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Karen Bayly
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crownofpoppies.jpg
Art by Darren Blanch 2019

Crown of Poppies

by Karen Bayly

 

          Poppies. They remind me of blood and dreams, of valor and sorrow. Of losing oneself. Of betrayal.

          Sorry. I digress. My name is Samara Shappelle Sawhney - Sam Shappelle for short—and I’m a Private Investigator. I’m here because I need to talk to someone who’ll appreciate my dilemma. Someone who’s mercy matters. Someone like you.

          Much of what I’m about to tell you will be familiar, but this is my story from my point of view so most of what I say should surprise you. That’s what I’m hoping anyway—otherwise I’m in deeper than I think.

           I came here to do research for a case. A wealthy client of mine had taken to hanging around in this joint and had found herself a bit of trouble in a designer suit. She paid me big dollars to get information to help extricate her from what she described as an unfortunate situation. I called it being suckered, but who am I to judge?

          This part of town is known as Shangri-La. Don’t be fooled by the name. There is nothing peaceful or idyllic about the place. It’s the home of the Shangri-La Boys’ Club, a group of pimps and their unlucky whores. The Boys have a reputation for cruelty—their own and their clients—and the girls are expected to perform whatever gross acts the johns want. These added extras keep the pimps rolling in cash. Any attempt as freelancing outside of the Boys’ Club is countered with the proverbial offer a girl can’t refuse—work for one of the boys or die. Even the most determined maverick soon stumbles into the fold.

          The only exception to the rule in this seedy deal is Ma Belle. She has contacts in high places, so the Boys’ Club leaves her alone. Ma Belle’s girls are clean—no disease, no drugs. Classy even, at least for Shangri-La. Only straight up sex on offer. No funny business allowed. Try anything and you’ll discover a set of joint-of-beef fists waiting for you. Girls line up to escape their pimps and become one of Ma’s ‘belles’, but few make the grade. Mainly because of Magic.

          Magic is the drug of choice in Shangri-La. It’s an addictive mix of opioids, speed and hallucinogens. Once hooked there is no going back without serious and lengthy rehab, and maybe not even then. A user spirals down into a slow death, unwilling to eat or drink, fuelled only by beautiful visions. The pimps use it to control the girls, to make the burden of their sordid lives a little easier. It’s not unusual to see girls on drips for hydration, or being force fed. Anything to keep their bodies open for business a little longer.

          Ma Belle doesn’t play by those rules. She looks after her girls. Unlike most folk in this snake pit, Ma Belle has a strong sense of ethics and a good heart.  She manages a bar called Hearts on Fire and runs her select group of girls upstairs on the second floor. The third floor is the private apartment of the owner of the building—and the bit of trouble I’m investigating.

          I walked into Hearts on Fire three weeks ago. I’d never been in this part of town before then. Sure, I’d been around town, uptown and even downtown, but here? Lowlife dives aren’t my scene and I’d managed to avoid them work-wise. But for what my client was paying me, I decided slumming it wouldn’t be too bad for a short time. Boy, was I wrong.

          At first, I couldn’t see what the attraction was for my client. The place smelled of beer and cheap liquor. The light from the garish pink neon sign cast a bordello light over the place, and the flickering of the dodgy “a” and “i” in the sign set your teeth on edge. The clientele wasn’t much either—gangsters and gangster molls, good time girls and half-drunk johns, and the occasional up for anything desperado.

          Then as I moseyed up to the bar, I noticed a man sitting with his back to me. Even without seeing his face, there was something about him. He turned to look at me as I leaned on the bar and opened my mouth to order a double scotch. And that’s all I did. Opened my mouth and kept it open like I was hoping to catch flies. Stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of him. He was a long hot drink of pure sex. Good looking in a roguish way—if you like those kind of looks and I swear until that moment, I never did—with an entrancing twinkle in his dark eyes.

          “Get the lady a double scotch.” His voice was smooth as silk.

          “Sure thing, boss,” said the barman.

          I snapped back to reality so fast it hurt. “Boss? So, you own this joint.”

          “I do…” He gave me a disarming smile. “Sorry, what was your name again?”

          “I didn’t give you my name.”

          “Then perhaps you’d like to tell me now?” He took my left hand and pressed his warm lips to my cool palm. It felt like he was branding me, making me his.

          “It’s Sam,” I giggled. “Short for Samantha.”

          I couldn’t believe I giggled. At least I kept my head enough not to give him my real name.

          “Well, hello Sam. Luca Perrine, at your service.”

          So this was the Mack Daddy who was causing my client so much grief.

          “So where do come from, Luca? Your accent… I can’t place it.”

          “I grew up on an island.”

          Sure you did.

          “My father was a missionary on Isla Verde. Have you heard of it?”

          I shook my head. Was he really going the son of a preacher man route with me?

          “Most people haven’t. Anyway, it gave me an appreciation of all things spicy and exotic.”

          I waited for the come on. He moved a little closer.

          “You know, I don’t usually find uptight women attractive but there’s more to you, darling, than meets the eye.”

          I almost choked on my drink.

          “Thanks.” I wanted to tell him what I thought of him, but I didn’t trust myself to say anything that wouldn’t blow my reason for being here out of the water.

          “And who was your daddy? I bet you were his little princess.”  A slow Cheshire Cat grin lit up his face. “And darling, I mean that in the best way possible.”

          My father was killed when I was eight years old. Shot by a trigger-happy police officer outside the shop where my mother and I were buying shoes. The officer claimed he mistook my father for some criminal he was chasing. My father had his phone in his hand when he turned around to surrender. The police officer saw a gun, not a phone, and fired. I watched my daddy die, cradled by my wailing mother. I’ve hated the police ever since.

          No points for guessing that’s why I became a PI. Aside from the fact that the work interests me, I like being a thorn in the police force’s side. I like solving cases they’re too caught up in their own bullshit to handle. I could never be one of them. I’m a loner, maybe even a wild card, and I work better that way.

          I wasn’t going to tell him any of that. I put on my best Mona Lisa face and dropped into my huskiest voice register.

          “I think I like talking to you.”

          So, we talked. And talked. And talked some more. The conversation was surprisingly scintillating, and I couldn’t believe it was after midnight when I looked at my watch.

          “I have to go,” I said.

          “Business to attend to,” he asked teasingly. “Or is there some other man?”

          He did a good imitation of appearing hurt.

          “Neither. Gal’s got to get her beauty sleep.”

          He stroked the inside of my wrist with his finger and my skin burned. “Don’t suppose you’d consider getting that beauty sleep in my bed. I’ve been told that I’m good for the complexion.” He licked his lips and chuckled. “As well as other body parts.”

          I took a deep breath to steady myself.

          “Thanks, but no thanks.”

          “Pity,” he sighed. “You’re not like other women I meet. I swear, darling, sometimes the whole female sex is out to get me.”

          “Oh, poor loverboy.” I was enjoying this game way too much.

          He was so close now, I could breathe him. He smelled untamed and disarmingly delicious.

          He murmured, “But you’re not like that. I can tell.”

          “How can you tell?”

          “Guy’s gotta have some secrets.”

          He nuzzled my ear and I thought I would melt into my shoes. Instead, I cupped his jawline in the palm of my hand, my thumb over his lips.

          “You’re good,” I whispered, “but not that good.”

          He laughed and I almost changed my mind.

          I don’t know why I came back the next night. I had no reason to come into the bar. I could have watched from outside. Oh, who am I kidding. I knew exactly why I was there. I was fascinated by the man. He was exciting and dangerous, and I’m a borderline adrenaline junkie. A match doomed to perdition.

          Ma Belle pulled me into office one night while I was waiting for Luca to appear. She told me she liked me, that I reminded her of someone she once knew. I was tempted to ask who, but the expression in her eyes chilled me, and I didn’t dare.

          She warned me about him. She said he knew why I was there. She said he was a bad man and couldn’t be trusted. Coming from someone with her integrity, I should have accepted that this was true condemnation, yet I refused to believe her. So, she told me what was coming.

          He wouldn’t do that, I thought. Not to me. Never to me.

          Despite her warning, I spent every night with him. I was hopelessly besotted with the man. I couldn’t see that he would do any wrong by any woman, let alone my client.

          Was she just jealous and unable to accept that it had ended between them? Or had emotions and hormones overridden the last vestiges of my good sense?  I suspected my judgement was clouded but I ignored the clamor of my own instincts. Talk about being suckered.

          Now I know everything both my client and Ma Belle said was true. He is the biggest lowlife this town has to offer, his greedy fingers sticky from being in so many pies—extortion, blackmail, racketeering, gambling, prostitution, drugs.

          The first time he slipped me a mickey of Magic, I thought I’d just had a surreal dream. The last thing I remembered that bore any semblance of reality was his body lying on top of mine. After that it was sensation so intense, it blew my mind. I felt every cell of my being expanding and pulsating in waves of pleasure that went on and on and on. His voice, soft and sweet, came from somewhere inside me crooning “You okay baby?”.

          Everything was so vibrant, so exquisitely, painfully beautiful. I cried out in ecstasy and the sound echoed into the furthest reaches of the sky. Words written in an elegant script I didn’t recognize appeared on the clouds. I reached out and traced the letters with my fingers. My eyes, already open, seemed to widen and deepen. I saw beyond the writing and I understood that the message was for me. Tears streamed down my face, over my shoulders and back, and I realized the tears weren’t mine. I heard a voice saying, “You okay baby?” I looked up into the face of my father.

          “But you’re dead, daddy.”

          “I know, baby. See, here is my wound.”

          He opened his shirt and I saw a field of poppies, where once I had seen more blood than I’d ever imagined in my eight years on earth.

          “Remember me, baby. Survive.”

          When I woke, I shook it off. I mean, the sex was wild, so it would follow that my dreams would reflect that, right?

          The second time I didn’t care. I knew what was happening but the fantasy, the vision, holy crap, it was heaven on earth.

          The third time I asked for it by name. Give me Magic. He pretended not to know what I was talking about. Snake.

          So here I am, confessing my sins to you. You turn to me and hand me a cocktail. I’m transfixed by your unrelenting tough guy gaze. I gulp my drink not caring what’s in it and ask the question that will give me the answer I have to know.

          “What do you think I should do, Luca?”

          You thank me for my honesty. Too late, I see the gun in your hand. I wait for the shot, but it never comes. Instead, you kiss me deeply and take me by the hand. My mind explodes with relief and confusion. We climb the stairs, up, up, up to your bedroom, draw the curtains and drown out the sounds of the city screaming outside the window. We make love and my whole being irrupts with desire, with treachery, with unadulterated fury. I remember my daddy’s words. Survive.

          The word shoots through my veins, shocking me into wakefulness. I realize I don’t want to die and I don’t want to be a Magic addict. Somehow, I am going to beat both of you.

          The gun has fallen on the floor. I reach down and scoop it up, feel the cold steel against the burning palm of my hand. You’re lying beside me, wearing a crown of poppies, like the twin Greek brothers, Hypnos and Thanatos. You are almost asleep and I don’t want you to be asleep. I want you to see what’s coming.

          I scream and it sounds like a battle cry. Your eyes flicker open. I point the gun and press the trigger. Time falters. The action plays in slow motion. I hear footsteps thudding in the hallway, Ma Belle shouting, frantic. The bullet spins toward your head but you cannot see it. There is a sound, like china shattering, like the world breaking, like death knocking down the door.

          And I see poppies everywhere.

***


Karen Bayly has been an actor, musician, scientist, and software test analyst. She has published short stories and poems in a variety of journals, including Skive Magazine, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Voluted Tales, Blue Crow Magazine, Midnight in Hell Magazine, Every Day Fiction and Overland.  She writes in a number of different genres but is happiest creating new worlds.  When not writing, she can be found reading, streaming the latest films and shows, hanging out with cats, dancing like a mad woman and wondering where the hell the years have gone. She lives in Sydney, Australia.



Darren Blanch, Aussie creator of visions which tell you a tale long after first glimpses have teased your peepers. With early influence from America's Norman Rockwell to show life as life, Blanch has branched out mere art form to impact multi-dimensions of color and connotation. People as people, emotions speaking their greater glory. Visual illusions expanding the ways and means of any story.

Digital arts mastery provides what Darren wishes a reader or viewer to take away in how their own minds are moved. His evocative stylistics are an ongoing process which sync intrinsically to the expression of the nearby written or implied word he has been called upon to render.

View the vivid energy of IVSMA (Darren Blanch) works at: www.facebook.com/ivsma3Dart, YELLOW MAMA, Sympatico Studio - www.facebook.com/SympaticoStudio, DeviantArt - www.deviantart.com/ivsma and launching in 2019, as Art Director for suspense author / intrigue promoter Kate Pilarcik's line of books and publishing promotion - SeaHaven Intrigue Publishing-Promotion.

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