Writing Exercise: A Noir Opening Scene in Close Third
Twenty years ago, she might have lit a cigarette. That would have been better. Twenty years and people still didn’t know what to do with their hands. Now they looked at each other and waited.
“I love him. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I don’t really care about that, Mrs. Sorrel. Not what I’m asking.”
“You don’t care? That’s a little cold.” She balanced her silver purse on her thigh, then turned it slightly. “And it’s Barbara.”
“What I mean is were you home that night?”
“Instead of with a friend?”
“Yes. Instead of with a friend.”
“Let me put it to you this way, Mr. Gaffney, after ten years of marriage to Ivan, my friends don’t come around much anymore.”
People waited patiently through what used to be lighting-up-and-smoking pauses. They looked at each other with blank expressions. They used the spaces to figure out what they wanted to say next. In this way, modern conversations were formed. Women used to listen more than men. Now nobody listened. Now people addressed themselves in the presence of others and called it talk.
“I think we should start over, Barbara. I have to ask because it helps me get an idea of what went on. Any little thing, you know?”
He smiled, went over to the pot of stale coffee by the window. Nobody liked it when you handed them a Styrofoam cup of office coffee, but everybody took it and then felt like they owed you something. This Stan Gaffney knew like he knew the time or the traffic five floors down on 32nd Street. Small things to keep in mind. Small things that made up large things.
She said thank you, took the coffee, and set it on the edge of his desk, far enough away without seeming impolite. Then she turned her purse on her thigh again, unzipped it, looked inside. No answers in there. She zipped it back up. “Alright. Sure. I was home. I was asleep.”
“At 8:00 in the evening?”
“I drink. Can I call you Stan?”
“You were drunk? Passed out?”
“If you want to put it like that.”
“What were you drinking?”
When she came in, she’d set her phone on the other wooden chair facing his desk: Mrs. Barbara Sorrel and companion, Mr. iPhone. Now she checked it, tapped it with her thumb, trying not to seem like she was stalling. Maybe the cell phone was the new cigarette.
His question had her off. Why did the type of booze matter? It didn’t. What mattered was the amount of time it took her to think up a brand. Back in the day, she’d have just taken out another smoke. Blonde, late 30s or early 40s, good skin, she’d have been nervous, an upscale woman like her with a missing husband, sitting Gaffney’s dusty office on the fifth floor of the old Martindale Agricultural Building. She wouldn’t come in wearing a pinstriped blazer over a designer T-shirt with yoga love in gold cursive and long-pleated cream pants. She wouldn’t look like she’d just had her hair done. She’d have been—or at least would have pretended to be—distraught. Too bad she wasn’t.
“It was Camitz.”
“How many bottles?”
“What do you take me for, Mr. Gaffney? Not even a whole one. I was hardly drinking, actually, just very sleepy.”
“Not that night.”
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you. I guess that’s it. Anything else you think I should know?”
“There’s a lot I think you should know. Like, where’s my husband?”
“We’ll get to that.”
“You better for what I’m paying you.”
Now they both smiled together, hard, perfunctory. They’d been talking for 90 minutes. She wanted to find out what became of her husband after his birthday party four nights earlier, an event attended by about a hundred people, the part of Kansas City that still had money.
Stan wanted to know what was so special about the orientation of the purse on her thigh, why she kept turning it, why she talked tough but couldn’t make eye contact, why she’d walked into his office smelling like high-end Baccarat Rouge, why she’d lied about passing out drunk, why she’d come to him at all. Small things that turned into large things. Little pieces that fell out of a puzzle. Put them back in and you saw the picture.
On her way out, Mrs. Sorrel turned, holding her silver purse in front of her like some society matron in a stiff vanity portrait, the sort of thing people hung in the foyers of tasteless mansions. “You’re probably going to discover that Ivan has a long-term girlfriend named Cheryl O’Neil. I can get you her address.”
“You’ve been aware of her for a while?”
She nodded at the carpet. “Even came to our wedding, if you can believe that. I didn’t know her name at the time. I found out later.”
“But you were suspicious even then?”
“You want to stay married to a man like my husband, Mr. Gaffney, you don’t get suspicious. You get realistic.”
Barbara Sorrel had enough money to get as realistic as she wanted. When she came in, Stan gave her his highest rate and she cut the check then and there like it was nothing. But maybe all that realism meant she couldn’t trust the usual cadre of flunkies and stool grooms attendant on a man like Ivan. Maybe she couldn’t put her faith in anyone she knew. Maybe she felt that finding her missing husband meant she had to drive out to central Missouri to a little town named Hauberk and hire a private investigator nobody ever heard of.
“Well,” he said. “I’ll be in touch. And Mrs. Sorrel? Have a better day.”
She laughed, nodded, and the door closed softly behind her.