Pictures Don’t Lie: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By T.W. Garland
T.W. Garland, author “Pictures Don’t Lie” has short fiction featured in Shotgun Honey, Impractical Things, Dwelling Literary, Punk Noir Magazine, Dash Literary Journal, The Daily Drunk Magazine, Dark Dossier, Schlock! and a variety of anthologies.
Last night’s cigarettes choked the back of his throat as his eyes screamed for the focus of a pre-breakfast bourbon. The empty bottles in the kitchen were as accommodating as a Super 8 minibar and water from the tap looked like flat beer without tasting as pleasant.
Peeking out from rain clouds, the sun gave him the sly smile of a shop assistant in a lingerie department, promising to deliver embarrassment at a cost he couldn’t afford. He didn’t need a weather report to tell him the day would be filled with bad weather and worse luck. Leaning against the sink, he wondered which of the bars between his apartment and work would offer a drink on credit.
“These are pretty good.” The voice burst through his thoughts with unexpected familiarity. Jack spun around. His chest clenched as he reached for the closest weapon. He pointed a partially melted spatula at the girl folded up on his couch holding his camera.
Peeking out from rain clouds, the sun gave him the sly smile of a shop assistant in a lingerie department…
“You gonna cook me some eggs Jack?” She wore a tight-fitting top, a pair of panties and a lewd smile.
“No.” Jack dropped the spatula back into the sink, disturbing a nest of cockroaches.
“Good. I haven’t had my shots recently.”
Jack took the camera. He had a vague inclination that her name was Petal, but that was a guess at best.
“I’m not so hot on the pictures of dead people,” she said. “A little morbid for my taste.”
“They’re not for you.”
“If you’d told me last night, I coulda done that for you.” Uncurling her legs, she bloomed into a dangerous flower of youthful attraction. “I can be very accommodating when someone asks nicely.”
“Get your pants on. It’s time to go.”
“We need to work on your idea of polite.”
“Get the hell out of here. Please.”
She pulled on jeans so tight he could read the tag in her underwear. He watched her step into her boots and lean over to fasten the zips. She got a rise out of more than the zipper and, if not for the sledgehammer pounding a death metal beat in his head, he might have enjoyed the show.
“When can I get my pictures?” Her face had the shiny concern of a plastic doll.
“It’ll take me a couple of days to get them processed.”
“A couple of days? Aren’t they digital?”
“You want head shots right? Fashion glosses? Not just some novelty holiday snap printed on a mug? I can give you the memory card and you can swing by CVS if you want. Or you can wait a couple of days and I’ll print your pictures properly.”
“You’re a sweetheart Jack.”
“Thanks, why don’t you get yourself off to school.”
She gave him the pouty look of a valentine receiving a single rose when she expected a dozen.
“I don’t go to school.” She smiled. “I dropped out a couple of months ago.”
Jack fell onto the couch as she pulled the door closed. He checked a couple of cigarette packets knowing full well they were empty and took a swing from an abandoned bottle. The beer tasted more like water than the stuff out of the taps.
She looked good in her clothes and judging by the pictures even better out of them. The shots were pretty good, even if he didn’t remember taking them. At least good enough to get him a couple of hundred for the set. One or two had a touch of class. He couldn’t be sure from the camera’s preview screen, but they might be worth a little more to the right people. A sophisticated stock photo or a market stall poster. If he could make it uptown, he might sell a couple as framed prints in a gallery.
He scooped up a handful of change and crumpled bills, swung his camera bag over his shoulder and pulled the door, not bothering to check if it closed.
In the lobby, a bulb blinked neurotically. Through the broken door, the rain beat down like a drunken piss, unrelenting and obnoxious.
“Hey Jack.” The building manager’s gruff voice could peal paint off the walls, if there was any left. “You’re two months behind on the rent and it’s about to be three.”
“I don’t have it right now.”
“If you can’t see the surprise on my face, it’s because I know you don’t have it. I saw you come in last night. How much did she cost you?”
“She was a client.”
“A client? What are you now, a male escort or math tutor?”
“She’s a model.”
“I bet. A model student at the local high school. You know, Liberty Pawn across the street will take that fancy camera off your hands. I’ll talk to my brother-in-law over there and make sure he gives you enough to cover your rent.”
Jack pulled the camera bag tighter and stepped into the rain.
“I’ll get your money.”
“You better.” The words pushed aside the rain and followed Jack down the street.
If the 18th precinct wasn’t the worst place Jack had ever known, it came a close second to his step-father’s basement after a beating.
Head down, Jack walked across the cheap polystyrene box of a room. He breathed through his mouth, avoiding the halfway house smell of stale smoke and ruined dreams. At least criminals only had to visit if they got caught. Jack was listed as an employee with a metal desk in the corner of the room.
Jack plugged his camera into the computer. The machine whirled reluctantly into action as if trying to calculate the meaning of life on magnetic tape. The sluggish movement of the progress bar drove Jack towards the coffee pot. As the sludge poured into a brown mug chosen for its ability to hide stains, he wished he had a hip flask of bourbon, but, if he had, he probably wouldn’t have made it into work at all.
“Hey, early bird.” Detective Caine gave Jack a slap, sending the coffee slushing around the cup.
“Detective, did you get the photos?”
“You know, I read this article the other day. At first, I could have sworn I was seeing double.” Caine shifted forward as if a weight-lifter adjusting his stance and took a bite of a donut.
“You might want to get your eyes checked and lay off the donuts. High blood sugar can damage your eyes.”
“You sound like my wife.”
“Thanks.” Jack held onto a comment about Caine’s wife not giving a shit about the guy if she let him out of the house in a crumpled shirt the color of sea green seen through a sepia filter.
“I looked closely at the pictures. The first picture was a magazine cover. It looked perfect. The second one, a total horror story. The model’s hair was a mess and her make-up looked like she applied it with a trowel. The thing is, the horror story is the real picture and the perfect one is totally fake. Who said pictures don’t lie, right?”
“Yeah, you can do wonders with photoshop. Make a person look completely different.”
“Can you do all that?”
“I looked closely at the pictures. The first picture was a magazine cover. It looked perfect…”
“I wouldn’t say I could turn a horror story into a front cover, but I can enhance photos.”
“That’s what you do here, is it?” Caine pointed in the direction of Jack’s desk.
“No. Most of the time, I just download and catalogue crime scene photos. Like the ones I printed for you.”
“Which got me thinking. When you took the pictures, you didn’t touch anything at the Lamber crime scene?”
“Why would I?”
“I didn’t ask you if you would. I asked if you did. Did you?”
The question pressed into Jack’s temples, accompanying the pounding in his head before splitting into a panicking crowd’s need to escape. Closed in the oppressive heat of a crematorium, the abrupt smell of stained oak caskets the colour of aged bourbon burnt his nostrils. He heard the gulp of bourbon poured from the bottle, longing for the sharp burn and warm sensation of the first sip. He imagined taking long swigs from a bottle of clear liquid, snapping twist-off caps, knocking back free glasses of red wine. He stood between the white walls of a gallery, black and white photos arranged at regular intervals. Small price tags hung from the corners of simple frames.
“Did you tamper with the Lamber crime scene Jack?”
Jack imagined his pictures in the gallery and squashed the terror of unchanging tomorrows.
“No. No I didn’t. I’ve been doing this long enough to know how to do it right.”
“Just busting your balls. Sometimes you take ages on those pictures.”
“That’s why I turn up early. I might not slap handcuffs on the bad guy, but my pictures help make sure he doesn’t get away with it. If I mess up, the captain is all over me. No different from you.”
Jack took the two steps to his desk compiling a list of all the people who might buy his dirty pictures. Caine lingered over his shoulder, casting a shadow of suspicion. Clicking as fast as the computer would work, Jack attached a couple of random pictures to an email as a tantrum of anger fought his rat’s anxiety at being caught.
“Speaking of the captain,” Caine said, “he wants a word with you. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants to talk about that grimy little pornographer Dogan.”
“The sleazy turd had the balls to come to the precinct looking for you. A couple of the guys weren’t impressed at a perp on the sex register making himself at home. Chased him out of here in no time. How do you know him?”
“He lets me use his photographic printer for cheap.”
Caine took a thoughtful sip of coffee before walking back to his desk.
“Make sure you see the captain.” He threw comment across the room.
Jack addressed the email to Dogan and cursed the delays keeping him from reaching uptown.
The captain hid threats behind cost cuts and framed criticism in admin problems. Jack felt the vibrating burner phone demand his attention. A daytime call on the burner phone offered more exposure than a playmate center spread. He offered the captain empty promises and vague apologies, leaving quicker than a whore on an hourly rate.
The burner phone in his pants pocket reminded him of walking awkwardly through the corridor in high school after sitting behind Brooke Garcia in sex ed. Acting on the message would be more difficult than relieving himself in a bathroom cubicle.
Messages usually contained an address and arrived after Jack had drunk enough to allow his conscience to ignore the stare of the dead body asking “You knew?”. The address would allow Jack a head start on the detectives, but he’d still needed a pack of excuses to get out of the precinct and a reason to be close to the crime scene before the 911 call arrived.
A spark of opportunity lit against the gloom. Jack thought about visiting print shops to develop his gallery photos. He might even pick up frames, if he could get them to accept a check.
Jack checked the phone. Worse than an address, he found an error message.
He closed it and opened it again. He opened other messages and restarted the phone. He reread the message.
“Device not recognized. Contact customer care.”
Jack had been summoned to Virgil’s Gym. The consequences of not responding involved someone else getting a call to a crime scene featuring him. He didn’t stop to make excuses.
The heavy door of the gym pushed open easily and closed behind him with an oppressive thud. The fractured concrete floor led to the raised boxing ring in the center of the room jutting forward with the uncomfortable turn of a dislocated shoulder. Punching bags hung like sides of beef in a slaughter house as grunts and sweat filled the air.
In the early days, when Jack had been called in, he took a gym bag. He even stayed and worked out, twice. The third time, he didn’t bother collecting the gym bag on his way out.
Jack walked against the wall, pushed less by gym anxiety and more by the knowledge that most of the guys training were criminals.
“It’s been a while son. You still working with Dogan?”
McCormick stood a foot shorter than Jack in a polo shirt with brown stripes leading straight to the seventies. The top of his head reflected the fluorescent lights as tufts of hair kept the top of his ears warm and grew out of his nose like Charlie Brown’s nasty uncle from a true crime documentary.
Jack followed McCormick to an office consisting of three sides of glass, privacy provided courtesy of neglect and filth.
“Shut the door. Take a seat.”
The high-backed chair with wooden arms and sponge wrapped in green leather gave every indication of the electric chair waiting for its latest dead row inmate. The lack of brass skullcap and two thousand volts didn’t stop it from being the last chair occupied by more men than Jack had drinking buddies.
As McCormick closed the laptop on his desk, a half-finished bottle of bourbon on the filing cabinet called Jack’s name.
“You ever been to the circus?”
“One of the full-on big top performances with lion tamers, trapeze artists and clowns?”
“I think so,” Jack said. “When I was kid.”
“You think so? Do you remember seeing a hula hoop acrobat?”
“Maybe? Then you don’t actual remember. You’re creating the memory, not drawing from it. I took my kids to the circus. They were little. They ate popcorn out of paper bags and loved it. I watched all the acts. A genuine parade of the amazing and unusual, until this woman came out with two hula hoops. The whole place was silent in disbelief. How could this normal looking woman impress us with a couple of hula hoops? She did. She took an everyday object and turned it into magic. Seeing a lion is amazing, but take something normal and make it magical. That’s talent. You do that, except better because you do it without anyone knowing. Most of the time. On the Lamber scene you…”
“By the time I got to the scene there was so much cleaning up to do…”
McCormick held up his hand, his lips pressed together.
“You perform a service, son. You clean the scene. You were sloppy.”
“I’m sorry sir,” Jack said, self-preservation bringing a large order of humble pie. “Even knowing the location before it’s reported, I only have a limited time to clean the scene. It would help if the gunmen could be tidier. Just because I’m there doesn’t mean they can make a mess.”
“The issue has been brought to my attention, leaving me with two problems, which means you have two problems. One, I’m paying for a job that isn’t being done properly and, two, I need skilled employees.”
The abrupt shriek of the telephone arrived with an insistent steel clank and signalled the end of round one. Jack didn’t fancy his chances of going all the way.
“Yeah,” McCormick said, picking up the phone. “Ok, clam down. Yeah. I’ll sort it out. Take a Xanax and have a nap.”
McCormick slammed the phone down with a curse between gritted teeth.
“Everything ok sir?” Jack said.
“No, everything isn’t ok.”
McCormick picked up a postcard sized picture frame looking every bit a Costco free gift.
“They’re the apple of your eye when they’re kids. Then they grow up. Got myself a Jim junior and Petunia. The boy is following in his old man’s footsteps. The girl is doing everything she can to trip me up. It doesn’t matter which one is doing what, their mother is worried half to death and I have to clean it up.”
“I’m sorry sir. If I can…”
“You have other issues to worry about.”
“Yes sir. Being paid to do a job properly.”
“And needing the right skills. At the moment, I’m paying two people to do a job that isn’t done well. If one person could do a better job, I could pay them more. It’s basic business efficiency. Hire the right employee and only pay one salary for skilled work.”
Jack had been making the slow walk to the hangman’s noose only to have the guy pull out a couple of glasses and offer him a drink. The nervous excitement before the first sip gripped him and he gulped. He imagined retirement on a tropical beach taking pictures of swimsuited beauties for a calendar. Iced cocktails wait under a thatched tiki hut. A hammock swings in the warm breeze.
“You’ve got the perfect alibi. You’re the guy who is supposed to be there. You do the job and then just hang around.”
“Hang around? Who the hell hangs around at a crime scene?”
“You do.” McCormick slammed his fist on the desk. “It’s your fucking job and if I tell you to pick up the nearest object and beat out someone’s brains, that’s what you’ll do.”
McCormick lifted himself out of his seat and moved slowly around the desk, keeping his eyes on Jack.
“Maybe you haven’t got it in you to do either job. Stand up son.”
Jack rose as if pulled by unseen strings, his mind punch drunk from thoughts of murder.
“You like to drink.”
McCormick caught Jack’s eyes dart to the bottle of bourbon.
“That wasn’t a question. When do you drink?”
“At the end of the day.”
“No more than anyone else.”
McCormick gripped Jack’s shoulders, his fingers digging and probing into Jack’s muscles. He looked into Jack’s eyes, turning his head as if deciding whether a bull could be put to stud or needed to be neutered.
Jack’s fingers twitched. Sweat pooled in various corners of his body.
“Do you box? Play ball?”
“Not really sir.”
“You should get yourself to a gym. I could recommend a few. Not this one. Joining now would look suspicious. Best not to do anything stupid.”
“No sir. Definitely not sir.”
“You have two choices. I pay you more and you take on both sides of the job. You’ll have less cleaning to do, making both jobs easier. Or I pay you less.”
The comment lingered in the malicious intent and ambiguity of a blackjack dealer’s wishes of good luck.
“It’s a big decision. I’ll give you a little time, but I suggest you decide quickly.”
“Dogan,” Jack shouted into the darkness. “Are you here?”
Jack hadn’t seen any cars out front when he drove around to the side entrance and let himself in. The warehouse hung one shade away from being derelict and inhabited the wrong side of town to ever be fashionable. Brick walls and reclaimed fixtures arrived at a superficial hipster chic by an accident of poverty and desperation. Broken machinery lurked in heaps as a reminder of the buildings’ failed purpose. A patchwork of dumpster furniture littered the space.
A few lazy lights from the film set threw shadows across the well-used bedroom scene, heating up a stink of sweat, guilt and regret. The warehouse held the accumulated tragedy of an orphanage with no chance of adoption.
Jack coughed revulsion into his throat and swallowed hard on his own thirst. In the stillness, his head felt like the depressing crush of a Monday morning commute in cold rain.
Jack needed to get out. He needed a payday. He needed to get his prints uptown.
“Dogan, you here?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” A shape moved on the sofa. “Just taking a nap. Or trying to.”
“Dogan, the pictures I sent. How much can you give me? I have a whole set. I need the cash and I need to make some prints.”
Dogan pulled himself up, dragging the tails of a ragged dressing gown towards a table of empty bottles and full ashtrays.
“Calm down Jack.” Dogan inspected a bottle and took a swig.
“Are you set up?” Jack took a seat at the desk, pushing aside camera equipment to connect his camera. “I need to use that beast of a printer. The one you use for luxury prints and I need the good paper. How much can I get for the pictures?”
“What pictures?” Dogan took another swig from the bottle as Jack narrowed his eyes at the computer screen.
“The ones I sent you.”
“How do you expect me to look at the pictures you sent if you’re using my computer?”
“I sent them earlier today. I need the cash now.”
“I’ve just finished a shoot. You might have caught a couple of my performers heading back to the street for their next shift. Velocity said she’s working at the titty bar now.”
The printer sparked into action. A print started to emerge, juddering at degrees, pushed out by a mechanical churning of unseen cogs. Jack swung out of the desk chair. His hands continued to move in a nervous fidget, tapping along the desk until they reached his camera. He released the lens from the body. He checked the inside of the casing and unrolled a cleaning kit. Using a brush, he took wide sweeps around the inside. The puffer removed unseen specks of dust.
Jack turned his attention to the lens, unscrewing sections and alternating between the puffer and a microfiber cloth.
“I’ve always liked your camera,” Dogan said, picking up the body and weighing it in his hands like a bar of gold. “It’s a proper pros camera. None of that cheap consumer shit. The body on this sturdy is as anything.”
“Yeah, I might have dropped it a couple of times. Doesn’t do the lens any good but the rest of it could survive the apocalypse.”
Dogan dropped into the office chair and took another swig.
“Do you want a drink? Your hand is shaking.”
“No, I’m alright.” Jack clenched his fist. “I just need the prints and the cash. How much can you give me for them? I need as much as I can get right now.”
“Yeah, yeah. You always bring the good stuff.”
Dogan turned to the computer screen. A series of black and white thumbnails greeted him with the promise of lewd excitement hidden behind artistically approved framing. The slideshow of images moved with the suggestive indecency of a coffee table book of nudes and the reliable satisfaction of a pre-paid drunk hooker.
“Are these the ones you’re printing? Who the hell stole your camera and took those?”
“Hilarious Dogan. These are my ticket uptown. If you can get me even close to my usual fee, I’ll be out of your hair. And just so you know, it’s a decent set. Some great shoots.”
“I know you’re good for the dirty stuff, but this would put Helmut Newton to shame. It’s like you…”
The screen pushed Dogan into silence and Jack smiled.
“I know, they are good, right?”
Dogan clicked back and forth, peering into the images, making connections, one to the next. His eye for detail, dulled by limited resources and poor production values, began to pick out clues his mind couldn’t resolve, like watching a murder mystery that didn’t want the viewer to guess the murderer.
“Jack, are all these pictures from the same model?”
Dogan stood up. The chair clattered over. He stumbled backwards and swung his arms up as if a rat had crawled across his face. Dogan fell backwards, his legs tangled in the chair as his arms thrashed like a pre-schooler in a fist fight.
He scrambled back onto his feet.
“Turn that shit off.” He pulled the plug on the computer. The lurid images on the screen turned to black. He staggered towards to the printer, tripping over his open dressing gown.
“Dogan, what are you doing?”
Dogan pulled the plug on the printer. A page hung half complete out of the printer. He yanked it with two hands, pulling against the vice grip of the machine. The paper released in a jolt. Dogan collected the other prints and exerted enough effort and anger to pull apart a Yellow Pages. The thick paper ripped into jagged pieces across plastic coatings, releasing shredded fibres.
“You’ve completely fucked me.” Dogan waved torn paper at Jack.
“What are you talking about?”
“The girl in the pictures. What’s her name?”
“Petal, I think.”
“Petal? Are you kidding? Her name is Petunia.”
“Petunia?” The name rang familiar with the slow insistence of a gong. “Petunia McCormick?”
“Shit Jack, I’ve got to call McCormick.” He looked over to the film set and found his phone on the sofa.
“Wait,” Jack shouted. “Don’t do that. You can’t do that. My money. The prints. I need the prints.”
“No way man. There’s nothing I can do. I need to call McCormick.”
Jack felt the money slipping through his fingers, each dollar lifted out of reach by a gush of wind as a sea breeze whipped into a hurricane. Women in swimsuits removed from his beach. The hut shattered, the thatch shredded. Drinks spilt into the sand, his hammock twisted into knots, tighter and tighter until only broken fragments remain. His future crushed as the light of recognition flickered into a dark highway down a short road to oblivion.
He picked up the body of his camera and swung it. Like taking a picture on automatic, the camera did the work for him and the results were less than he wanted. He swung again and again. Blood sprayed in multiple directions, long arcs of spray, forming a monochrome splatter of modern art in the limited light. Dogan fell over the arm of the sofa. The phone clattered to the ground and slid across the room.
Blood dripped from the camera in Jack’s hand. Dogan’s body twitched. A dwindling pulse of blood seeped from his face to fill the cracks in the concrete floor. A flawless glaze spread in a reflective high gloss waiting to be ruined.
Jack saw where the technicians would place markers. He knew how the direction of the blood would reveal his height, how the marks on the body would reveal his weapon.
He got to work. He cleaned his camera and washed his hands. Wearing a pair of old gloves, he scavenged through the broken machines and used as many weapons as possible to spread the splatter in all directions and pulp the body into an indistinguishable mush of thawed mince beef.
Stepping away from the heap that was once a person, Jack cleaned himself up and claimed new clothes from the thrift store pile kept in the studio. He burnt his clothes in the steel drum Dogan used to destroy incrimination evidence and returned to his car to wait for the call.
The call arrived quicker than a politician looking for a handout. He hadn’t seen anyone arrive until the flashing lights of the squad car. He pulled his car around to the front of the building and walked in the front door.
Caine reached the scene as Jack started to wrap up.
“Early bird. You always beat me here. How do you do it?”
“I don’t stop for coffee,” Jack said gesturing to Caine’s cup. “Or that donut you’re wearing on your shirt.”
“Good catch. But then you can get a drink afterwards, right? Me, I’m going to be here a while. You take your pictures and go.”
“Just a couple more and I’m out of here,” Jack said.
“A real horror show this one. From the look of the weapons, we have multiple assailants. The coroner isn’t going to have much difficulty calling cause of death blunt force. Let’s hope no family come to identify the body because this is going to be a closed casket, if anyone if bothered to bury the shmuck.”
Caine righted the upturned chair.
“I’m going to assume the victim is Dogan. He’s in the system. DNA match shouldn’t be any more of a problem than compiling a list of suspects. I’ll call it a robbery turned into a sport kill. I’m pretty sure the captain will sign off on that.”
Caine crouched down next to Jack. He followed the direction of Jack’s camera and gave every impression of inspecting the scene.
“Mr. McCormick has taken it for granted that you’ve accepted the job,” Caine whispered.
Caine pointed to the cameras standing like dark sentinels in the corner.
“Mr. McCormick’s live feed to the gym. He saw it all. Pictures don’t lie.”
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