Vortex of Terror

Film Noir was coined by French film critics about the dark look and themes of American films of the 30’s & 40’s. Noir films were stories about crime and gangsters – a veiled metaphor for the evils of society. Events were presented as the soft, unpleasant, underbelly view of the American Dream. The principle character, usually male, was often haunted by grim failure and troubled by past events that he could not escape and that ultimately destroyed him.

Vortex of Terror

I was at loose ends that week-end. Most of my buddies were away in the service and I was miserable and feeling sorry for myself. After almost a year I was still not over Pamela. I blamed her for our breakup. She was the one who left. I disliked thinking of what had happened, yet she remained in my thoughts; I felt responsible for her death. Oh, I didn’t push her into the path of that car, but after our confrontation that night, she ran out of my apartment, distraught and in tears. The accident happened outside the door to my apartment building. Even now I can see the sight of her lifeless body on the pavement and blood everywhere. After that, I became reclusive and left my apartment only to go to work. The bouts of my inner ear vertigo started about then, too. These attacks of swirling rooms that led to nausea became so debilitating that even with closed eyes I could still sense the moving objects. My vertigo classified me as 4F and my dream of joining the Army Air Corps was shattered. It was one more rebuke that I took personally. It seemed like I was alive, but not really living.

When the phone rang that Friday night in May 1942, it was Murray Needs from the office. That was a surprise. We were not in any way what you could describe as good friends and we rarely saw each other away from the work. He asked me if I would like to meet for a drink. I guess it was my despondency at the time that made me accept. I agreed to meet him at The Pink Elephant, a bar close to the office which we both knew. I was also curious as to why he wanted to see me. I still wore my rumpled suit from work, but I was too lazy to change. Besides, I told myself, it was only Murray.

Friday night in San Diego should be exciting and fun. Somehow that fact made me more gloomy. Why the hell was I meeting someone I cared little about? I cursed my loneliness and life in general as I drove my beat-up Dodge across town. It had been a dreary overcast day and now it started raining with a vengeance. A steady, rain sopping, drizzle. I drove carefully. The car’s four tires had over 200,000 miles of wear an tear. They weren’t the original treads. Each tire had been re-treaded multiple times, but with the war on even re-treads were hard to get. The tubes had been repaired so many times there were more patches then original rubber. I bemoaned the effects of the war on my life and the difficulties it brought with it. The parking fee, as usual, was highway robbery and I took out my anger on the attendant, intimating he was a draft dodger. At first, he ignored my outburst, but once my money was in his hands he gave me the finger. I would have preferred change!

I made a mad dash through the drizzle. The Pink Elephant was a block away. I arrived wet, leaking a trough of water from the brim of my fedora and my suit more rumpled than before. Inside the door, I immediately felt the air blowing from the oscillating fan through my damp clothes. Murray was at the bar and waved me over. The Pink Elephant was a no-nonsense type bar set up for serious drinking. There were no slots or music. What you got was top grade booze and a smoky, in- your-face atmosphere. The only other patrons were a large group of marines from the base outside of town. We exchanged meaningless pleasantries. It was only after my second scotch straight up that I started to mellow. Murray, too, began to feel more at ease, and slowly I found out why he had called. We had a couple more drinks while he explained that he had known Pamela and had in fact dated her before I was in the picture. I was stunned. I can’t explain even after three and a half drinks how jealous this made me feel. It was over. She was dead but the resentment was still there. He was evasive on why he decided to reveal this information at this time. He said he had liked her a lot, but before anything serious developed she met me. And that was the end of it for him. He ordered another round of drinks and I found myself thinking he still had something on his mind.

I don’t know when I first became aware of the vertigo. Perhaps it was when I threw back my head and quickly drained the last of the fourth drink. Suddenly it was there. Every time I blinked, the bar and everything and everyone in it started to move to the left. I had learned from past experience that this was only the start and that it would get progressively worse. It could become so intense that I would feel nausea and throw up. Often it ended with an unscheduled visit to the hospital emergency ward. I told Murray of my dilemma and he offered to take me to his apartment which was close by. I knew I couldn’t drive home so I agreed. He helped me stand, then, in order to support me, he wrapped his arm around me, catching me under my arm pit and resting his hand on my chest. My vertigo combined with the alcohol we had both consumed, made us look like a couple of winos as we weaved down the street dodging the rain puddles. With difficulty we managed to walk the short distance to his building. At least the rain had stopped.

Once in the apartment, Murray poured himself another drink, but I declined. I headed directly to the bathroom. I filled the basin with cold water and cupped my hands to wash my face with its coolness. All the while the room was revolving from right to left. I was perspiring heavily and beginning to panic. I gripped the pedestal sink top to steady myself. I reached for the rubber drain plug and pulled it out by the bead chain. I watched the water as it swirled down into the void of the drain. My grip on the edge of the sink seemed to be slipping, and I desperately turned to grasp the door knob and called out to Murray. In the midst of the swirling room, I could see the door which twisted over in a ninety degree angle while I stared. The last thing I remember thinking was that it wasn’t the door that fell over, it was me.

I must have been unconscious for a while. I awoke feeling intense pain, but the vertigo seemed to be gone. It took me several moments to realize where I was, which was on the floor facing the claw and ball feet of the white porcelain tub. I felt a rush of pain that was sharp and throbbing and tried to lift my arms, but only my left arm obeyed. With it I touched the side of my face near my eye and temple. The result was a sharp jolt of pain. I winced. What I could not comprehend was why I could not move my right arm. As I became more focused, I realized that it was trapped under the weight of my body. I rolled over to free it, but it felt lifeless. With great difficulty, I managed to sit up. I pulled myself up with my good arm, using the sink top for leverage. The sight in the mirror took me aback. I had a deep purple bruise about my left eye that ran around the side of my face and into my forehead. The temple had a cut and the blood had run down the side of my face and congealed. My right arm was beginning to lose the pins and needles feeling. Looking down I saw the knuckles of my right hand were bloody. I figured I must have fallen and hit my head on the edge of the sink first, then fallen backward and caught my arm underneath me.

I cleaned myself up, then the basin. I noticed the face crystal of my watch was smashed and the time frozen at 10:05. I opened the door, still feeling a little light headed from the scotch, and called out for Murray. I needed a bandage for my cut. He didn’t answer. I figured he had probably passed out from the drinking. The lone lamp at the far side of the room made the room itself look eerie with the long jagged shadows it cast. I made my way to the sofa where I had left Murray, but it was empty. I moved to turn on the nearest lamp and, as I walked around the sofa, I tripped and fell on my still limp right arm. I let out a curse at the pain. Then I saw Murray. He was on the floor in the shadows. I called out. When he remained quiet, I turned on the second lamp. He was lying in a semi-fetal position. His face was horribly mutilated into a mass of blood and facial tissue. The beating was so severe that I could barely recognize him. I fell back against a chair in shock and revulsion. Someone had beat him with a heavy object and had used incredible force.

I was still on the floor sitting in a half daze; the trauma was sinking in slowly, yet the possible repercussions were not registering. Then my brain clicked in. I had to get off my ass and out of there. I was sitting in a room with a dead man. That made me prime suspect number one, especially since I couldn’t recall what had happened in the last hour. I went over to Murray and checked his pockets for his wallet. He had a fair bit of cash. As I helped myself to the 20s, a business card fell to the floor. I picked it up. Under the logo of a tilted roulette table was the caption Any Number Can Play – 24 Hours. On the back of the card was a glamour photo of a girl that was a double for Pamela. But this Pamela was not brunette, she was blonde. Very blonde, and buxom to boot. Under the picture was the name, Deirdre, and scrawled in tiny neat letters under that was: 3 is my lucky number.

I turned the card over a few times then took another look. Sexy, and she knew it. The sweater advertised everything she wanted to say. There’s something about angora sweaters that causes my libido to soar. Angora sweaters and . . . Hell. I was slobbering over some dame’s picture with her lover dead on the floor in front of me. I slipped the card into my shirt pocket. I took a last look around. Anything I could remember touching I wiped clean with a towel. Back in the bathroom, I tended the bruise and cut as best I could. It still looked like I was ko’d in round one by Joe Louis but at least the cut looked ok. It would probably scar, but I’d worry about that later. I made sure I took the cleanup towel and the one with my blood stains with me. I eased myself out of the apartment using the cleanup towel to wipe the door knob. I was acting like a real pro. You would think I was involved in a killing every day.

It was late. I guessed the time to be around midnight. The street was quiet. No cars no pedestrians. I walked briskly, retracing my steps past the Pink Elephant which was still going strong. A truck delivering the early edition of the San Diego Star screeched to a halt at the corner newsstand. The kid in the back tossed out two bundles of the morning paper. I glanced at the headlines which blazed: Japs Defeated in Coral Sea Battle. I thought maybe the internment of Japanese aliens in California was justified, after all. People had been so hyper lately about Jap spies and saboteurs. Every other night there were area blackouts or siren alerts. According to the military, a Japanese attack on the California coast was a real threat – a legacy of Pearl Harbor. It was getting crazy.

The parking lot attendant had long since gone. I ditched the two towels behind his booth, then drove my Dodge at legal speed all the way home. On the car radio, they were repeating the previous Sunday’s Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show. I half listened to a program that, oddly, offered a ventriloquist on radio. For the money Bergen was getting, I could be a radio ventriloquist, too. My thoughts returned to Deirdre, the blonde in the sweater and Pamela’s double. I had to call her to find out where she fit in. What the hell was this any-number-can-play crap? Bootleg gambling, or more? The fact that she looked so much like Pamela was uncanny, yet exciting, too. I had to check her out.

Once back at my apartment, I made a bee line for the medicine cabinet and doctored up my cut and bruise. Somehow, purple didn’t look good on the face. The medicinal salve seemed to help the pain. I was vain enough to dab some talcum on the bruise and blend it in to try to disguise the discolouration. It worked, to a degree. Then I went to the phone and dialed the number for Deirdre. The clock on my side table indicated 1:30 am. The card did say 24 hours. On the second ring, a woman answered, her voice coarse and gravelly, the voice of someone who smoked a lot. I asked for Deirdre who came on the line after a short wait. I told her I was a friend of Murray Needs’ and that there was something important I wished to discuss with her.

“Murray’s friend?” she asked, her voice wary and obviously puzzled. “You want to see me?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?

“Noooo.” She dragged out the word so that it didn’t sound too convincing. “Only,” she continued, “I just got in and I need some time to get ready. Will you come here?”

“How about if we meet at the Dixie Diner at State and 11th Avenue? It’s open 24 hours and the coffee is decent. Say in about 20 minutes? I’ll be the guy with the red carnation in the lapel”


“We’ve never met. I was joking about the carnation. Just look for the guy in the rumpled suit. It’s my trademark.”

“I’ll recognize you. Let’s make that 45 minutes. I need to fix my face and freshen up.”

I was the only customer in the Dixie Diner. The 45 minute mark had passed and I was getting antsy. Across the street the Loews theatre had closed for the night, but their marquee was advertising a preview for Monday night. Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver. Garson was not my type of movie star. She was too much the lady. I preferred someone bitchier like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. They had balls. In fact, they always dominated the male stars cast with them.

Just as visions of Davis firing a volley of bullets into her dead lover in the movie The Letter flickered through my mind, a cab pulled up to the diner entrance. A willowy blonde got out. She had a kerchief on her head, babushka style, which she removed before she opened the door. Her loose hair fell forward. She ran her hand through it pushing it back over her right ear where it promptly fell back over her eyes. She repeated the movement as she entered the diner. This time it stayed in place. In the pit of my stomach I felt that combination of fear and excitement that you get when you’re doing something you shouldn’t. The feeling overwhelmed me. It was her. It was Pamela. Alive! As she walked towards my table I took in every movement. It was Pamela’s walk, sexy and inviting. I was so aroused I couldn’t stand up to greet her. Like an idiot I sat there staring into those eyes that seemed so familiar.

“Rumpled suit, no carnation and a face with the scars of battle – you must be the mystery man.” She said it as a joke to ease the tension, but she looked far from at ease. “Business ain’t so great,” she added, glancing about. Her voice was not Pamela’s voice. It had a harder edge, but everything else was Pamela. Her bust appeared more subtle in the outfit she wore. The black silk dress, with abstract white gulls in flight, looked expensive. The gulls covered her body and they gave me the impression of hands. A man’s hands. My hands.

“I hit my head getting into my car. I was drunk.” It was the only explanation I offered, lame as it was, for my battle scars. “Coffee?” I asked, changing the subject and motioning to the owner to bring another cup.

“Sure, but I’d prefer a cigarette.” I offered her my pack and she reached out with long fingers the nails painted a deep, blood red. As I lit the cigarette for her, she held my hand to steady it. Was I shaking or was she? “Why did you want to see me?” she asked, exhaling deeply while averting her eyes from mine.

“I need you to come with me to Murray’s apartment.” As soon as I heard myself, I wished I had been more discreet. Somehow I felt she was involved in Murray’s death. It was a premonition that I could not dispel. But I had to be careful and not scare her away.

“I, I can’t. I don’t understand,” she stammered. “Why do you want to take me there? I don’t want to go.”

We argued for some time. She refused to go with me which made me believe all the more that she had something to hide. Finally I offered to drive her home. Once in the car, I knew that I was going to take her to Murray’s apartment whether she wanted to go or not. She seemed distracted and didn’t notice the route I was taking. When we pulled up to Murray’s apartment building, she suddenly realized where we were. She fumbled with the door latch and finally got the door open and was about to run. Her fumbling had given me the advantage. By the time she was out of the car, I was at the sidewalk and I grabbed her arm roughly and swung her around to face me.

“No. No. I’m not going in there,” she protested as she continued to struggle. To shut her up, I pulled her to me and kissed her. She continued to struggle and bit my lip in the bargain. Like Davis, she was a bitch, too. When I told her that she was going to do what I said or else, she became more docile. I pulled her after me up the outside walk up and into the hallway. The front door was slightly ajar. Murray had explained the lack of security by joking that the tenants were too cheap to pay for the repair. I led the way up the inner staircase to the second floor, always holding her wrist in a vise-like grip. When she complained that I was hurting her, I eased up but held on. At the door to Murray’s apartment, I hesitated. She sensed my indecision.

“Look. I’ll do anything you want,” she said, her voice rising in agitation. “I’d prefer not to go in there. We could go to your place or mine. Anywhere but in there.” She was on the verge of hysteria but I had the door open and I pushed her in ahead of me and closed the door. Everything was as I left it. The only light came from the two small lamps – one of which I had turned on when I found Murray, and the light from the bathroom. Murray hadn’t moved. Dead bodies have that distinction. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Deirdre did not look in Murray’s direction, but rather had her back to him.

“I know you did it. What I want to know is why you killed him,” I blurted out. So much for keeping my cool. Hell, I wasn’t a private dick who knew all the answers. I was just some shmoe caught up in a whirlwind that I didn’t understand.

“You’re crazy. I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t have done that to him. It was so brutal.” She shivered, and for one moment I almost believed her. She looked so much like Pamela that I started to question the reasons for my wanting so desperately to prove she was lying. Her eyes were wide with a combination of fear and resignation. Pamela had had that same look the night of our break up. The difference was that Deirdre was here with me now. All my determination to nail her as a killer withered, and I knew at that moment that I needed her close to me. I reached out. She backed away in confusion. The sofa arm stopped her. I reached out again and with both hands pulled her to me. It was a passionate embrace on my part. She resisted at first, and this time she didn’t bite my lip. The longer we kissed, the more our bodies melted together. We crumpled to the floor like a deck of cards. We had wild sex a few feet away from Murray’s corpse. I didn’t give a damn. Murray was dead. But I was alive with my new Pamela.

Afterwards, as we lay on the hardwood floor, I kept badgering her to tell me how she had met Murray. You see, I’ve had a death wish all my life. I can’t leave well enough alone. I had to know the details, even if the results would prove to be a costly mistake. If she admitted killing him, I’d forgive her. Who was Murray to me? Now that I had Pamela back, I didn’t want to lose her again.

As she recounted the story, they had met several times at Any Number Can Play. It was a private club. Strictly members only. To my astonishment, the club had nothing to do with gambling. It was, in fact, a highly successful sex club. The only gambling that was involved was in the encounters themselves and what they could lead to. That was the key to the off kilter roulette symbol on their card. She admitted that for her danger and rough sex was a turn on. On their first meeting Murray told her how much she reminded him of a friend he had once dated, named Pamela. He was interested in a threesome with Deirdre and another woman. On subsequent encounters that never changed. It was only on their last meeting that Murray broached the subject of a change of characters. He had a male friend, he said, that might be interested in joining them as the new third party. His friend also knew Pamela. He set up the meeting for last night and she was to show up at 9:30. When she arrived Murray was drunk and alone. He said his friend had an attack of dizziness and had gone into the washroom.

As Deirdre was talking I got up, lit a cigarette, and started to pace the floor. Something was not right. Murray had never mentioned anything about any sex club. And, more to the point, I would never have agreed to group sex with him, period. For some reason she was setting me up with this wild story.

“I can see by the look on your face that you don’t believe me,” she said as she pulled the dove-covered dress over her head. “Do you want me to go on?” I was mesmerized by the dress and the heat of our recent union. I wanted to believe her. But deep down I knew she was lying through her teeth. Since my voice had abandoned me, I nodded for her to continue. “Murray asked me to make some coffee and he would check on his friend, you, in the washroom. He said he hadn’t quite told you everything about our mutual encounter. I thought that was strange. What was there to tell? It was all about sex for money. I went into the kitchen to make the coffee.”

“While I was in the kitchen I heard you suddenly come out of the washroom, shouting obscenities at Murray about him and Pamela. There was a scuffle and you started punching him in the face. Then you picked up the umbrella that I had left by the door and clubbed him with the brass handle. When he fell to the floor, you continued to beat him. Finally, you stopped, dropped the umbrella, and staggered back to the washroom. I was so terrified I couldn’t move or shout out. What I had witnessed was a horrible nightmare. I stood there well after you went back into the washroom. A few moments after the door shut, I heard a large crash. It seemed to wake me from my daze. I rushed out from the kitchen. Murray wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t look at his face. It was ghastly. In a panic, I grabbed my umbrella and left. I’ve served time back east. No way did I want to be involved with murder. You killed Murray.”

I was looking at her lips, soft and moist, as she said the last three words. They suddenly repeated in my brain like the tolling of a bell. The events began unfolding like a Movietone newsreel in my mind’s eye not unlike my vertigo. They turned and twisted sometimes in focus, sometimes not. It was surreal. Now it was my turn to be immobile. I sat cross-legged on the floor, the reality of the words sinking into my consciousness as they continued to repeat in my head. Even when the police came and interrogated me, I kept quiet. I knew who the killer was now but I had to remain silent to save myself. Later, at the hospital, the doctors tried to get me to talk, too, but I outsmarted them all. I was going to be as quiet as a church mouse. They’d never suspect me.


Ralph J. Luciani

Leave a Reply