled back and forth along Fifth Street. 'They look like black beetles with shining white and yellow eyes,' she thought. The gloom had this effect on her mind, which always ran in macabre overdrive once the light clocked out from the routine day shift workers with whom she shared the old damp office building.
She inhaled deeply on her ju-ju stick, sucking in the noxious substance like it was a meal and a delicious sedative rolled into one. Perhaps it was. Part of her felt nourished by the addictive oils of the illegal substance... another part of her enjoyed the mind numbing coldness of the muggle, anesthetising her worries into oblivion for that oh so brief a time.
Through the gloom and the light of car headlamps, Carlotta noticed the distance between herself and the life outside. How many of those cars contained dutiful husbands returning home after a hard day's work in the office to their wives and children? Carlotta stared down at a tram moving with pre-ordained regularity, sounding it's beetle horn to warn the happy shoppers of the next approaching stop... tired, contented women returning home to their domestic felicity, laden with arm loads of shopping... returning to make their perfect men their perfect dinners, to end yet another oh so perfect day in happysville. The Depression obviously was only a word to such people.
Carlotta pulled her jacket closer about her shoulders, and dragged deeply on her self roll until the miniature furnace on the end glowed a hellish red, exaggerated by the fact there was no light on in the office... what was the point. There was only Carlotta in the building, alone and cold: no swell gee to cook for, no dream home to return to at the end of her daily grind, and certainly no family to dote upon and to cherish.
Carlotta Wynn was alone.
She could see the sign outside the window, high above the ground, still winking on and off intermittently 'Carlotta Wynn: Private Investigator'; the wiring fizzed badly: half the strip bulb burned out and streaming currents of mirage air, as the chilly fog like rain cast dimpsy dusk cinders like hot neon into the sky.
Time to go home! Lock the office, walk the spiralling stairs to the ground floor, head out into the trepidicious evening, and hurry to the corner store to purchase a brain fix... a bottle of Jack Daniels and a file of aspirin for the ensuing headache in the morning. Then home to her two room dive by the waterfront. What a life.
Such was Carlotta's life.
It hadn't always been so. Oh no, once she had been Mort's girl... gun moll to one of the hottest rods this side of Cheap Side, all the way to Dime Avenue at the end of Pinkalou Boulevard. Things had been swell back then. She had been one of the main faces amidst a sea of punks, and had enjoyed the notoriety of the Gang's ill-repute across twelve whole city blocks. She had been Mort's frau, his right hand, his confidant... and then everything had gone Dutch.
Set up and ambushed in a crossfire by the Warton brothers hot muzzled finger men, the whole gang had gone down biting lead. All except Carlotta... absent and playing chippy to the tramp sailors down at Peeky's Palace.
For the thousandth time she closed her eyes and swallowed hard, trying not to feel the gut wrenching guilt. She had lived, the rest had bitten dust... hard. Chance had spared her, and now she must go on.... or die. Neither option particularly suited her, and so the bottom of the liquor bottle or the inhaled puff of a dope stick sufficed as her personal slice of the rotten apple she called 'life'.
Carlotta stayed leaning against her empty desk, smoked marijuana cigarettes... and generally put off returning to her cheap rented abode above the fishmongers on the corner of Dock Street, and instead stood stared out at other peoples'lives as they meandered their way hither the thither to and from their nice comfortable homes.
... truth to tell; she didn't have anything of her own to return to any more.
After Mort's demise: Smily, Charlie Z, Mel and Sandy Dee.... the whole mob had died that day, caught between the waterfront warehouses by a hail slugs from three Tommy guns - Widow Makers as they called them on the streets.
Carlotta had, at first, lain low, but over time, then the name Mort became nothing more than a half forgotten street legend, she had crawled back to her old haunts; only to find her home turf was changed. With Mort gone, the streets were torn wide open and carved apart as the new immigrant wave of hoods to hit the street: the Irish O Hares and the Chinese Ku Tong, who faced off in an uneasy truce as they worked to tame the vacant slice that had once been Mort and Carlotta's haven.
So what else can a girl do when the chips are down? Carlotta turned straight, learned a new trade, and used her wits and knowledge of the streets to dig a dime for her services... coffee cakes... barely enough to pay her lease on the P.I. joint on the third floor of Fifth. But at least it was honest work. A "gumshoe" paid for her services, used and abused as she sorted out other people's complicated and sordid problems. But the rent on her pad on Dock Street was a snatch, and her personal needs were small, save the occasional bottle of whisky and a wad of dope now and again, to ease the pain of living.
So she made her way in the world without having to fawn on anybody's charity. She was her own woman... and a bright one at that. If she could only keep her head straight and her mind focused long enough to keep a client.
Truth to tell, she hadn't had a decent sniff of a case in almost a month, and she was beginning to feel this bum job was soon to go the way of the do-do if she didn't pick up something sweet - and fast.
And so it was that Carlotta Wynn stood looking out over the suburbs of the West Hills district and wondering what exactly she was going to do with the mess she was in... when she heard the bell chug lazily on the small deck behind her.
It was late, and everyone else in the shared office building was long gone. For a moment Carlotta felt a pang of panic; half forgotten baggage from a former life kept her wits constantly on edge.
The buzzer sounded again. Someone was at the front door.
Peering out of her window she tried to discern who it was calling at this late hour, but the grime caked to the glass made it impossible to see anything other than a dark shape standing in the door archway on the pavement below.
Peering out of her window she tried to discern who it was calling at this late hour.
It had started raining hard, like an invisible tap had been turned full on, and heavy precipitation flooded the sidewalk like a hail of gunfire.
Moving slowly to the desk, Carlotta pressed the intercom button: "Who's there?" she enquired in a half whisper, suddenly kicking herself for sounding like a lame dame. The fiery streak of her natural redhead demeanour was always one jump away from rising to the surface... despite a layer of peroxide and flowing locks of false golden hue.
A female voice answered... sounding nervous and uncertain.
"I..Is this the Private Investigator, Miss Wynn?"
Carlotta rested her hand over the intercom, and for a second she nearly severed the link and determined to ignore the stranger entirely. But her curiosity; the need to know the riddle, overcame her natural caution and she replied: "Yeah, Carlotta here. What do ya want?"
"Miss Wynn"....silence from the other end: "Miss Wynn?"
"Yeah, I'm here?"
The voice suddenly sounded more confident: "Miss Wynn, I'm in trouble and I need your help. I was told you might be the person to come to for assistance."
Carlotta paused, drew deeply on the last quarter inch of her smoke, and exhaled a cloud of fumes into the office. She pressed another button, and with a slight click the door downstairs unlocked: "Okay, you'd better come up... make sure the door closes behind you, it sticks sometimes."
© 2008, Stephen A Gilbert.