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"Gristle" by Russell Thayer

The gaunt blonde at the end of the bar moved her head from side to side while staring at Vivian, suggesting don’t. Vivian, a pretty brunette, lifted her glass of red wine toward the blonde, signifying mind your own beeswax. The blonde snapped her eyes toward the door, implying go. Vivian figured she’d stumbled into someone else’s territory, then turned back to the man who’d bought her the wine. He claimed to be an assistant director at Paramount. She might get fifteen out of him.

La Boheme, a glitzy guzzle-crib on Sunset, harbored studio types and foreign men with cash. The lifeless economy sat hard on regular folks. But this was Hollywood. They printed money here. New in town, Vivian stayed out of trouble by working no more than three nights a week. She usually operated in hotel bars, agreeing to ten and even five-dollar tricks. Every square job was already filled with a disillusioned ingenue. The city drew them in fresh and spit them out like chewed cartilage. Men fed on the desperation in a pair of lost eyes.

If the blonde left her alone, Vivian could score big in a joint like this. Pay the rent on her small room for another month. Get her shoes repaired. Older than Vivian, the blonde displayed a dark blemish around her left eye that hadn’t been well-buried by makeup. Vivian had a fresh face, and wore nothing but lipstick. Men never missed her.

The blonde stared at the door, rising off her stool, then back at Vivian, before closing her eyes, indicating I warned you.

Vivian understood. She eased off her stool, a little jump in her heartbeat. As she turned to find the door, pushing the assistant director’s restraining hand off her wrist, she felt another one grip her shoulder, rotating her on her broken shoes so she stared into the dark eyes of a tough little thug with greasy hair swept back off his forehead. A large goon stood behind him, blocking most of the natural light that made streaks in the mahogany bar shine like treasure at the bottom of a mountain stream.

“The fuck you doin’ in here?” The little man spoke around a toothpick.

“On my way home from the office,” said Vivian. “Stopped in for a drink.”

“You was just gettin’ to work. Only you don’t work here.”

“Fine. I’ll go someplace else.”

The man took Vivian’s arm, pulling her along the bar to a swinging wooden door, then through a busy kitchen to a steel door. An alley door. He thrust her outside, but she remained on her feet. She wasn’t afraid. He’d just give her a talking to. A warning. The goon held her arms behind her back as the little man grabbed her by the throat.

“I catch you in here again, you work for me, see? First in a boogie house, doped up and on your back twenty times a day. For nuthin’. Then I put you to work in the clubs because you’re a classy, good-lookin’ dame. Only you won’t remember that. You’ll just know you’re mine.”

“Stop it!” said the blonde as she burst through the door. “Let her go.” There was a tremor in her voice, and Vivian could tell it was hard for her to be brave like that. The pimp turned and swung at her. Vivian expected a slap to ring out, but he pounded the blonde’s nose with a closed fist, driving her backwards until her head thumped against the wall. She slid to the ground, knees bent, her nose crooked, blood dripping off her chin.

The goon moved, frowning, and grabbed at the short, livid man.

“Come on, boss. Let’s go. They got the message.”

The men scurried away down the alley, the pimp waggling his sore hand in the air because a blonde’s head had to be so hard.

A pimple-faced busboy came out in his white jacket to strike a match against the rough stucco. A cigarette hung from his lips. Stopping mid-ignition when he saw the women, he tossed a dishrag to Vivian, then turned back to the bustle of the kitchen. Vivian wiped at the blood before it completely ruined the blonde’s blouse. A dark-skinned cook in a greasy apron appeared at her side, squatting on the concrete next to her. He took the woman’s broken nose in his hands, straightening it with a sickening crackle before lifting one eyelid to look at the pupil. It had rolled toward the heavens. He lifted a limp wrist to check her pulse. The sleeve of her threadbare white blouse slid to her elbow. Vivian could see bruises in the crook. Needles.

“Are you a doctor?” she asked the greasy apron.

“Worked in a hospital once. She’s dead.”

“Oh, no,” said Vivian, her sweaty skin chilling in the alley shadows. “The man she works for slugged her on my account. He just walked away.”

“A pimp gonna do that if he gets mad at a grouse,” said the cook, wiping his palms on his apron. “You get outta here, if you know what’s good. You’re a witness. I’ll call the cops in an hour. Be gone.” He looked down the alley before returning to the kitchen. The door closed with a heavy clunk.

The blonde had no identifying papers in her purse. She’d probably thrown away her past so her family could never find her. Vivian removed three dollars and a tube of lipstick, then held the blonde’s hands for a moment, absorbing their lingering warmth, telling her I’m sorry.

Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in Brushfire, The Phoenix, Evening Street Review, Cirque, Close to the Bone, Bristol Noir, Apocalypse Confidential, Outcast Press, Hawaii Pacific Review, Shotgun Honey, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington, worked for decades at large printing companies, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana.

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