“Bit Player” by Jim Shaffer

I sat in a small bar just off Broadway somewhere in the fifties. It was my first time there. A cold snap had descended on the city, and I just wanted to sit some place warm, relax, and have a drink. Mellow jazz crept from the jukebox. It could have been Ben Webster.

It had been a rough day, three auditions for parts I really didn’t want. They’d been nothing parts, bit parts, but I needed to keep busy, and like everyone else, I needed to eat. Grab what you can when you can. My motto.

After I sat down, I realised I knew the bartender, not well, but enough to say hello. We’d seen each other at some auditions. Maybe given we both shared the same acting bug, he topped up the double scotch I’d been nursing, more than once, for free. I wasn’t sure if it was out of camaraderie or pity. I wasn’t sure it mattered. Either way, the glass was filled.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Carl.”

“Jack.” We shook.

“Got any work on?” I asked. I placed the glass back on the bar.

He leaned his forearms on the back of the bar to my left, his clasped hands suspended over its surface. A prayerful pose. The saint ready to confess to the lies all actors tell.

“Got a bit part in a commercial. I was the guy in the back, smiling. You?”

“Not even smiling. Went to a few auditions in the last couple weeks. Heard nothing. I’m wishin’ an’ hopin’, like the song says.”

The conversation died on the spot. Shot in the back. No blood. Carl pushed off and moved on down the bar, wiping at water marks left by used empty glasses.

I pulled a copy of Back Stage from my pocket and laid it flat on the bar to catch the spill from the dome light overhead. I flipped the pages to the open auditions, the cattle call section. I was an actor looking for work. If you asked me, I’d say I was an up-and-coming actor. But honestly, I hoped you didn’t ask. I wouldn’t have to lie.

Off-off Broadway had offered me a small part in a play that closed after ten days. I think ten people saw it. None of them wrote reviews. In my line of work, if a door cracked open, you squeezed through, no matter how small the crack.

My claim to fame was a bit part I got in a De Niro film. I’m not a tough guy like Bob is, so I played the victim. I learned I was good at playing victims. I knew just how to act stupid enough. I rode that stupid-victim horse for as long as I could after that, dropping Bob’s name every chance I got. I wasn’t proud. I was like the bum in the park throwing bread crumbs to the pigeons, hoping somehow the deed would redeem me, and the pigeons would shit on somebody else. Meanwhile, I sat sipping my drink, circling job prospects on the magazine’s pristine pages with my stubby pencil, drawing little circles of hope around each stellar offer.

Hunched over the bar, fingers cramped, I’d lost track of time. I sat back in my bar chair, stretching my arms straight up above my head. The clock over the back of the bar said it was close to the tail end of the evening.

I turned around. There were only two other patrons in the bar. They sat on the same bench in a booth in the back, oblivious to the rest of us suffering souls, concentrating instead on their shared wit and charm and smiles, highlighted by the occasional caress and kiss. They were the lucky ones, still warm and living in oblivion.

I turned around and faced the bar. “Carl, can I get another?” I lifted my glass in Carl’s direction.

“I’ll pay this time.” I laid some bills on the bar.

Carl brought the bottle over and filled the glass.

“Slow night,” I said.

“Yankees are playing.” He set the bottle on the bar. He didn’t touch my money.

I reached for my drink as the door opened. We both turned to look. I left my drink on the bar and watched. Carl retreated further down the bar.

A couple walked in. The woman took the lead and headed straight toward the far end of the bar. She was blonde, fortyish, tall in high heels, maybe five-ten or a little more. I preferred tall women, even older tall women. Her hair was done up in a French twist, a little foreign and exotic, the Inger Stevens look in her day. When she glided past me, her solid breasts swayed against the silky fabric of her royal blue cocktail dress cut mid-thigh. I figured she wore no bra. I imagined, just a camisole. I imagined lots of things. Could be she liked the way it felt, or maybe she just liked the edge it gave her over us mere mortals. Either way, I didn’t mind. I watched her pull a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and slap them on the top of the bar. Then she slipped out of her black top coat. It looked like cashmere. On her, it had to be. She flung it over the back of an empty bar chair before taking a seat next to it. She lit a cigarette, tilted her head back and blew a stream of blue smoke at the ceiling. At the row of lights over the bar, I watched it billow, then disappear into the darkness overhead. I peered into the darkness. I thought I saw storm clouds and a flash of lightning. Maybe I imagined it. Maybe it was just the smoke and the lighting. Maybe I saw nothing.

The man had stopped at the end of the bar near the door. He hadn’t followed the woman. He’d removed his coat. While I’d been distracted, he’d hung it over the back of a chair to my left. He rapped an impatient knuckle on the bar top. Carl finished drying and stacking some shot glasses then came to the end of the bar.

“Two vodka martinis. Onions in one, olives in the other. And hurry it up.”

Carl said nothing as he walked behind the bar in an even pace down to a shelf holding a row of bottles. The man dragged his coat off the back of the chair and passed behind me. He bumped the back of my chair harder than he needed to. I jerked around to face him. He stumbled to a stop. He swayed. A slight smile played on his lips as he turned toward me. He gave me a slow blink with watery eyes. He looked a little high. He’d already had a few. He said nothing. Instead, he raised his hand like a traffic cop. Then he turned away and sauntered past the row of bar chairs towards the woman seated around the end of the bar.

“Do you have a choice of vodka, sir?” Carl barely contained his sarcasm.

“Anything Russian. If you have Russian vodka here.” He was less subtle than Carl.

The man slouched out of his coat, lifted it up by the collar so it hung straight then folded it slowly over the back of a bar chair. He moved with the deliberate care of a drunk. He patted the coat like it was the head of his favorite pet before falling into a seat next to the woman, jostling the chair that held his coat. Unnoticed, the coat slithered to the floor. He teased a cigarette from her pack and after a few failed attempts, lit it with her lighter. They didn’t speak. They didn’t look at one another. I figured they were the typical happily married couple.

Carl finished mixing their drinks and carried them on a tray down to the end of the bar where the two sat. He placed a napkin in front of each of them.

“Who gets the olives?”

They answered together. “I do/She does.” They agreed on something.

He set the olive martini in front of the woman, the onion in front of the man. The man sipped his and made a sour face. The woman left hers untouched. Carl asked them if they wanted to run a tab. The woman looked at the man. He took a drag on his cigarette.

“No tab. One lousy martini’s enough,” he said.

She shook her head, reached into her coat pocket, and pulled out her clutch purse. She snapped it open on the bar. She leafed through some bills. As she extracted two and handed them to Carl, she gave him a big smile.

“This should cover it. Keep the change.”

He looked at the bills as he took them.

“Thank you. That’s very generous.”

She spoke as she put her purse on top of the bar. “My pleasure.” She turned and smiled again at Carl. He nodded and turned to go.

“The pleasure’s mine, not hers.” The man spoke. He drained his glass but left the baby onions.

Carl stopped and turned back around to face the couple. “Excuse me?”

The man drew on his cigarette and spoke again through the smoke. “It’s my money, junior. She just gave you her allowance.”

“You’re a cheap fucking idiot. Just shut up!” She spit the words at him. She picked up her drink and took a sip.

He turned to her. “Ha! You just gave the guy forty bucks for two drinks!”

“I know.” She held the drink with two hands, her elbows resting on the bar.

“And I’m the fucking idiot?” He jabbed his finger at his chest.

“I know.”

“You smart-ass bitch!”

She threw her drink in his face. He slapped her hard. It would have knocked her off the bar chair, but she’d feinted like a prize fighter. It weakened the blow. She either expected it or was used to it.

Carl lifted the bar flap to the woman’s right and came up behind the man. I slid of my stool and stood. I took a step toward the man. I wasn’t a big guy. I was just back-up. The couple in back slid out of their booth and hugged the wall all the way to the door.

“Hey mister. We don’t do that kind of thing in here. You’re gonna have to leave,” Carl said. Carl spoke to the woman keeping his eyes on the man. “You ok, ma’am?”

“I’m fine,” she answered.

The woman reached again for her purse and took out a mirror and some tissue. Her hair had come undone. She pushed a strand off her face and dabbed at the corner of her lip and her eye. There was blood and a small glistening tear.

I took another step toward the man. He gave me a wise guy grin. Then his face went slack. He sucked one more time on his cigarette then smashed it out in the ashtray. He pushed away from the bar and stood. He looked at Carl then back at me.

“What’re you two gonna do? Fuck me up?”

“Just get out of here. You look fucked up enough.” Carl said.

My mouth felt brave.

“I hear guys who slap women suffer from penis envy,” my mouth said.

The man managed a small smile. Carl and the woman stared at me wide-eyed.

“Don’t believe everything you hear, sonny boy,” the man said, “I got a hard-on for you.”

He grabbed his crotch and took a step toward me. I held my ground. From the back, Carl stepped closer to the man. The man turned and stared at Carl. Carl snatched the heavy ashtray off the bar. The butts tumbled to the floor. The ash floated, settling on the man’s dark coat like dirty bits of snow. The man bent down and lifted his coat off the floor. He shook it till the ash floated free then turned back to face me. I felt like De Niro.

“You see this?” I pulled my stubby pencil from my pocket, holding it up in front of the man. I jammed it between my fingers, the point sticking out. I made a fist.

“I’ve got lead in my pencil too. Still up for it?”

The man didn’t answer. He swayed in place, staring at me. Calculating.

I repeated the question. “You still up for it?”

It was us against him. Two against one. He hesitated. He looked back at Carl then at me. He decided.

“Let’s get out of here, Sylvia.”

She stared down the length of the bar, sucking on a cigarette. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She spoke without looking at him, blowing a stream of blue smoke out over the bar.

He folded his coat over his arm and leisurely headed for the door. “Suit yourself. Bitch.”

Carl followed behind. I stepped back as the man passed me, my arm cocked, the pencil point dull but lethal in anyone’s fist but mine. I watched the two of them all the way to the door. The man yanked the door open and stepped out into the night. The door banged against the wall. Carl caught it on the bounce and pushed it closed. He turned and faced the bar then walked toward me.

“Thanks Jack. Where’d you learn that stuff about a pencil?”

“I improvised.”

“Guess all those acting lessons paid off,” Carl said.

He continued down to where the woman sat. I followed.

“Are you ok, ma’am?” I stood next to Carl.

“Yes. I’m fine. Thanks to you both.”

Her smile was crooked, her lip swollen from the slap. Carl had walked through the bar pass and was headed for the bottle shelf.

“Carl, don’t you owe the lady a drink?”

Carl was pulling bottles off the shelf. “I’m way ahead of you.”

I took the liberty of taking the man’s bar chair and sat down next to the woman.

“Hope you don’t mind,” I said. She took her compact mirror and another tissue from her purse along with a small flat jar of foundation and a gold tube of lipstick.

“Not at all. Sit.” I sat. At that point, I would’ve begged, rolled over and played dead, or curled up in her lap. All she had to do was ask.

While I watched, she applied foundation to the corner of her mouth, smoothing it out to her satisfaction. Then she ran the lipstick lightly across her lips in a way that made them look thinner. It helped disguise the swelling. She knew how to make the best of a bad situation, or at least hide it. She was good at it. She’d had practice.

Carl arrived, making a ceremony out of offering her a new napkin and a fresh vodka martini with an extra olive. He’d thought to bring me my whisky and had freshened that as well. Our bartender was a swell guy. He’d even brought himself a whiskey. We lifted our glasses and Carl toasted.

“To a damsel in distress and the knights who rescued her.” An actor couldn’t miss a chance for a little drama. Even melodrama.

“I’ll drink to that,” she said. Carl tossed his back. The woman and I sipped ours.

“If you need anything else, let me know.”

“Will do,” I answered.

Just as he turned to go, the door opened and two guys strolled in. They headed straight for the middle of the bar and took two stools.

“Give us two beers, Carl,” one guy said.

“The Yankees lost. It wasn’t pretty,” said the other guy.

They shuffled onto two bar chairs. Carl grabbed two glasses and started to draw the beers.

I reached for my pack of cigarettes. She’d already lit one. Smoke leaked from her mouth as she spoke to me.

“I want to thank you again for rescuing me, the damsel I’ve become.” There was a smile in her voice. She hadn’t missed Carl’s attempt at drama. “That bit with the pencil was impressive.”

“You’re welcome. I just did what was called for.” I lit one of my own cigarettes. She lifted her drink off the bar and turned in her chair toward me.

“I like that in a man. I think it’s about time we met. My name’s Sylvia.” She held up her glass.

I picked my drink up off the bar. “I’m Jack.” We tapped glasses. We each took a sip of our drinks.

“Who was that guy anyway?” I asked.

“My husband.”

“You’re happily married then.”

“Couldn’t you tell?”

She looked away. After setting her drink on the bar, she picked up her cigarette from the ashtray. My eyes strayed down to her crossed legs. Her cocktail dress had ridden up high enough to reveal the tops of her sheer stockings and a band of white, exposed flesh. Pointing toward me, one dark high-heeled shoe dangled off her foot. The other hooked over the foot rest under her stool. A Simon and Garfunkel tune danced through my head. I took a drag on my cigarette and looked at her in profile. A strand of hair had fallen to the side of her face, the curl on the end glowing in the overhead light. Her right elbow rested on the edge of the bar, and her arm bent toward her mouth where two fingers held a cigarette between her lips. She inhaled then blew a stream of smoke up toward the light. Again, I glanced up into the darkness overhead. The storm I thought I’d seen before had passed. She turned her head toward me.

“So Jack, what do you do when you’re not rescuing damsels in distress?”

I reached for my drink so I wouldn’t have to meet her eyes. “I’m an actor.”

She smiled. “You should have said, I’m an up-and-coming actor.” She was hot and smart. She took a sip of her martini.

“I didn’t want to have to lie. We just met.” She sat forward in her chair, holding her hand over her mouth to keep the last sip of her drink inside. Then she laughed.

“Honesty. A little naïve, but I like it.” There was still a smile in her voice as she raised her glass toward me. I raised mine and we drank.

“I’m glad you like it. I only tell the truth if I think I can get away with it.”

“You are naïve. Most people lie if they think they can get away with it.”

“It’s probably why I’m just an up-and-coming actor.”

She put down her drink and reached into her purse. She extracted what looked like a credit card holder. Folding back a flap, she slipped a card out of a plastic sleeve and handed it to me. I took the card as she wedged the holder back in her purse. I read the card.

Her name was Sylvia Nichols. Sylvia Nichols was a casting agent specialising in TV and films. Maybe lady luck was peeking over my shoulder. Maybe fortune was smiling upon me. The two of us, Sylvia and I, maybe we just had tonight. Maybe I watched too many late-night movies.

Both sides of the card were covered in stars, a little overdone, but I got the point. Below the description was a list of actors who used her services. I recognised the names. It was an A-list. There were no contact details on the card, no phone number, no office address.

“You want to add your name to the list?” she asked. I studied the card again.

“It’s a great list. I know all these names.”

“So?”

“What actor wouldn’t want his name on that list?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

She turned her whole body toward me. I glanced down. Her legs were uncrossed. Above her stockinged legs and between them, a pale blue triangle peeked out like a misshapen moon slipping from behind a cloud. By its light, I imagined I could see everything, even the future.

“Here’s what you have to do,” she continued, “Tell me where you’ve auditioned and where you’re going to. I’ll get hold of the production companies and obtain a copy of your audition tapes. We’ll take it from there.” She stubbed out her cigarette.

I was wary–empty promises, every actor’s nightmare. She put everything back in her purse. She was getting ready to leave. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity if one was there. Grab what you can. I pulled out my stubby pencil and made a quick list on the napkin of the places I’d auditioned in the last few weeks. She looked at the list.

“I know all these production houses,” she said.

She put the napkin in her purse and reached for her drink. She took a sip.

“OK then, how do I get in touch with you?” I held up her card, flipping it between my fingers. “It’s a bit light with that information.”

“It’s intentional. I can’t have every up-and-coming actor bugging me, now can I? I’ll get in touch with you. Your details will be on your audition tapes.”

I finished my drink.

“Maybe you won’t like what you see. Maybe you won’t call. My life is filled with disappointment.”

She laughed and put her hand on my knee.

“Don’t worry. I’ll call you. Anyway, I owe you. Call it a debt of gratitude.”

I believed her. Her hand on my knee was a nice touch.

“OK. I’ll wait for your call.”

She looked at her watch. Then she slid off her bar chair, stood up, and straightened her dress.

“Do you think you could get your bartender friend to call a cab for me going to the Upper East Side?”

“Sure.”

I helped her with her coat. When she reached for her purse, I walked up the end of the bar where Carl was standing.

“Carl, can you call a cab to go to the Upper East Side?”

A few minutes later, the taxi pulled to the curb and blew its horn. I opened the taxi door. She stepped off the curb and fell back into the taxi’s seat. She leaned forward and looked up at me.

“I’ll be in touch, Jack. Don’t worry.”

“OK. Good night, Sylvia.”

“Night.”

I watched the taxi pull away from the curb wondering if I’d ever hear from her again.

A few weeks passed without a word from Sylvia. Casting agent to the stars. Right. I’d alerted my messaging service that she might be calling. I kept checking with them until they got annoyed.

I’d gone to some auditions in the weeks that followed since I’d seen her. Luckily most of them were with the same companies I’d listed on the napkin. At least she’d have fresh tapes to look at. I stopped by the bar every few days to make sure she hadn’t been there. I filled Carl in on my tête-à-tête with Sylvia. I even showed him the business card she’d given me. He was a little peeved at first that I hadn’t put in a word for him, but he eventually came around, though he wasn’t as eager to top up my whiskeys. It was dog-eat-dog. Grab what you can.

At the tail end of the third week my messaging service called me. Sylvia had left a message.

“It says she’s holding a private audition.” the receptionist said.

“Where?” She cracked her gum.

“Where?” I repeated.

“Hold on. I’m trying to read what I wrote. OK. I got it. At her apartment.”

“When?” The gum cracked again.

“Ten tomorrow night.”

“The address?”

“Listen, stop by and pick up a hard copy. It’s easier. She says some other stuff. I’ve got other calls coming in. OK? Bye.” She hung up. I could still hear her gum cracking.

I arrived at the messaging service office a half hour later.

“It’s all there. Everything she said. I typed it up so you could read it. My handwriting is atrocious,” replied the receptionist. She cracked her gum a few more times.

I unfolded the message. The address was there. She’d even added she thought the part she had in mind was perfect for me.

“OK. Thanks.” I walked out of the office onto the street.

She’d assumed I’d be free tomorrow night at ten. It peeved me a little, but I got over it. She was a casting agent, a little like a God. Somehow I found it in my heart to forgive her if you can forgive a God.

 

At nine thirty the following night I crawled into a taxi and gave him the address. The interior was warm. I never liked the cold much. Beyond the lights and mist, the sky was black.

Sleet began to fall on the way up town, streaking past the street lights like tracer rounds. The driver turned on the wipers. They piled ice up at the edges of the windshield. I watched the traffic lights turn from red to green to yellow as we intersected the cross streets on Madison Avenue. We turned east on seventy-fourth street. We crossed Park Avenue. Before we got to Lexington, the cabbie pulled over. The even numbers were on the south side of the street. Ice pellets bounced off the roof of the cab, sounding like popping corn in a kettle. I paid the fare and stepped out of the cab.

Pulling up the collar of my coat, I watched the cab drift out of its space and head on down the street. I turned away from the street and faced the buildings. The cabbie had invested in a decent GPS. The building number I was looking for was illuminated above the door. She’d told me in the instructions she’d left there’d be no doorman. I should just ring the buzzer. There were three. I dragged my finger down the short list of names until I reached the surname on her business card. I pressed the button next to the name. I waited. I checked my watch. It was a few minutes before ten.

Then a voice came through the intercom speaker.

“Yes?” I recognised the voice.

“It’s Jack? Jack Berger?”

“I’ll buzz you in, Jack. It’s the top floor. Take the lift.”

The door buzzed. I pushed it open. It was solid and heavy. I held it with my foot.

“Thanks.” I called back into a dead intercom.

I pushed the door open all the way and took one step into a dimly lit vestibule. There was another door in front of me. It held two tall mottled glass panes and mounted along one side, an impressive brass push plate. The glass plate glowed a pale yellow. What little light there was shone through the two glass panes from the space on the other side of the door. A mat lay on the floor in front of the door. I politely wiped my feet. I pushed, and the door glided open.

I entered a high-ceilinged entrance hall. It was smaller than most churches I’d been in but not by much. A thick oriental carpet covered the floor all the way to the foot of a curving staircase. The source of light, a chandelier, hung on a long link chain from the vaulted ceiling. The lift was on the left at the foot of the stairway, indicated by a lighted sign over its door. I strode to the lift and pushed the call button. The doors opened immediately. Maybe Sylvia had sent it down for me? I stepped into the lift and punched the number three button, the highest number on the panel. The door closed. The lift jerked then began its ascent.

I exited the lift on the third floor, entering a short well-lighted hallway with a window at one end and a door at the other. Before I reached the door, it opened on the chain lock. Sylvia’s one eye stared out through the crack.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come. But actors are such a desperate lot, aren’t they?” I could see her knowing smile lift one corner of her mouth.

“Desperate is my middle name. Grab what you can. My motto,” I answered. She knew actors. She knew I’d come. She knew I’d kill to come.

The door closed. I heard the chain lock slide off and jangle against the back of the door. Then the door opened only part way. But enough.

Sylvia stood there in a floor length dressing gown, a rich emerald green, the dark color of the waxy leaves on a rose stem. It looked like satin or maybe silk. She placed her left hand on her hip. She raised her right arm and propped it high on the edge of the door. Her Gloria Graham pose. The robe gaped open. The audition was starting off the way I’d hoped. She wore a pale green charmeuse edged in beige lace running just over the curve of her breasts. There was no bra in play. Her nipples punctuated the lines and folds of the of the silky fabric. Below the charmeuse was a garter belt and panties in the same pale green. A matching set. The panties, a snug fit, gave away her contours and crevices. The garter belt held up a pair of beige stockings. They complemented the lace trim.

“Aren’t you going to come in? The audition can’t start without you.” She pushed the door open wider and stepped back. I walked past her into an entrance hallway.

“I’m ready,” I said. I was ready.

“I bet you are,” she said.

I watched her close the door. As the door closed, the air moved, carrying her musky scent toward me. I liked it. Then I turned and faced the end of the hallway.

The space I’d walked into was semi-dark. The only light was the spill from a room at its end. It looked like a living room. I could see the backs of two arm chairs and what looked like a bar against the wall on the left. Then from behind me, I felt her hands on my waist. They crept around to the front so her arms encircled me. She pulled me close and laid her head against my back. I felt like a kid who has the hots for his teacher. I turned in her arms, put my hands inside her robe. Gently pushing her against the wall, I pressed my body into hers.

“Is this part of the audition?” I asked. I spoke softly, my mouth beside her ear.

“It could be,” she whispered.

“Then I’d better give it my all.” My voice sounded strange and far-off.

“Break a leg, Jack.”

I kissed her on the mouth. She kissed me back, but harder as she moved her hands up to the back of my neck and pulled me closer. My hands moved under her charmeuse and almost up to her breasts when she placed a hand on my chest and pushed me firmly away, keeping me at arms length. My arms dropped to my sides. I panted.

“We’re getting a little ahead of the plot,” she said.

As she spoke, she dropped her hand from my chest, then took my hand in hers, and turned and led me toward what I’d taken to be the living room.

“There’s a plot?” I asked.

“There’s a plot, a whole story. It builds to a brilliant climax. We don’t want to reach the climax too soon, do we?” Who was she kidding. Too soon wasn’t soon enough for me. “And there’s just the part for you if you play your cards right. Drink?”

It all sounded good. Sylvia glided up to the bar while I took in the view. The far wall was all glass. The night time New York City skyline filled the window.

“Whiskey, right? No ice.”

“Right.”

Besides the arm chairs I’d seen, there was an L-shaped sofa. Part of the sofa faced the arm chairs and backed up toward the window. The other part curved into the room. If you sat on that part, you could watch the city’s lights. If you were an up-and-coming actor, maybe you could dream. Before I was halfway to the window, hoping to get a better view, Sylvia arrived with my drink. She handed it to me. We clinked glasses.

“Here’s to a brilliant audition,” she said.

“Cheers.” We both smiled. “So you liked my audition tapes?”

“I watched them over and over. At the end, I was convinced you were perfect for the part. That reminds me.” She set her drink down on a shelf behind me. “I have the script here in my office. You might want to take a look at it before we get started.” She strode toward a door at the far end of the room. “Rehearse your lines?” She spoke over her shoulder.

I sauntered over to the grand picture window to get a better look at the lights. It was a privileged view, special for those who could afford it. I couldn’t afford it, but I thought after all this time, maybe I deserved it. When I got close to the window, I stretched up on my toes, imagining I could see the tops of the trees in Central Park.

I moved to my left to get a better view when I kicked against something. I bent down to get a better look. The space was in shadow. The back of the sofa blocked the room light. I reached down and touched what felt like the toe of a shoe. I jerked upright.

“So. You found him. It took you long enough.” Sylvia stood on the other side of the room. She’d entered silently.

“Found who?”

She started toward me but stopped halfway.

“Flip that switch on the wall behind you. It closes the curtains. We need some privacy.”

She raised her arm part way so I could see it. She held a gun in her hand. I stepped over and flipped the switch. The curtains glided silently closed. Once they were closed, she lifted her arm enough to point the gun directly at me. I saw she wore plastic gloves on both hands, ones like the police use at crime scenes.

“You found my husband. The main character. The protagonist. The guy who drives the action.”

“Why’s he lying there?”

“He’s dead. He’s doing what you do when you’re dead. He’s playing his part. He’s very good, don’t you think? Now, you just have to play yours, Jack.”

She stepped over and flipped another switch that turned on a floor lamp at the end of the sofa. Her husband appeared in living color, the only thing living about him. I stepped forward to get a better look and accidentally kicked the sole of his shoe. He didn’t move. I recognised him from the bar. He had a large dent in his skull just at the hairline. Blood had pooled on the carpet under his head. I flashed on the bar. He didn’t look so tough now. And I didn’t feel so good.

“These brass candlestick holders are heavy.” I looked at her as she hefted one in her free hand. She handled it like a mechanic handles a wrench. She pointed to its twin sitting on a coffee table in front of the sofa. It was in a plastic bag. I could see the blood on it through the bag. I stepped back from the body.

“Your fingerprints will soon be on that one. This one’s for my husband. Now. Get down on your knees, Jack. Your audition is about to start.”

I was searching for classic lines. “You’ll never get away with this,” I said. She laughed.

“Damn Jack. That line takes us all the way back to Cain and Abel. You know who always says that line? In every movie? In every show? The victim. That’s what you’ll always be, Jack. That’s what you’re good at. I watched all your audition tapes. You’re good. You excel at playing the victim. The stupid victim. You’re perfect for the part.” She stared at me wide-eyed, a crazy look. “Now. Get down on your knees. Face the window.” I watched her take a step toward me, the gun pointed at me in one hand, the candlestick holder in the other.

“And I thought we were getting along so well,” I said, looking feebly for a light-hearted ending, something to soften her up.

“We had some laughs, didn’t we? You, the knight in shining armour, me, the damsel in distress. It was like something out of a Capra movie. Sweet. Naïve.” Her sarcasm was hard as nails.

I turned away from her and knelt down.

“I’m going to slug you hard, Jack. I like you so I hope it doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be long gone. If you survive, the rest of your audition will be with the cops. Let’s see how good of an actor you really are. You can always hope. But to me, you’ll always be a bit player, Jack.”

Then she slugged me.


Jim Shaffer grew up in rural Pennsylvania, spending his early years on his grandparent’s farm. Since, he’s lived almost half his life abroad. Recently, he’s appeared in Wrong Turn, a mystery/thriller anthology by Blunder Woman Productions, and will soon feature in the Hardboiled anthology series from Dead Guns Press. More of his short stories and a novella can be found on line at Close to the Bone, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Bewildering Stories.


Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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