Assignment Noir Flash Fiction By Philip Berry

Assignment: Noir Flash Fiction By Philip Berry

Philip Berry, author of Assignment, has published short fiction in Ellipsis Zine, Liars’ League, Headstuff, Spelk, Literary Orphans, Metaphorosis and The Corona Book of SF among others. His SF short story collection Bonewhite Light was published in 2017. He lives in London.

*****

What am I supposed to say? She sits there leaning forward over the desk, pushing her fingers back through that black burst of hair, saying they’re ruining me, ruining me.

And you are… oh I know, the actress, I’ve seen you in a poster, outside the Duke of York. They say you’re good. Redundant words.

Through lips that barely part, she contends that most nights, during her pivotal monologue in Act Two, an underground train passes right under the theater and distracts the audience. Her words are drowned out.

I twist away from her tired, too-early face. Blue scoops below worried eyes tell of nocturnal habits. She’s dragged herself away from a post-performance club or lounge to be here among the plaster-grey, dull, day people. She is uncomfortable here. I like her for it.

Fine, I nod, I’ll take the case. But it’ll come to nothing. I charge so and so. This is maybe four days work plus expenses.

I get a ticket and sit ten rows back. Thick red wine in a glass that rests on the thigh of the middle-aged woman next to me reflects a spotlight and winks at the corner of my vision. As she breathes the liquid tilts, causing a gross change in the angle of the light. I squint.

Then, as my client builds to her climactic accusation in a strong Alabama accent (I know she is London to her heels), the rumble of an approaching train grows. The wine trembles and the reflected light shatters. I hear nothing of the play. Her words make no impact. She is right!

Thick red wine in a glass that rests on the thigh of the middle-aged woman next to me reflects a spotlight and winks at the corner of my vision.

Next evening, before the performance, I watch the theater from along the street. No one lurks, no one lingers. I approach. A pale arm pulls me down the alley that only actors are allowed to use. A blank metal door opens to her coded knock, and I duck past a security guard in her wake. It is an hour before the curtain is due to rise.

It’s a conspiracy, she insists, sitting up on the dressing table. I turn away from her naked emotion, her frank thighs. She is so direct. And she seems to trust me.

Come on! I say. What conspiracy? Underground trains run to a timetable. They go all night, they spoil others’ lines too, not just yours.

She says nothing, throws a hard wave of disappointment at me. I have let her down. The one she chose.

When will you take me seriously, she asks, when I’m dead in an alley, frozen, ignored, another corpse in the city? They want me off the board, out of the equation, choose your cliché. I’m too damn good. Under the ground, get it?

What are you really afraid of?

She presses the sides of her head with splayed fingers, as though to sink nails through her skull and pierce the pain, burst it, kill it. She screams, They want me forgotten!

Who?

Come, tonight, I’ll show you.

*****

I go. I watch her carefully. The monologue is spoiled by another train… it’s just bad timing. In the interval I press through the crowd and reach a bar behind the dress circle. There is a gasp. She is there, among them. By my side. In the dress she is supposed to die in.

Gin, she demands.

You shouldn’t… surely you shouldn’t be here…

Who cares? I’m safe, among all these… she turns to face the gawping audience members. They feel privileged but sense scandal. It will be in the morning paper. Actress leaves play mid-performance, breakdown, crisis, man, tears, gin.

I buy her the drink (actually it is given free by the shaken bartender). We find a glazed corner overlooking St Martin’s Lane. Novelty fades and the common people get back to their town gossip.

You going back? I ask.

‘Course. I’m a professional.

I’m looking out for you, you know.

‘Course you are. But do you know what you’re looking for?

Who do you suspect?

The world. The whole damned world!

She bolts the gin with head thrown back. Her neck is so thin, so white. The black bob moves. Her lips tremble. She is truly afraid. She leaves me, runs downstairs, backstage. They will have heard, the company. I saw the bartender activate a walkie-talkie, and watched him sotto voce, she’s here, dress circle bar, yes, I know, right here, I’m looking right at her…

In the third act she is shot by a jealous, simple lover. It was predictable, even at my first visit.

Bang. I watch her fall and smile to myself. Every night she dies. Every night she acts out the fantasy. Perhaps it is just too intense, this acting business. The method has changed her, realigned the nerves, tilted her perception, spoiled the equilibrium. It costs too much, laying it all out there every night for people who move on and wake up to their normal lives next morning. She is forgotten. Isn’t that the actor’s fate? You are remembered, mainly, for the characters.

I watch her fall and smile to myself. Every night she dies. Every night she acts out the fantasy. Perhaps it is just too intense, this acting business. The method has changed her, realigned the nerves, tilted her perception, spoiled the equilibrium.

She lies diagonally on the stage, an arm flung back, a leg crooked. The male lead lumbers over, regretting instantly his base act. I didn’t find him convincing, first time. He caresses her, runs muscled hands over her motionless black hair. He looks different tonight, more anxious.

He’s trying harder. He looks out to the audience… no, she’s dead…  different words. A murmur of confusion. I am confused. Please, help. I tense. Is this… the play? There is a smudge on his cheek. Different blood, biological. I look at her chest with a practiced eye. There is no rise and fall. I am close enough to see her neck.

There is no tell-tale carotid pulsation. I am on my feet, making my way along the row to the aisle, rushing forward, clambering onto the stage, kneeling by my beautiful, frightened client. There is a puddle of blood, thick red wine, glistening under the spots. I grab a still warm hand, and say I’m sorry, I’m sorry into the flesh of her palm.

For days she is all that they talk or write about. Then, she is forgotten.

*****

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