The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event – Noir: A Celebration of Detective Fiction. Please enjoy.
When Elly emerged from the corn her dress was covered in burrs, her feet in mud and she knew her hair must be full of ticks, but she was relieved to see the lights of Columbus twinkling in the distance. It was still so far away that she couldn’t possibly reach the city before morning, but she had to keep going. Seeing it now constantly in her view as she moved gave her comfort. The capital seemed to grow out of the fields of central Ohio like any other crop, as if a farmer decided to plant skyscraper’s one year and…voilà: Columbus.
“That city might save my life,” she thought, “if I can just find the office of ‘Abe de Spada, private detective’…” In her mind she heard his name sung as part of the jingle that ended his ads on TV. She was confident she could find him: his commercials showed that his office was near the Ohio Theatre, where her parents took her to see Wicked three years ago, when she was nine.
Now – dirty, frightened and on the run – when she remembered that night and how happy she was with them, she retreated into the cover of the cornstalks and the darkness, sat on the ground, and for the first time that day she allowed the terror that had propelled her this far to give way to tears and the deep sadness at the loss of her parents. If she could find protection, she wouldn’t see them until the day they all appeared in court, and then never again. Which she knew is how it had to be, but that truth devastated her. At twelve years old, she was mature enough to understand that her life was now going to take a different, unexpected path, so long as she was able to reach the detective.
Abe de Spada took a hit off his vaporizer. He cocked his head as he took in his reflection in the door; this vape thing was definitely not as bad-ass as his Camels, but he had a son now and he hoped to see him grow old. Even so, with his trenchcoat on today because of the rain, he still retained some of the carefully cultivated aura of a 1940s detective.
Inside his office his secretary, Debbie, rushed to his side. She was a real knockout: flaxen blonde hair and the largest, roundest breasts he’d ever seen. He was distracted several times a day by Debbie’s rack, so much so that he’d nearly forgotten that when he hired her seven years ago she was a burly former construction worker named Edward who had just divorced his wife due to a painful secret.
“Abe!” Debbie rushed over to him, anxious.
“Yeah, doll?” Abe said with an affected, nasally 1930s twang; he was still enjoying the feeling of being a little noir.
“Abe it’s 2015 and this is real life; you can cut the Bogart crap.”
“Like you say, “ he replied, “it’s 2015: if Edward can become Debbie, can’t Abe be Bogey awhile?”
Debbie was not amused, but now was not the moment to argue gender politics. “That Watkins girl who’s been all over the news…is in your office.”
Abe’s jaw dropped. Elly Watkins had been the talk of the city since three days ago when every phone in Columbus buzzed simultaneously, which either meant a tornado warning or an Amber Alert. Elly’s picture on TV showed her to be a cute, elfin twelve year old with light brown hair and an intelligent look; her parents were shown leading the town in a tear-stained vigil.
“Abe,” she walked closer to him and stood face to face.
“God,” he thought, “her perfume, and those gigantic…”
Debbie, as if reading his perverted mind, put up a single finger in front of his eyes to focus his attention and keep him from mentally undressing her. “The Watkins girl brought herself here. She’s walked more than fifty miles on her own. She wasn’t kidnapped. She’s in hiding.”
This startling news brought de Spada back to the gravity of the moment. “Anything else?”
“That’s all I know, because when I tried to call her parents she screamed like a thousand devils. But she wouldn’t tell me more. I bought her an egg sandwich, but she’s been waiting for you.”
When Abe opened his office door, Elly was peeking out of the side of the window so as not to be seen from the street. Despite being framed in the light as beautifully as Ingrid Bergman or Eva Marie Saint, when she turned around Abe was shocked by how haggard a twelve year old face could look.
Elly’s breaths were shallow and quick. “Mr. de Spada?”
“That’s me. And you’re the Watkins girl, yes?”
Elly looked back out the window, staring at nothing. “Yes.”
“What brings you here, Elly?”
She stood there quietly for a long time, deciding what to say. Hoping to prod her along, Abe added, “You know there’s a very large reward for returning you to your–“
“NO!” Elly spun around, her eyes locked on his. She walked over to him. Nervously, she took his hand and confessed, “My parents have Maria. She’s in our basement. She…” At this the young girl’s voice broke off and she hugged de Spada, her breathing deep and labored.
“Shhhhh….It’s okay. You’re safe here.” Abe let Elly cry without speaking, but after a few minutes he needed to bring her into focus. Maria, presumably, was Maria Richardson, a girl who had gone missing about two weeks before Elly. Abe’s line of work was more to do with cheating spouses than kidnappings – these were cases for the police – but everyone in the county knew about Maria and Elly. And here was one of the two telling him the location of the other. There was no choice but to listen; today’s jilted housewife would have to wait.
“Elly,” he said, “why don’t you start from the beginning?”
So she did. Abe was a man who had heard and seen it all, so he didn’t flinch when she recounted the details: How when her parents left for the store she’d locked the door for the very first time in her life, afraid that whoever took Maria might come for her; how she’d seen Maria’s mother that afternoon on the news, her fingertips sparkling with blue rhinestones because that was the way Maria had decorated her nails before she went missing; how she’d heard noises coming from the basement that didn’t sound like the usual creaks and groans of an old farmhouse; how she had the courage to investigate because it wasn’t dark yet and the sun made everything glow golden. She told de Spada of the coal room in the basement, how she was only ever allowed to enter it once, and how the golden twilight illuminated the space between the door and the floor…until two feet stepped into the light, dividing it; then a hand slapped against the door as if the person on the other side were catching their balance; then the light shifted again as the person crouched to the ground, weak and feeble, and reached a hand beneath the door. It was a small hand. Two of its fingertips were missing, but the others were instantly recognizable because four or five blue rhinestones still clung to them with the same desperation that Maria felt clinging to her own life.
“You’re certain it was her?” Abe asked.
“Yes, but even if I’m wrong, does it matter: there is a mutilated prisoner in our basement. Even if by some chance it isn’t Maria I can’t go back there.”
De Spada couldn’t disagree with that logic. “Don’t you worry, Elly. We’re going to keep you safe. I’m looking into this.”