Tuesday, February 7, 2012
I usually avoid reunions with old flames like I do visits to the dentist, so it’s with a special sense of dread that while gleaning the plot outline for my next case I found myself swapping pleasantries and a good deal more with a former lover. You can’t blame the guy who writes me much for hatching the idea. Carmen always was irresistible; a femme fatale worthy of Hammer, Hammett or Chandler: seductive, vulnerable and dangerous — just not necessarily in that order. Carmen was like one of those party poppers, only made with real dynamite: be sure to run for cover once you pull her string. I damn near didn’t survive my first go-round with her, so please allow me my misgivings about this decision to regurgitate her now up out of my past.
I met Carmen on the first case I was assigned to after my suspension lifted for having sent Harvey Krieger to the hospital — the first time. I was still on the force at the time, and my father, also a detective, had recently been ‘accidentally’ shot by another cop — Krieger — while working undercover. You might recall that Harvey liked to shoot things first and find reasons for them to be dead later. Putting my father in a wheelchair for the rest of his life was a form of recreation to Krieger. I took exception when Internal Affairs cleared him of any wrong doing in the shooting and told him so one night after work. I didn’t much care for the lack of remorse in his response, and sent him to the emergency room with a fractured skull, broken jaw and several broken ribs. Guess Carmen isn’t the only one with dynamite in her DNA.
Anyway, Captain Vega wanted to ease me back into action when my suspension lifted, and told me to help Stan Cummings on a stalker case he’d been working. It seemed innocuous enough to keep me out of sight and out of trouble. An assistant curator at a local museum had attracted a co-worker’s attentions. When flowers and candy didn’t work the co-worker sent her twisted love letters penned in blood. The museum sent him packing, but that just gave him more time on his idle hands and a score to settle. A court order didn’t help, and he continued to stalk her round the clock in an obvious attempt to wear her down.
From the looks of her, he was succeeding. Carmen was a mess when I first saw her, sitting in ‘Zo’s office; trembling like a wet kitten, her mascara running over the dark bags under her eyes from lack of sleep. She nervously gnawed her fingers bloody as she pleaded for help and protection. She looked up at us with lost puppy-dog eyes as Vega explained there was little they could do until the guy actually made his move. She mumbled something to the effect she could be dead by then, but ‘Zo promised her they wouldn’t let that happen. He volunteered me to make sure she got home safely, and said he’d have squad cars prowl her neighborhood to scare the creep off. He probably didn’t believe that part any more than I did, but it seemed to calm Carmen down.
Poor ‘Zo should have saved himself the bother about keeping me out of trouble. Whether I’m looking for it or not, it seems to find me just the same. Little did I know that trouble was also extremely fond of Carmen; things just seemed to happen to her in ways no one — she least of all — could understand or explain. She reminded me of the women in classic screwball comedies who invariably got embroiled in the most bizarre kinds of trouble through no apparent fault of their own. They seemed to thrive on chaos. Damsels in perpetual distress one could call them, only with Carmen it wasn’t all harmless slapstick. There was a darker, desperate side to Carmen’s entanglements that inexorably drew you ever closer to the flame without your realizing just how much danger you were really in.
Which I hope explains why I’m a bit skittish about the idea of her stepping back into my life. Men, like moths, need to know their limitations when playing with fire. Carmen’s the kind of woman who stretches you to yours. The neon signs inside your head signal STOP! CAUTION! but you ignore them and follow the pointing of your dick instead as if it were a reliable compass.
That’s usually the problem with damsels in distress; you’re fucked if you help them, and you’re fucked if you don’t. Either way you begin to care. You construe their fear and vulnerability for weakness, not realizing until it’s too late that with women like Carmen the perception of helplessness is the scent that lures you in. How did Brigid O’Shaughnessy put it? “Be generous, Mr. Spade….You’re strong, you’re resourceful, you’re brave. You can spare me some of that strength and resourcefulness and courage, surely.”
That’s part of danger with femme fatales: they make the poor slob believe he’s better than he really is, make you believe you really can survive the shit they’re about to throw you into. All the same, the warning of Noah Cross from Chinatown begins to murmur in your ear: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” One thing invariably leads to another, and before you know better you’re sleeping with dynamite dressed in lace pants and doing something stupid. Then you’re really fucked, because once you check into that particular motel there’s no checking out and the linen never washes clean; you’ve crossed the line somewhere in your efforts to help her and now it’s your ass, not hers, that’s in the fryer.
Doesn’t author-dearest see where messing with a woman like Carmen will lead? Bizet didn’t know the half of it. I’ve been there, done that, and prefer not to descend into that netherworld again. I was lucky to escape in one piece the last time.
I don’t expect that will make much difference, though. The guy at the wheel seems as hooked on Carmen as I was. In which case, here’s hoping both of us have more than one life left in the bank.