Thursday, December 20, 2007

Racing to Dixon in a Stolen Chrysler

I once traveled from Chicago to Dixon, Mississippi in less than seven hours. The hardest part of it all was getting free of the Windy City. I’d been attending a presentation by Margaret Sanger in the grand ballroom of the Marquette Building and yes, I can hear your gasp of incredulity all the way from my highback easychair, honey. It was a rousing speech, as you can imagine, though it really was a bit dated in that the old gal couldn’t let the damned albatross of suffrage loose from around her neck and we dames had been voting en masse for more than a decade and a half! Still, she looked stunning in an arctic fox wrap and had good things to say about the plight of the female in the political arena, so there you go.

Rising from my seat in the midst of her speech was nothing short of scandalous and it’s not as if I’d have gone unnoticed, darlings. I am Vivian Delacourt, after all. Usually, though, I find that if I dab at my eyes with a handkerchief, appear distraught, folks will give me a wide berth and have the class to avoid inquiring about my condition upon whence they see me again.

From there, I hotwired a Chrysler (not nearly as difficult as it sounds, my bunnies) and raced to Dixon as if my foot was made of bronze. Still, with the exception of a single stop at the powder room in some godawful roadside slop bin just across the Mississippi state line, I wasted no time in getting to my destination, which is a compliment not typically enjoyed by a town as primitive as Dixon. You see, my delicate petals, I am quite capable of getting to where I'm needed most, when and however I might choose to get there.

And so when Zinnia alerted me to the unexpected kill we were to execute (pardon the pun, but even my sides are atingle at that one), my mind went immediately into the zone in which it functions best. A sudden dinner party and only seven things in the cooler, three of which are dairy. An eyeliner that has been mismarked as water resistant, and I'm trapped in a downpour just outside the Russian embassy. An admirer recognizes me as I’m slipping a set of bloody arm-length gloves into the mouth of a roaring pizza oven. When crisis hits, I’m at the top of my game. But even I wasn’t ready for this one. What does one do when her dear friend, her partner in espionage, approaches her in hysterics, thrusting at her bosom an assignment scratched on a compact mirror? And what acrobatics does that person's mind do, when she realizes that the target is none other than the highest-ranking official in the treasury department— AKA, your dear friend’s husband?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Boilermakers and Butter Cookies

My head was like a split walnut this morning. Too many boilermakers and butter cookies with Zinnia last night. Oh, it's been years since the two of us have been able to flit from nightspot to cafe like any old pair of girlfriends might do, not a care in the world except that which involves an irritated beau at home or a badly needed dose of penicillin. But then I'm getting to Amsterdam and I've no time for that night now, dears.

I had a moment of concern last night, sometime around 2:12 in the a.m., as Zinnia and I made our ways from the rear exit of the Fuzzy Chesterfield. A vagrant stood lurking just beyond the lamp, next to the refuse bin. It was Zinnia who noticed that the dirt on his face beaded peculiarly under the gently falling mist, an unlikelihood for a non-oil based smudge. “If that man's face has been filthied by anything other than a stagehand, then this is my real hair color,” Zinnia chirped, running her long fingernails through her tight flip. “Tell me you don't see that.” I rolled my eyes at her. “Of course I see it, darling,” I said. “It's simply that I care not in the slightest.” I explained to her that, while the man was certainly not who he appeared to be, he was nothing more than a plant, a lookout, a sullied set of eyes. “He might even be ours,” I said. It was his hands that were the tip off. His left, resting on the edge of the bin, the right, scratching the beard that was not a beard. He was nowhere near a gun or any other weapon, unless he was prepared to throw the trash heap at as. “He's a pawn, my little blossom.”

There's a song that I once heard, and I first heard it emanating from the washroom of the west wing of Ambassador Chao's mansion, a modest palace situated in the east end of Prague. It was the tail end of the Harvest Moon Ball, a nondescript Cambodian celebration in which most of the usual dignitaries had arrived dressed in Earth tone colors and adorned with accessories fashioned from the local produce of the region. It was really quite silly, I must say and I only participated because it's my duty to so such things. No sense in creating an international incident over one's ego. Again, I digress and my cheeks warm at the admission of such a fault. Pooh, pooh.

The song was a simple melody, one that I knew I'd heard as a child, but for the life of me could not place. While the lyrics were indecipherable, enunciated with a grossly thick Italian accent, the voice was heavenly, trilling like a tiny songbird who longs to be released from her gilded cage. Maybe it was the champagne clouding my brain, perhaps it was the melancholic nostalgia taking over, but I suddenly found myself swaying in time with the music, dancing as a sedated ballerina, eyes closed, tears streaming down my smooth face. Oh, how I'd longed to be in the arms of my mama, her thick limbs intertwining my spindly frame like an octopus's. Perhaps that's not the most appetizing of similes, but you must understand, dear one. When one is never at home, when the greatest thrill in one's life is that the next bed might be the one that allows you a full night's sleep, sometimes the only thing that allows that sleep to happen at all is the faint memory of your mother's dimpled smile and her gentle kiss.

Zinnia has arrived with a bouquet of daffodils, which is strange because I didn't know they were even in season. She has been crying, her eyes are all apuff and crimson, like red-ringed croquet balls. “What has made you so distraught, my dear flower?” I ask her. But she'll say nothing. She simply looks around her, takes out her compact, flips it open and hands it to me. “Perhaps you should clean the mirror first,” she whispers.” Holding it to my mouth, I breathe a cloud of minty breath onto my reflection and the mirror fogs over, revealing the tinily written message that she has scribed for me. “Oh mercy,” I intone, quickly wiping it clean with the cuff of my sleeve. “I'm going to need my cherry lipstick.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Zinnia, Chocolate Truffles and Clotted Cream

I had the most divine tea this morning. I'm not much for tea, neither the drink, nor the social ritual. I find that it's less about the foodstuffs and more of the pomp and circumstance. Nobody really cares about the tiny chocolates and biscuits and clotted cream. Oh don't get me wrong, my bunnies. I've dined with clutches of hens who would no sooner be seen placing a single dollop of food into their beaks than they would be caught changing the oil in their husband's Packard. But get them around a circular lace and doily covered table, drape their conversations in a background of a lively orchestral movement and the fingers snatch up the delicacies like the darting tongues of toads perched around a fly-covered dung heap.

Again, dear reader, I beg your patience while I continue to stray from the subject. The tea. This morning. So divine, I repeat. While I sat sipping a burl-strong cup of strong was it, you wonder? Well, the first taste of it catapulted my mind back to my week spent wandering the slums of New Delhi in the midst of the “Golden Fingers” mission, back in May of 1942. I was one of four Black Cats, lively, coquettish, yet vicious dames planted clandestinely amid the squalor of the local market. We'd been each painted a sultry shade of chocolate, our hair dyed beyond black, and placed with operatives working lockstep with Roosevelt, via Churchhill. We'd been forbidden to sleep the entire week, each of us expected to keep our luminescent eyes peeled for one man, a rail-thin smuggler with only the telltale mark of one earlobe longer than the other, the tip of the shorter in the shape of the southwest coast of Ireland. I'd had my meticulous sketches in my robe pocket and the one thing meant to keep me awake. Tea. Not a steaming, tasty cup, mind you, but a pouch of raw leaves that was kept stuffed between my cheek and gums, marinating my mouth, the tar-like juice continuing down my gullet like an everlasting cocaine infusion. It was only when I'd spotted the target, when I'd chased him down through the market square with a quickness and ferocity I'd not once felt in my young life, and the three other Cats pounced from darkened storefronts, did I realize just how the power of this tea had augmented all senses. All senses, that is, except that of restraint. The poor man. By the time the the Golden Fingers had been extracted from a place no proper lady should ever have to venture (without the benefit of gloves, a tiny dose of morphine and/or the compensation of a fabulous mink stole), I'm dismayed to say that what was left of the man was not fit for display even in most morgues. It was shameful, I'm embarrassed to say and worst of all, not one of us Cats would be willing to take responsibility for the carnage. “Those aren't my claw marks,” mewled Kitten #124. “My incisors are set further apart than those puncture wounds,” claimed Kitten #57. Pathetic. And, it would take another week to wean us off of the addiction of Indian tea and even then, I never saw Kitten #278 again.

So where was I? Oh, the English tea. Yes, it was most delightful and the tea itself was delicious. Hint of lavender and essence of currant. One would never think that the two would go together so pleasantly, but they really do. And my friend Zinnia (her mother was a gardener, bless her heart) has never looked better. I'd not seen her since our days of Nannette Cosmetics sales. Oh, those were good times. Traipsing door-to-door through suburban Los Angeles, capes flowing in the warm, eucalyptus-scented breeze, applying lipsticks and rouges, scouting for young, Black Kittens to join the brigade. “It takes a special dame to pull the trigger,” Zinnia had told me and this I already knew. “You can see it in the eyes, the calmness of the lips, in the steadiness of the hands.” If a gal could sit through a Black Cat makeover, if the feeling was right, she just might be asked to be a kitten. Just might.

Oh, Zinnia. The red of your hair may be a facade, but the warmth in your heart is as genuine as the cream on my biscuit.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

One Foggy Night in London

Walter and I have sequestered ourselves in a delightful inn off Whitehall Place, just around the bend from the Horseguards and the banqueting house. It smells of lemons and lavender and the walls are covered with quaint oil paintings depicting such traditions as foxhunting, Sunday tea and, (I must assume this is a tradition since there are two framed visages of it) topless woman holding cornucopias filled with autumnal fruits.

What they say about London fog is oh so true. The gray dampness hangs in the air with the thickness of smoldering cigars in a backroom poker game. As I walk along the darkness of the square with Walter, my dainty hand hugging the inside crook of his elbow, I thank angels on high that I’m not searching the shadows for a target, sniffing out a killer before he or she can take me out. Just the same, the slightest movement in a doorway, the squall of an alley cat roused from his hiding spot puts my arm hairs to attention. Were it not for my steely reserve and dedication to genius over gut, I’d have likely (protectively, of course) shoved Walter into the Thames by now.

As Walter and I sat in a candlelit cafĂ©, tucked in a cozy window seat of the tiny eatery, I saw something that elicited an unsettling knot in my stomach. It wasn’t blatant; it wasn’t as if Tallulah Bankhead had entered, singing an aria La Traviata dressed in lederhosen while holding a glockenspiel. But it was eerie nonetheless. A woman, substantially older than myself and grandly larger, a ridiculous hat upon her head with the plumage of some poor, unfortunate bird of prey spewing from her head like a plaza fountain passed. I noticed the accessories most pointedly: a diamond-encrusted hat pin pinned beneath the jowls of her massive face, and forest green gloves in startling contrast with the garish plaid of her wool-blend overcoat. As she sauntered past the picture window, she turned her unattractive face toward me and gave a quick glance. It was a haughty glance, one that suggested that she’d had a previous encounter with me and it had not only been unsatisfactory, but we’d left with her yearning to have the last word. And this was her chance to do so. I paused mid-sip; in my right hand, a glass of chardonnay tilted at precisely 45 degrees and in my left, the polished bone handle of a three-inch throwing knife, tucked beneath the seam of my blouse. Silly of me. With her size and obviously overdone ensemble, I’d have been able to reassemble a German MG 42 machine gun in the time it would have taken her to produce so much as a throwing star. All was well in the end. In actuality, she was likely nothing more than a melancholic admirer, a wallflower taking in a sprite of beauty and sophistication that had eluded her for her entire lifetime. While I may not empathize, I sympathize.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lips Like Sugar, the Sweetness of a Kiss

My driver, Miles, hastened to inform me upon my return to the car that I'd had a smear of blood along my jaw. As usual, one can't get the tiniest of details past dear Miles. He may not be one for the ladies, but he can spot an out-of-place hair, a brooch slightly askew, the faintest of powder residue at the base of the neck. I suppose if one's eyes aren't glued to a broad's gams or her quakers he can find it in him to notice the important things, those things which she's really spent time working to showcase, not cover up. Anyway, I collected my itchy gray suit and swapped it out for the pale rose number I'd left the party in. As we passed over the Seine, I executed a nice flip of the wrist and the cardboard hatbox which contained not a hat at all sailed gently out the window and into the cold, black waters below.

I love arriving and leaving Paris at night. There's nothing like the sight of the Eiffel Tower lit up like a giant rocket. Is there nothing more French than that which is so ostentatious it puts all surrounding structures, grand and regal in their centuries-oldness, to absolute shame? If I were French, I feel I would do that every chance I got.

Walter asked me where I'd run off to the night of the party. "One minute you were there and the next you were gone," he lamented, his shiny, bald head reflecting the lights over the promenade as we walked to our hotel. "It was women's trouble," I told him, once again. I swear, darlings, in my years of training with the Chat Noir--sorry, dears; you can take the girl from France, but...well, you know. The "Black Cats" trained me well. Why, I could kill a man twelve different ways, standing three inches from him and not so much as break a sweat. But put me on the spot; ask me the same question you've asked countless times over the past, and I can't come up with a creative answer to save my life. I suppose I stick with the tried and true because it's the one thing I know Walter will not pursue with the slightest bit of interest. "Woman's trouble." I do declare, the man must think I have the innards of a working clock tower down there, the trouble I seem to constantly have with it.

Speaking of which...we're off to London. Finally, an actual vacation. A simple meeting with my dear Mr. Churchill. I cannot wait; we've not spoken since those weeks underground during the blitz. "Winnie the Church" I call him, but certainly not in public. I do have some class, after all.

Friday, December 7, 2007

One missed shot, one dead-on

Good gravy, my mother used to say. It's not like I've never been to Paris in summer, so what on Earth was I thinking this time? Sometimes, I even surprise myself with my lack of foresight when it comes to combining delicious, high fashion with stealth, crucial for invisible stalking and quick escapes. For all my beauty, experience and divine intuition, I can be a dumb broad at times. I can say that; you oughtn't dare.

Imagine how a sheep must feel, layered under such density of fragrant, itchy wool. Now imagine that same sheep galloping (is that what a sheep would do?) full force in 90 degree heat with equal humidity. Got it? Well, that's me, dears. 90 degrees and I'm as moist as the underside of a cow's tongue. I'm running like a madwoman in and out of the Rue Fromentin dressed in a delightfully smart, but completely impractical, charcoal gray wool two-piece. Even my elbows are sweating.

I could see the colonel from 30 meters away, his smoldering Chesterfield tip shining like a beacon in the black night. The perfect target. It was as obvious as the cigarette plugging his mouth that he was as spent as a schoolboy's pocket change at the circus. It wasn't the dull red glow of the bare light bulb in the doorway that gave it away, though a dame less experienced than myself would have needed that clue to ascertain that he'd been doing a discharge of his own but minutes earlier. I looked up at the tiny balcony over his head, making sure his rented whore wasn't swooning her painted face out the window, longing for one last look at this respectable gent who had, just minutes earlier, been most unrespectable to her. The drapes were drawn, the light behind them barely imperceptible.

It had been some time since I'd used such a tiny weapon, and an old one at that. French manufactured, a remnant of the war it was a Luger Parabellum Semi-Automatic Pistol, small enough to fit neatly in my hose and almost small enough to slip through my damp, now swollen fingers. A semi-automatic. It was a far cry from the standard revolver that had been my best girlfriend stateside, but when in France...

I always hate it when I miss the first time. I can say that without hesitation, because it seldom happens. A girl has to be precise, intentional in all she does and killing is no exception. And I should have taken him out with one bullet, that I cannot deny. He was holding stock-still, the burning cigarette was nothing short of a waving flag showing me precisely where to aim. Straight ahead, six inches inward.

It was the cat. Why is it I find that, more than anything, the cat is always to blame? The damned feline, crafty, self-involved, needy one second and dismissing the next. It was a mangy, overly affectionate thing that had worked its way between my tingling ankles and I must have thought it to be a common sewer rat. It was in the Pigalle, after all, so it's not an unreasonable assumption. And I'm not typically startled of rats. I've communed when them out of necessity. Once, I hurled two with remarkable precision at a common thug, corralled an entire colony of them into a primary school as a diversionary tactic. I've even eaten one, in a particular moment of desperation on which I hate to elaborate (suffice to say, it involved a lost weekend in Sicily, a mistakenly consumed bottle of absinthe, a hog tying and a frighteningly dark abandoned well). So it wasn't the cat, per se, that frightened me, it was the unscheduled intrusion on my person.

One thing about a semi-automatic pistol that is good, is that a lady can fire it with little effort whatsoever. The bad thing is that a lady, startled by a damned cat, can fire it with little effort.

The first shot was not nearly six inches to the right as I'd planned. It was more...about three inches. Just at the tip of the lips. It must have startled him incredibly because he didn't even call out. He just pulled back, drew his hands to his lips and sat down hard on the sidewalk. A light turned on more brightly in the whore's room above him. "Merde," I whispered. French, I know, but when in France....

It would have to be done within seconds; I had no time for theatrics or a dramatic montage backed by swelling music. I kicked off my shoes (a welcome move, actually) and padded down the stone walkway. I wish I could sketch for you the look of shock on the Colonel's face. Was it because he saw that I was a dame, that the still smoking pistol in my hand was the one responsible for taking off is upper lip? Was it that he had realized that his last moments on Earth had been spent with the likes of the syphilis dish upstairs? Or was it that he recognized me? Saw the glamorous wife of Ambassador Delacourt, standing over him in hose and dress, directing the barrel of a Luger Parabellum Semi-Automatic between his eyes? In all my years, I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with that look of desperate confusion and nauseated realization. A quick, gentle jerk and his traitorous brain decorates the alcove of the Rouge Boudoir.

Now, I have a party to get back to. I'm receiving the toast.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A peek of sun through the draperies of rain

I'm slipping through the alleyways of the Pigalle section of Paris. The uneven surface of the walkways are positively hellish on my heels, but this is precisely why I spend hours developing my calves to the sizes of grapefruits. Why would a woman of my class, of my demeanor be lurking around doorways already occupied by the Prostituée kind? My coif is a mess and my legs feel as though they have been clubbed by a burly fly fisherman, as if my gams had been caught steelhead. Walter, my dear, uninformed husband, is preoccupied with the diplomats' ball currently full-on at the Hotel Du Grand Veneur. I was to have been at his side, smiling politely, daintily offering my gloved hand as the dutiful wife, hob-nobbing with generals, prime ministers and presidents of petroleum and gold bullion-rich countries alike. And I'd planned to do just that--hoped to, actually. But a tiny chirp, like that of a goldfinch tucked smartly away in my handbag, roused me from my highbrow delirium. A mission. I'd known it was coming; I'm not completely obtuse, dear reader. That's precisely why Mr. Eisenhower phoned my husband himself, imploring him to attend this facade of a party. It's why I'm here in Paris at all. Someone must die. Someone important, influential. Dangerous. And I'm the dame to do it.