“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.”
“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”