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The Smokescreen
Catherine Martin

I don’t know how the subject comes up. I’m sittin’ in a bar with Frankie and Petersen, drinkin’ tequila and chewin’ on cigars, and we’re talkin’ about Jilly and the .32. It’s late afternoon. The sun shunts a path through the smoky air, and the jukebox chokes out a tired melody. Perhaps it’s the song that reminds me of Jilly. She always was partial to Elvis.

’Course, Petersen always thought he had a chance with her, but he never. Smells of stale sweat and don’t shave properly, always leaves a few tatty whiskers under his chin. Jilly was a classy woman, could have had any man she wanted, she wasn’t goin' to waste her time on a loser like Petersen.

Frankie, now, he might have been a possibility. A fine specimen of a man, muscular and tall and tanned, knows how to treat a lady, too. College educated. Always lets her through the door first, pulls the chair out for her and talks sweet, none of those four letter words. Yessir, he might have been just what Jilly was lookin’ for.

’Cept she met me first.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘You give a woman everything – money, clothes, jewellery. You build her a house fit for a queen. You let her go out with her girlfriends every Thursday night. Hell, you even pay for the friggin’ breast enlargement, but she STILL leaves you!’

The boys look embarrassed. Petersen shrugs and sips his tequila, and Frankie looks down at the ground.

‘Somethin’ fascinatin’ about that floorboard, Frankie?’ I ask. He shoots me a look but doesn’t answer. I wait for a bit, then I start talkin’ again. Guess I’ve been quiet for too long.

‘She’s been gone twelve, no, thirteen, months now, but there’s somethin’ I still don’t understand.’ I clear my throat. ‘Why the hell did she take my rifle? She didn’t even know how to shoot the damned thing. She was always tellin’ me she didn’t like guns in the house, said they was dangerous, gave her the creeps. One day, when I was cleanin’ it, she got so spooked she just took off out somewhere, and didn’t return till sunset. Brought that moron brother of hers back with her. I’d locked the gun away by then, but still we had a scene, with her smashin’ plates and yellin’ somethin’ about bein’ a prisoner in her own home. The moron told me I’d better be careful, he was watchin’ me. Hell! Like that was gonna worry me!’

‘So, why d’you think she brought her brother back with her,’ the college boy asks.

‘Like I told the police, I’ve no idea. She was a crazy bitch, worried I was gonna kill her or kill someone. Sure, we’d have our arguments, some yellin’, some cussin’. But I loved that woman, sure as I got a heart that beats. I never did lift a finger towards her, nor would I.’

Elvis wraps it up, and for a moment it’s so quiet you can hear the sound of lips sucking on cigars. Petersen scratches his chin and the sound rasps like a chalk on blackboard. Frankie eyes the floor like a man with somethin’ to hide.

I got my theories.

‘So, where d’you boys think she is?’ I say, all easy and without a care.

No answer.

‘Seriously, I’m open to suggestion.’

Still no answer.

‘The sheriff says most likely she’s alive but doesn’t want to be found. No evidence of foul play, she left without a fight, withdrew all that cash the day before. The “‘unhappy housewife”, run off with a younger man or someone richer than me, or both. She might have moved away, changed her name, or maybe she’s livin’ round these parts, hidin’ some place till she thinks it’s safe to come out.’

At this, Frankie looks up and shakes his head, just a little too quickly for my likin’. ‘Why would she want to stay here,’ he says. He sounds like someone’s pinchin’ his throat.

‘Well, I thought maybe you could tell me.’

Someone throws a coin in the juke box and Streisand’s voice pokes into the space between us, all teeth and nose and sentiment.

‘Mem’ries, light the corner of my mind…’

‘Whatever it is you’re thinkin’, you’re wrong,’ says Frankie. ‘I haven’t seen her since before she disappeared. You’re lookin’ at me like I’m guilty of somethin’, I’ve seen you do it before and I’m sick of it. Maybe you need to turn your attention in other directions.’

He’s a good liar, I’ll give him that. He shoots a quick look at Petersen, hopin’ for back-up, but of course he doesn’t get it. He recovers quickly and looks me in the eye without blinkin’. Yessir, he’s good.

But now, Petersen looks over my shoulders, out into the carpark and beyond. What’s that I see, reflected in his eyes? Is she…

I swivel on my bar stool, squint into the sunlight. What can he see that I can’t?

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