Lines Inside of Lines Modern Noir Short Fiction By Bill Vernon

Lines Inside of Lines: Modern Noir Short Fiction By Bill Vernon

Bill Vernon, author of “Lines Inside of Lines”, served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. His writing credits include the mystery novel Old Town and shorter crime stories in Without A Clue, Blue Murder Magazine, and Blue Review among others.

*****

The dancers told me later that the cops stood in the doorway watching us for five minutes.

We were learning the Greek dance Sirtaki. After our first go-around, our teacher Jack Andino said it was his father’s signature dance and so gave him energy. “He always led it no matter where we were.” I admired a man who thinks of his father like that. Jack was my height at 6 feet, an electrical engineer retired from the air base, 77 years old, 26 years older than me, but he moved effortlessly, flawlessly, beautifully.

Did I say that to him? No. I said, “Jack, following you is like chasing a rabbit.”

He laughed and we did the dance two more times. The cops were watching around the third time, during which I began alibiing my lack of grace, thinking that Jack’s being 40 pounds lighter with a lifetime of dancing experience gave him advantages. Dancing was as foreign to me as living on Mars.

Frankly, my ineptitude was frustrating as hell. Sirtaki’s turning, grapevining, and kicking were not fast compared to what I’d done as a high school running back, setting a mark for yards-gained my senior year. I should’ve been a better dancer than I was.

It was a self-conscious thing. I was the group’s oaf, tripping, confusing the order of steps, screwing up royally. By the end of the 3rd try at the dance, my concentration was on surviving without hurting anyone. Some of our dancers were so frail, bumping into them might break a bone.

Frankly, my ineptitude was frustrating as hell. Sirtaki’s turning, grapevining, and kicking were not fast compared to what I’d done as a high school running back…

When the music stopped, the little lady holding my sweaty left hand enthused, “You’re doing great, Bill. Really!”

I smiled at her blindness. “You’re very kind.”

Then hearing applause and laughter, sensing ridicule, I turned toward the source: two dark human forms framed by the brightly lit wide-open double doors behind them.

“Lovely!” one of them said.

Damn! I recognized Devlon’s voice and his partner Jacob’s shape.

I went to them more quickly than I’d moved in the dance, trying to keep them from scaring or insulting the dancers. “Why the hell are you two here?”

Jacobs said, “Checking on a reported dead body.”

“Here?” I almost laughed. “Dim, I seriously doubt that’s true.” We called him Dim and not just for his initials, D.M. Jacobs.

Dim said, “Okay, the caller was unanimous so it could be a prank.”

Devlon said, “Shall we find out? Where’s the front closet?”

Dim said, “The call said that’s where it was.”

I turned to the dancers before I led the two visitors there. “Go on with the program. These are police officers who have to check out something.”

A dead body? In the front closet? Get serious.

*****

On our way to the far end of Sullivan Pavilion, “Sirtaki” began blaring and the 20 dancers did the dance again. I hated to miss the chance to get it right. I intended to learn the damn thing or die trying.

I opened the unlocked double doors and surprise: a body. I quit humming “Sirtaki,” subtitled the “Song of Joy.” The victim was lying between stacks of picnic tables whose legs were folded up beneath them like the decedent’s legs beneath her.

Devlon stepped around the blood, bent over and needlessly checked her neck for a pulse. Obviously, she’d been dead a while. The blood was drying and some had sunk into the porous old concrete floor. The tight closet space also smelled of death and bowels evacuation. I put a hanky over my nose and backed away.

Without looking around, Devlon said, “You know her, Bill?”

“Richards, Alma. She came here weekly to enjoy the music and talk with friends. Too old to dance. I traded hellos with her but we never talked at length. That’s all I know about her. By the way, we start beginners’ classes at 7:00 every Thursday, and at all of them I’ve been to, no one ever looked in this closet.”

Devlon fingered her white hair. “There’s a slab like a piece of pizza hanging off her scalp. If this wasn’t an accident, I’ll kiss yer….”

I said, “Okay, Chuck. Watch your language here.”

“Ass is too strong for your friends?” He stood and came out the door between me and Jacobs. “Your tiptoeing through the tulips is done for today. You want to tell your friends to hang loose over there where they are. We’ll have to get statements.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Stopping my evening workout momentarily angered me.

Dim said, “We was just down the street eatin’ supper at the Golden Pancakes when we heard the dispatcher’s message. Bein’ so close to where you dance, we said we’d check it out. Otherwise, uniforms’d be here. I guess we saved a little time on this one.”

“Crosby will be impressed,” I said, referring to the Captain.

Dim said, “Yeah, maybe it’ll help us with the promotion,” referring to a vacant sergeant position—they’d been interviewed along with several others.

I said, “Good luck. You both need all the help you can get.”

Devlon snorted. “What’ll impress Crosby is to hear about you bein’ here, pussy-footin’ around in shorts and a tee shirt with a bunch of old broads. I’m surprised you don’t have a tutu on. You gettin’ senile or what?”

“Yeah, I oughta retire and give you guys another slot to fight over.”

Dim said, “Everybody knows that you been dancing here.”

Devlon said, “I was afraid the body wouldn’t be you.”

I said, “Be nice, Chuckie.”

Murder, hell, crime in general had until now been far away from the pavilion. Dancing took my mind off the crap I had to handle all the time. Like these two jerks.

*****

When I started folk dancing, all the guys called me pansy ass and worse, but my own jokes about wearing a tutu might have egged them on. Yeah, Devlon had stolen my joke. Anyway, I couldn’t blame them for wisecracking since I constantly ridiculed myself about it, amazed I was so clumsy anymore.

Yet I looked forward to our weekly dance sessions. I made arrests, questioned witnesses, and issued tickets while humming foreign songs. In dark alleyways, on isolated sidewalks, in my home’s privacy, idling in a cruiser at a light, I practiced dance steps.

The Valley Folk Dancers were the only people I hung with besides cops and suspects, but were they normal, obsessed with dances and music they didn’t understand? They were as apple pie-fed Americans as me and, unlike Jack Andino, born in Macedonia, knew nothing about Greece, China, or wherever in hell the music originated.

The investigation into Alma Richard’s passing was Jacobs’ and Devlon’s case. A week later, I asked how they were doing on it. Dim said, “Pallikari was her maiden name. We found that out but nothing much revelant.”

Devlon said, “She came to the states from Greece in ’56 and married in 1960. She had no children, and her husband died of lung cancer over 20 years ago. He was a smoker. Nobody knows nothing about why she got trashed.”

Dim said, “Maybe it was robbery. We never found her purse. Let us know if you learn anything. You’re one of those dance people now so maybe they’ll trust you and talk. Know what I mean, William?”

“Yeah, but nobody calls me William. What’s the idea?”

Devlon said, “He’s tryin’ to be funny. Pathetic, ain’t it? I got to live with shit like that day after day.”

Dim said, “Look, I seen on the roster that your name’s really Wilhelm. Wilhelm means William, right? My dad is German and speaks it.”

“Yeah, Dim, I’m named after my own father, but I go by Bill ’cause my dad was so hardheaded his skull coulda been a Nazi helmet.”

Dim laughed. “I didn’t know that.”

Many cops act like they hate what they do but keep doing it anyway. Yeah, we’re complainers. The job makes you negative. That’s one thing dancing helped me escape.

*****

Which perhaps explains why the following Saturday I was at the South Balkan Club, paying a young couple at a table by the heavy steel doors $20 to attend what Jack Andino called a kolo party. Jack had assured me that most of the dances there would be ones I knew, including Sirtaki, so I couldn’t say no.

Receiving a nametag, I printed BILL SMITH and stuck it on my chest. The money entitled me to all the food and drink I wanted. The tags the couple wore said Gus and June with an unpronounceable last name. They handed me a traditional Bulgarian drink, we touched shot glasses, they said something that I guessed meant Welcome, and the drink burned all the way down.

“Better not drink much of that,” Jack Andino said shaking my hand. “I’m glad you could make it.”

As my throat cooled, he introduced me to the couple and several other people around us. “Come on. I saved a place for you with the folk dancers.”

He led me across the dance floor to two tables end-to-end near the stage. Purses and sweaters marked the already-taken chairs. “Put your things down and come on. The band’s starting.” I noticed a dozen folk dancers already on the floor. They were waiting for Jack. He was apparently the leader here as well as with the folk dancers.

What happened was almost all the people in the building got into lines, held hands, and circled around on the square parquet dance floor laid upon a concrete slab. Brightly painted mountainous river scenes on the concrete block walls gave the place color. The dance floor looked large but became so crowded, the lines often overlapped into lines inside of lines, making concentric circles.

A few dancers knew a lot and showed off. Most just kept up with the rhythm as I did, picking up steps by watching the others. The crowding slowed and simplified the steps so I could do them. It became almost mindless. With the music echoing off the walls, I got lost, merging into the crowd and the beat.

*****

Over an hour later, the band stopped, my short sleeve shirt and long pants were soaked, but I felt good, as if I’d sweated out the evils of life. I drowned my thirst with a cold bottle of Serbian beer. Its label pictured a moose head above Jelen, though the 1st letter was so oddly shaped I wasn’t sure.

“Hey, you like it?” The bartender was drinking red wine from a plastic cup. Before I could answer, he lifted his cup toward me. “Cheers.”

I touched his cup with my glass. “Cheers. It’s got a kick, a little bitterness. How do you say the name?” which I pointed to on my bottle.

He said it three times before I tried repeating it, “Yeeayian?”

He laughed. “Close enough.” He pointed to the smaller print below Jelen. “That means beer.”

“Pivo means beer?”

“You got it. The brand name means deer.”

“Oh, that’s a deer. So this is Deer Beer. Well, yeah, I like it.”

He smiled. “Then I buy you another one.” And handed me another dripping bottle.

At the food counter, I skipped desserts and cooked cabbage—I hate sauerkraut—then built a thick sandwich, piling slices of ham, raw lettuce, cheese and mustard between two dark slices of bread. Delicious!

At the same time Jack Andino was on the microphone announcing that door prizes would be awarded in 90 minutes and that he’d play CD music until the band returned. “We wore out all five of them. They’re resting”

The crowd roared and clapped.

“They said they’ll play requests when they come back so let them know the Balkan music you want. Meanwhile if you want something different, a couple dance, something Scottish, a set dance, I’ve got all the folk dancers’ music here so let me know.”

The idea of more dancing hurried me down a long hallway past a kitchen, a couple of meeting rooms, then into the men’s room.

I stood at the urinal, which was a long metal trough, multitasking, downing my beer and peeing simultaneously when someone joined me. I didn’t even look at him. My experience aboard ship made this arrangement familiar.

I was reading the large framed Balkan map on the wall. It had all of the countries outlined and named with a dark line separating sections called South and North.

As I located Serbia, the man beside me said, “I heard that police stopped you folk dancers last Thursday. Big trouble, huh?”

I recognized the bartender, and said, “Oh, hi, thanks for the beer.”

He nodded. “It was free anyway.”

“So to speak,” I said. “But yeah, it stopped us cold. We only danced a half hour then, and it closed the pavilion this week too.”

He said, “That’s too bad.”

I pointed at the map. “I didn’t know there were so many Slovakian countries.”

“Slav,” he said. “Slav and Slovakian are two very different things.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, there’s a big goddam difference.”

The comment blasted out so loud, I glanced at the man, but the CD music had just started blasting then too, and the first notes were something familiar to me. A dance I liked and could do but couldn’t name.

I zipped up and beat him out of the room.

*****

You might say the horse had leaped through the open barn door, but I didn’t notice that at first, too anxious to get to the dance floor. The song playing was an English line dance, Welsh, which I guessed was why the seven people on the floor were all folk dancers with Jack leading. I joined the line and as the song ended asked him to play “Sirtaki.” Doing that dance well I felt competent, enthused, and stayed on the floor until the band returned.

While they went to their instruments, I thought of a dance I’d learned two weeks before and had hoped to do on Thursday, but of course we hadn’t danced then nor the next week either. I printed “Moj Maro, Moj Marine,” gave the paper to the band’s spokesman, and asked if they’d play it.

He read the name and shook his head. “We can’t do this one.”

“You don’t know the music to it?”

He said, “Well, we do the song, but we’ve been asked not to do Albanian here.”

I remembered Albania on the map beside Macedonia and Greece. It was a genuine south Balkan nation and this was the South Balkan Club. “Who asked you not to do it?”

The guy shrugged. “The management. How about a different song?”

Now I shrugged. “Can’t think of one.”

Even if my mind hadn’t suddenly remembered the bartender in the toilet, I wouldn’t have been able to name another song. Foreign languages threw me. The people speaking them were of course even more mysterious.

In the quiet time while the band prepared and CD music was off, I asked Jack about the difference between Slovakian and Slav.

“Oh, yeah, there’s a difference,” he said and explained.

In too much detail. What I got was that there were animosities among groups of Slavic people. Slovakians were mostly north. I thought of the US where over 100 years after the civil war bad feelings separated northerners and southerners, blacks and whites. The Slavs had many more years to cultivate their internal hatreds than we’ve had.

I told Jack about my dance request and asked him if that animosity was why the band had been asked not to play Albanian music.

“That’s just a club rule. I’m surprised you remembered that song.”

“The music and the dance are catchy, and I remembered the name because I was in the Marine Corps for 20 years, though Marine probably means something different in Albanian. I didn’t know the dance was Albanian until the band guy said it was.”

He nodded and smiled.

I said, “Would you have played it if I’d requested it instead of Sirtaki?”

He hesitated, then shook his head. “No, I have to follow the rule too.”

“How’d the club pass such a discriminatory policy? Albania on that map in the head shows it’s next to Greece.”

“Yeah, it is. Well, the rule’s not actually a by-law. We do it out of politeness, to avoid conflict. Some members have very long memories.”

“Like the bartender?”

Jack shrugged. “George Cook? I think he’s Greek like me.”

“I thought you were Macedonian.”

Jack said, “I am, but it’s very complicated. There’ve been many conquerings and re-conquerings of Balkan countries over the centuries. A lot of blood has been shed, a lot of grievances made.”

“Are the folk dancers here tonight members of the South Balkan Club too?”

“All of them except you.”

“Was Alma Richards a member.”

He shook his head. “I never could get her to join.”

“That seems odd. I understand that she’s an immigrant from Greece, folk dance friends of hers are members here, and she liked dancing.”

Jack shrugged. “I knew Alma 30 years, but I don’t think we ever talked about her Greek background. But she was Greek all right. She knew the language. I’ve heard her translate lyrics from some of our folk dance songs.”

“Are there any Albanian members of the South Balkan Club?”

“None that I know of.”

“Maybe Alma was of Albanian extraction.”

Jack frowned. “I never thought of that.”

It was, I guessed, the first time I’d heard him lie.

*****

Until that evening I was dumb enough to confuse Balkan and Baltic just because they sounded alike. With the band playing and dancers whirling again, I wandered around the warehouse-like room reviewing what I knew of the Balkans. The area was a powder keg. The 1st World War had started there. The Bosnian War was fought there but ended here in my hometown with the signing of the peace accords. I really knew little more than that.

But I also remembered my first impression that confusing Slovakian and Slavic had angered Cook. Plus he’d mentioned police at folk dancing two Thursdays ago.

Seeing me approach the bar, Cook pointed to an empty bottle of Jelen and raised his eyebrows, asking if I wanted another. The loud music made talking difficult if not impossible. I shook my head, waved him closer and asked directly in his ear without yelling if I could talk to him a second. He followed me into the nearest meeting room.

Its emptiness muted the music enough to speak normally. “You asked me about the police when they found Alma Richards’ body. Did you know her?”

Leaning toward me, he straightened up at my question. “Not really.”

“I heard she was of Greek origin and that you are too. Her maiden name was Pallikari. That’s Greek isn’t it? So you must’ve known of her at least. The Greek community in town is pretty tight. Do you belong to the Greek Orthodox Church? All the Greeks I know belong to The Annunciation.”

“She didn’t.” He stared at me a moment. “You a cop or something?”

I showed him the badge from my back pocket. “She was brutally murdered. I knew her. She seemed like a nice old lady.”

“Nice? She was canavar.” The word snapped out loudly.

Spittal struck my cheeks and backed me up a step. “What’s that mean?”

Jack later told me the word meant monster or beast in Turkish. I knew it was something bad, and its use suggested that Cook was very quick to anger.

His head jutted forward. “Her family took a good name, a sacred Greek name, Pallikari, which heroic Greek people earned fighting her family, who were probably Berishas. Yes, I get excited. Why not? My anger’s nothing compared to what they did.”

“You mean in the Bosnian War?”

His face contorted. “That was recent, yesterday, and yesterday was bad enough, but it was only the latest. Americans are so ignorant. Ever hear of the Ottoman Empire?”

“Yeah, the 18 hundreds, right? Richards couldn’t be guilty of something then.”

“Is murder something? Is theft something? Her family worked for the Turks.”

“Do you mean she was Albanian?”

He looked away as if studying the corners of the empty room.

Refusing to answer seemed as clear as saying yes. Trying to understand, I wasn’t ready for the fist that slammed my right cheek. It knocked me stumbling backwards into a large, heavy cabinet that kept me standing.

He ran at me swinging his left hand again. Instinctively I stepped into the open, ducked so his fist only scraped my ear, grabbed his shoulders, pulled him toward me so his own momentum helped as I fell backwards onto the floor, raised my feet to his belly, and flipped him over my head. When he tried to roll free of my grip, I clipped his temple with my right elbow. Hand-to-hand combat training from 33 years ago had kicked in.

*****

The forensic team found a wicked-looking old knife at the Cook property, a relic called a yatagan that, although recently cleaned, bore traces of Alma Richard’s blood. George Cook’s father Gregory Cook admitted his guilt. Swimming in the city’s Aquatic Center he’d met Alma during a 2-hour period reserved for retirees. She didn’t recognize him nor he her because they’d changed so much, but hearing her name, he remembered. They chatted, and she accepted his offer of a ride back to her Senior Living Residence rather than waiting an hour for the bus she’d have to take. It was an opportunity, and he took it, he said, without knowing what he’d do.

They spoke Greek as they drove past the Sullivan Pavilion, another nearby city recreational facility, and she mentioned dancing there. Having square danced there himself with a different group years before, he asked if she’d go inside for nostalgia’s sake. He’d like to see it again. It was as if God intended what happened to happen.

They got inside. A key on his key chain was from when he’d been on his square dance group’s Council. The locks hadn’t been changed in all that time. It was morning of a work day so the pavilion and its parking lot were empty. Walking through the building stimulated memories in her. She suddenly remembered him and said she’d been sorry they lost contact. She’d been in love. Her comment enraged him. He opened the closet door, and said, “Look in here, Alma.” While she looked in the closet, he’d retrieved the knife from the spare tire well in his car, stored there in case of emergency.

Weird on many levels. The old man still drove at 85 years of age. They just happened to meet. His key still worked. He bragged that the same kind of knife her family had used to kill Greeks had killed her. Albanians had collaborated with the Turkish invaders, and Alma’s family had taken property and jobs from residents they had helped slay or displace. Most of that was 200 years ago. A long time for hatred to fester.

Thirty years ago, he’d attended a folk dancers’ sale of traditional Greek clothing at the pavilion. Alma had chaired the sale. He’d met her then and conversed in Greek with her. He’d been attracted to her and she to him. They’d seen each other socially a few times. He was thinking of marriage. When she refused to join him at a South Balkan Club’s holiday meal, he investigated and uncovered the truth. He blamed his family’s losses to the “canavars” on her. No one knows if his version of history is true. His attraction to her may have also been love, but she was the enemy and that made him ashamed enough to hope for a way to pay her back. That’s what he said he finally did. Who was the anonymous caller reporting the murder? Maybe God phoned from heaven.

*****

I ripped out the seat of my trousers in my judo maneuver. Obviously I had to lose weight. Trying to do that was another reason I’d taken up dancing—something to do instead of sitting all evening in front of the boob tube with munchies and drinks.

Unfortunately, my white skivvies showing in the ripped opening was hilarious to the guys who showed up at the Balkan Club and arrested George Cook. Tied in with my dancing, they spread the hilarity to the whole department.

When Captain Crosby was at the mic (which is how the dumbasses spell the word nowadays even in police reports), his opening remark was, “First, some praise. Sergeant Wilhelm Smith deserves credit for helping to solve the folk dance murder case in a clever undercover role. He danced at the South Balkan Club with his ass hanging out of his torn trousers for all the civilians to laugh at.”

Which wasn’t true but of course drew a good bit of laughter. Dim was standing next to me and said, “I told the Cap to call you Wilhelm because you hated the name.”

“I don’t hate it, Dim, godammit. It was my father’s name. I loved my father.”

Crosby liked being a comedian enough to add, “Fortunately no photos of the event exist. We all thank him for retiring before he got the entire city laughing at us.”

By then I’d quit the muscle relaxant and pain killer, which I’d taken before going to bed at night. My strained back was almost back to normal. I was happy sipping an Amstel lager, my first drink in two weeks. I knew not to mix strong meds and alcohol.

A few days later I attended another small gathering for the promotion of Officer D.M. Jacobs to sergeant. When I shook his hand, Dim said, “Thank you so much for recommending me, Bill. That means a lot.”

It stunned me. I didn’t want anyone thinking I took sides with him against Devlon. “Yeah but, Jacobs, you know I….”

Devlon butted in at that point, shook his partner’s hand and said something about being glad for Dim although he couldn’t understand where the hell I was coming from. Then he looked at me angrily.

“Now wait a minute,” I said, intending to explain what I’d told the Captain and the Chief about my appraisal of Jacobs’ and Devlon’s abilities.

At exactly that point the Chief called Officer Charles Devlon forward and announced his promotion to Sergeant. He had my old slot.

This was such a relief I shook his hand but also said I’d recommended him too.

He and Jacobs laughed, the Captain laughed, and the Chief smiled. They were all in on it. They’d known Dim and Chuck were both promoted and had deliberately not let me know. I shook my head, realizing how slow I was to understand subtlety anymore. However, I also enjoyed all these jokes on me. They were expressions of friendship.

Aging draws me to people, things, and events that feel good. I hated fighting the eruptions of shitheads and morons. Why nurture hatred? Why cultivate evil? Did hating Albanians in general improve old man Cook’s life? His son’s? Did stabbing Alma?

So I dance, read good books, and help others when it seems like the right thing to do. Life’s short. If I were a Balkanite, I might even have joined the SBC. Jacobs and Devlon refuse to give dancing a chance. They’re not old enough yet to see its value.

*****

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