Part 1 – Hello Mr Murdry

Three years have passed. Three long years of head scratching, whiskey drinking and dead-end leads. I’m sitting at the bar of Mama Belles. The proprietor pours me another sour mash. She has the face of a boxer who’s been through some hard times. She’s wearing a low-cut black dress and ill-fitting teeth. The phone rings, she picks it up, says it’s someone looking for me. Nobody knows I’m here, something ain’t right.
“Luigi O’Reilly?” the voice says.
“Maybe.” I give nothing away.
“Jack Murdry. Meet me at Barbie’s Hotel eight O’clock tonight. Don’t be late.” Then he hangs up.

Jack Murdry? Jack Murdry the casino racketeer, and maybe cold-blooded killer? Just when I stop looking for him he turns up. But how does he know where I am?

I swivel ’round on the bar stool scanning the scene, the red faux leather booths, the pictures of dead blues players hanging off the grimy walls. Nobody there. How Does He Know Where I Am? I walk slowly around the bar. Hidden behind a curtain there’s a pool table. A broad is playing pool by herself, cute, maybe 25, no one else around. Just her. She looks over at me and winks before potting the eight ball.
“Do you wink at every guy that walks in here?” I ask her.
“Only when I know I’m gonna pot the ball” she purrs.
“Do you know a Jack Murdry?”
“Ain’t never heard of him. Not too many folk come ’round here. Is that the guy you were talking to on the phone?”
“Maybe” I answer. She’s getting nothing.
“So, you work in this joint?”
“I live in this joint, with my mama.”
“Mama Belle?”
“The very same.”
“That’s swell. Say, what happened to her teeth?” I ask.
“Since the casino went bust we ain’t been able to afford fancy things like health insurance, or tooth doctors.”
“Them neither” she says. “Can’t afford nothing.”
“Is that why you’re wearing those jeans and that sweater?”

She doesn’t answer. We get talking about this and that. Asking each other questions, digging around. Then she glides over to the jukebox.
“What kind of music do you like?” I think for a moment.
“Jazz, sometimes jazz….but mostly jazz. Depends on my mood.” She puts on a record, walks back over and asks  “What brings you here anyways?”
“I don’t know, the darkness, the strange smell. The sign outside that says ‘Keep Walking’. And …. it’s a bar.”

I check my watch, it’s 19:30. Barbie’s Hotel is maybe 25 minutes away. Before I leave I decide to ask the winking pool dame how she knows when she’s gonna pot a ball.
“Well, I just pick up on the aura of the room. Get a feel for the vibrations. If it feels right then it feels right.”
Aura? Vibrations? This dames crazy. But she sure has pretty eyes. I put on my hat and walk out onto the rainy street.

Barbie’s Hotel, 20:00 hours. I walk through the dimly lit lobby, up to the reception desk. The receptionist is a real doll, maybe 5″4, long blond hair, attractive cleavage.
“I’m looking for a Mister Murdry.” She tells me to go through the orange door, says everyone’s waiting in there.
“Everyone? What d’ya mean everyone?” She don’t say nothing, just points to a poster stuck to the wall at the side of me. I carefully lift my gaze out of her cleavage and turn my head to read it.

Murder Mystery Weekend – Barbie’s Hotel – 8 o’clock – Don’t Be Late.

That’s what the poster says, in a cruel comic sans font. My blood begins to boil. I turn my head back towards the receptionist. This time I look her straight in the eye.
“I said I’m looking for a Mister Murdry, I ain’t got time for games” I tell her firmly. Just then there’s a loud bang from behind the orange door, followed by a scream, then silence. I never like to stick around when bullets start flying. I stumble out on to the rain drenched street and make my way back to Mama Belles.

Part 2 – No Vacancy

The rain is coming down hard. I stumble past the pawn shop, past the tattoo parlor, turn down the dark narrow alleyway till I get to Mama Bel……. It isn’t there! My blood freezes. I look around. It was here only 45 minutes ago. Now……it’s gone! Did somebody steal it? There’s most likely blind rats scuttling about my feet, but I can’t see any. I can’t see anything. The darkness is sucking me into a void of nothingness, like the universe has collapsed in on itself and left me a shivering, muttering wreck. I take a deep breath, try to collect my thoughts. Be rational. Nobody steals a building. But there was something strange about that place, the phone call, the kooky dame talking about auras, her unflattering clothes. No, gotta think clearly. I decide to retrace my steps. I walk back down the alley, back out on to the street. I look to my right, the direction I’d walked from. Then I look left, there’s another tattoo parlor a little further down the street. I walk past it and turn left down the dark narrow alleyway to Mama Belles. Good thing I know how to remain calm in a crisis, a lot of folk would have gone crazy back there.

I ask to use the phone behind the bar. I call the operator. The operator sounds cute, maybe 30, heavy Chicago accent. She seems to be flirting with me, but I ain’t got time for that. She says she can’t give me any information on who phoned the number earlier. Another dead-end. I take my bourbon for a walk over to the pool table. Cutie winks at me, then pots the solid three.
“I figured you’d be back” she says.
“Something tells me that maybe you know more than you say you do and something else tells me that maybe you better start talking. Tell me about Mama Belles casino, the one that went bust.”
She gets up close to me, so close I can smell her perfume and feel her breath on my face. I’m thinking she’s gonna kiss me. I’m about to say “not here, not now, not like this” but there’s no kiss. She whispers “alright, alright. I’ll talk. First I need a drink.”

She disappears to the bar. I see her saying something to Mama Belle. Mama Belle nods her head, some kind of sense of relief sweeps across both their faces. She hands the winking pool girl a bottle of Rebel Yell and a glass. Winking pool girl walks back over to me with a heavy stride and plenty of liquor. She leads me to the darkest corner of the saloon. She flicks a switch on the wall and a wooden panel slides across silently, revealing a dark alcove of some type. I step inside. The room is lit by a neon sign propped against a wall. The sign reads: ‘No Vacancy’. She walks towards me. This time she’s gonna kiss me for sure. Her left arm stretches out over my shoulder, her face close to mine, I can smell her make-up. I draw both of my hands up to her head, brushing her hair back from her face to create a clear pathway to her burning lips. I blurt out “you sure are beautiful.” But there’s no kiss. She flicks a switch behind my head and the wooden panel door closes silently, and slowly. She sits down, opens the bottle, and pours herself a drink. I notice she has a bracelet on her wrist made out of guitar strings.

“What kind of cheap punk buys a pretty dame like you a bracelet made out guitar strings?” I ask her.
“He ain’t no cheap punk. He used to be one of the finest guitar players in town.”

“Used to be.”

Part 3 – The Casino Racket

We used to have a jazz night in here. Jimmy would come down, making the most soulful sounds you ever heard. Well, one night he was about to play, he was tuning up his guitar when some country picker walked over and said something to him. Jimmy just froze. I was standing at the bar, I saw his soul die with my very own eyes. Nobody knows what was said but afterwards he played a couple tunes, sounded terrible. He was playing the wrong notes, singing the wrong words. He’d lost it. Just like that. He put his guitar back in its case and never played it again. A few days later he gave the guitar away to Johnny Blue.”
“The blues guy?”
“How many guys do you know called Johnny Blue?
Anyways, he didn’t come in here again. I saw him a few months later at a dime store. I asked him how come he don’t play no more. He said the guy had cut off his connection. See, the thing with Jimmy is he used to think he had some kind of connection to dead blues players. Like they were speaking through him when he played. It was some kind of spell and whatever that guy said to him it broke the spell.”
“Sad story” I say, looking at her legs and thinking how pretty they must be underneath those jeans.
“So you don’t have a jazz night any more?”
“No. It started to get too much attention. Me and Mama Belle are trying to keep things nice and simple, don’t want too many folk finding out where we are if you know what I mean.”
“The casino?”
“Yeah. Witness protection.” She knocks back her drink and pours herself another one, then noticing my glass
is empty she fills that up too.

Everything was going just swell till a big enterprise moved into town. They started buying up stocks in all the casinos, pulling all kinds of stunts to drive them into the ground. They tried intimidating us, sent in gamblers to make trouble at the tables. Trying to give the place a bad name, drive the customers away. Then one day a body showed up, and it was a dead one. It was behind one of the poker tables. We were being framed. We decided to call in a favor from a local cop. He knew what the corporation’s game was, but he told us there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done about them. They were too big, too powerful. So he helped us get out. We split in the dead of night. Took all the cash, loaded up the station wagon and drove out across the desert till we became invisible.”

Her voice trembles slightly as she relives the tale. Her speech quickening, her words a torrent of painful memories. Her eyes are black but her soul is a mysterious shade of gray. I could fall for her, right here, right now.
“This place was a hotel when we got here. But we didn’t want folk coming and going, sniffing ’round, taking pictures. So we turned the rooms into apartments and rented them out to college students.”
“After a spell we started to forget about the casino. Then one day I picked up a newspaper. The headline read: Luigi O’Reilly Pokes Around Casino. I started reading it. It was Mama Belles casino alright. The story said you were about to crack the case wide open. Had a lead on a Jack Murdry. There was a photo of you next to the article . That’s how I knew who you were when you walked in earlier. Sorry about the phone call.
“You made the phone call?”
“Luigi O’Reilly? Jack Murdry here” she says in a deep voice, deeper than a dames voice oughta be. She starts laughing. She looks even cuter when she laughs. Her entire face lights up, brighter than any neon no vacancy sign.
“Meet me at Barbie’s Hotel eight O’clock tonight. Don’t be late” again in that eerily deep tone. She laughs again. I can almost feel the muscles around my mouth give way to a smile, maybe even a laugh of my own, but I resist.
“But How did you make the phone call? You were in this bar the whole time.” She reaches into the pocket of her jeans, pulled out a rectangular metal object.
“I used my phone” she says casually. She’s got one of those modern portable telephones. She’s really something.
“You’re really something” I say.
“I know” she says, “I sure am.”
“You sure are. I don’t even know your name. You have a name?”
“Beauty” she says.
“You sure are” I say. No need for any other words. But I find some anyway.
“What kind of messed up, crazy world do we live in that a pretty dame like you is holed up in a joint like this?”
“I’m not a dame”

Part 4 – So Long, Mr Murdry

“I’m not a dame.” And then silence. The kind of silence where you can hear your own heart beat and distant clocks ticking. After the last time I thought I’d never be fooled again. The guy back in Frisco. Walked like a dame, talked like a dame, well….you know the rest. My thoughts race in a million directions, quicker than good whiskey. She sure looks like a dame. But she’s wearing jeans and a man size sweater. She’s wearing a bracelet. But it’s made out of guitar strings. Dames don’t play guitar. She spoke on the phone in a deep voice, saying she’s Jack Murdry. JACK MURDRY.
“What?” She looks confused. She’s not the only one.
“What d’ya mean you ain’t a dame?”
“I mean nobody uses words like dame any more. You gotta have a little more respect for women than that. I ain’t a dame, a broad, or whatever else you wanna call me. I’m a 21st century woman and I stand on my own two feet. I got too much dignity to let you walk in here and call me a dame.” So she is a dame. I begin to relax.
“I beg your pardon ma’am” I say sincerely. But she doesn’t stop there. This broad sure can talk.
“I don’t know what happened to you, what made you like this. Maybe you been through some hard times, maybe somebody broke your heart, but you gotta let go, start living in the now. Go where your heart leads you.”
“Save the daytime T.V talk sister. I don’t go in for that kinda stuff. When you’ve seen as much misery and pain as I have you kinda tighten up. It kinda focuses the mind. Tell me more about the casino.”
“Well it’s like I said, we got out just in time. Everybody knew who was behind it and….” A song called blue jeans starts playing, a tinny, static noise that seems to be coming from her hips. She really is something. She stops talking and reaches into the pocket of her jeans. It’s her telephone.
“It’s a text. From Jimmy. Says he’s on his way over” she says, surprised. She pushes some buttons on the device and puts it back in her pocket. She starts talking about Jimmy again. My mind began to wander. Every now and then I interject with a ‘poor kid’ or ‘tough break.’ But I’m beginning to daydream.

I picture a scene on the back of my eyelids:

I’m walking out through the door of Mama Belles, out onto the street where a crowd of reporters has gathered. Dictaphones thrust in my face, cameras flashing all around. A nasally voice kicks off the proceedings:
“Say Luigi, so you finally cracked the Murdry case. How did you do it?”
“It wasn’t so hard” I answer, casually. And other reporter, cigar hanging from his mouth, wearing a flat cap.
“Tell me what makes you tick Mister O’Reilly.”
“Dames, broken dreams. Discarded cigarettes on abandoned railroad tracks…..”

When I open my eyes I’m still in the neon lit room, and Beauty is still talking. I ask her to tell me more about the casino. She says there’s nothing more to tell, no point sniffing around. It’s too big. The corporation owns everybody and everything in the town. I figure it’s time for me to go. She calls me a cab from her device. I finish my drink and she reaches behind me to flick a switch. The wooden panel slides open silently. I put on my hat and step back into the bar. Jimmy’s standing in the doorway. Beauty introduces us. I figure I’ll wait for the cab out on the street. Before I leave I turn to Jimmy and say…
“Listen kid. Take a tip from me. You can’t leave jazz and jazz can’t leave you. Nobody gets out of this thing alive. You gotta go where your heart leads you.”

The rain has eased off, replaced by a damp smell and bugs in the warm sticky night air. I stand at the end of the alleyway thinking things through. Maybe Beauty was right. Maybe it’s time to forget about Mister Murdry, murder mysteries, and the whole stinking, rotten game. Maybe I won’t see Beauty ever again. I could tell myself she was just another dame. “She was just another dame” I mumble under my breath. A car rolls down the street and pulls up to the kerb. As I step from the alleyway toward the cab I hear a guitar tuning up.