Wednesday, March 21, 2012

All the Stars in Texas

Possibly to be submitted to my Fiction class?  I think so, yes.

Inspired mostly by Ludo's "All The Stars in Texas."  Also by a writing exercise in class that had us writing about divorce, which is always awesome.  I guess all I really did was name the characters.

One day, I'll dedicate this to Ludo.

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All the Stars in Texas

Texas Tom had robbed every bank between Chicago and NewOrleans.  He’d driven up and down hischunk of the world so many times that he thought he might just be king of itall.  He’d killed dozens of men, loved afew hundred women, and he’d probably left quite a few Tom Juniors floatingaimlessly around the American Midwest. But, so far, Tom only had one wife, and Maggie was the only thing in hislife that he couldn’t control.

Maggie wasn’t afraid of him, which had drawn them together in thefirst place.  They’d first met at a bankin a small town in Illinois, when Tom had a gun pointed at her father’s heartand a sack of cash in the other fist. Maggie had been seated behind a desk, quietly answering phones and dictatingmemos on filigreed letterhead, and she’d hardly moved when Tom and his gangentered the space.  Her father was thebank manager and a beloved figure in their little town, perfection in the eyesof all the townspeople, except Maggie. Tom had never been able to quite figure out what had gone on betweenfather and daughter.  But Maggie’s subtlenod of the head had been enough for the love-struck gangster.  Dazzled by the glint of afternoon sun on herhair, he’d put old Mr. Miller out of his misery, signaled for the guys to roundup the rest of the haul, and offered an arm to Maggie.

She hadn’t come along quietly. Concerned citizens had begun to congregate outside the bank, making weakattempts to stop the robbers as they loaded up the cars with cash and madetheir getaway.  Maggie had fought Tom allthe way to the car, screaming for help, and two brave souls tried to rescueher.  Tom had shut them all up with thecrack of a gun, firing a warning shot into the air.  He’d thanked the townspeople for theircooperation and shoved Maggie roughly into the car, then climbed in himself anddrove them as far away from town as quickly as he could.  It was only later, nearly thirty miles downthe road and with that now-familiar grin on her face, that Tom realized Maggiehad just been putting on a show.

A few months after that, Tom and Maggie grew tired of living in sinand married in a courthouse in Minnesota. Tom pledged to love, honor, and cherish her, and he’d meant it.  Maggie promised to knock his teeth out if hekept calling her Maggie, but she hadn’t yet fulfilled that promise—not for lackof trying.

It was over a year later, after Maggie had wheedled her way fullyinto his life and learned all his secrets, that Tom realized that taking such ahot-headed young thing as his wife had been the only mistake he’d made in hisillustrious criminal career.  She didn’tfight him on many things, except to insist that he call her Margaret and thathe stop visiting brothels whenever he “went away on business.”  Tom hadn’t bothered following her directiveson either point.  But, now, facing theend of his marriage and the end of the line, he began to wish he had.

He’d only been home about an hour when Margaret came into theliving room of their modest ranch house with the look on her face like a risingsummer storm.  Tom was settled in hisfavorite easy chair, skimming a few different national newspapers for anymention of his name.  Margaret waswearing a pretty dress he’d picked up for her in New York, which only served toaccentuate the ugly rage on her features. “I want a divorce,” she said.

Tom sighed and folded the newspaper in half.  “You said that last week, sweetheart,” hereminded her.  “Nothing’s changed sincethen.  I told you—I’m not leaving you.” 

She’d been saying things like this for awhile and Tom couldn’t makeheads or tails of the sudden urge to end their partnership.  Maggie—Margaret—kneweverything.  She knew that his name wasn’treally Tom and that he wasn’t really from Texas.  Tom had moved here in his late teens, whenhe’d decided to make his fortune in bank robbery and murder, and it was here heplanned to die.  Whether that would be ina hail of FBI bullets, in his bed due to old age, or at the twitchy hands ofMargaret, he wasn’t entirely sure anymore.

Margaret came along on a lot of his trips and she was fond ofhelping him pull a few local jobs every now and again.  She seemed to enjoy the lifestyle, runningaround the country and scooping up what wasn’t hers, and had once revealed thatthe day Texas Tom robbed her father’s bank had been the absolute best of herlife.  But Margaret also had friends inhigh places that, should the fancy strike, she could lead straight to thegang’s hideout in rural Texas.  Herfather had been well-connected and she had charmed each of his business associateswith her quiet demeanor and pretty eyes. She drank and smoked expensive French cigarettes and Tom knew for a factthat she’d screwed quite a few of the guys on his payroll.  She luxuriated in being a kept woman.  But, damn it all to hell, he loved her likenobody’s business.

As if reminded of this point now, Tom added, “I left you a presentin the kitchen.”  He then turned resolutelyback to his newspaper, having decided that the conversation was over.

But Margaret pulled the newspaper out of his hands and tossed it onthe floor.  “I could leave you,” shereplied.  “Women walk out on men all thetime.”

“Sure.” Tom folded his hands neatly in his lap, using hisreasonable, give-me-all-your-money tone. “When the husband’s abusive, or dangerous.”

“You’re dangerous,” she said, and there was a flash of the oldexcitement in her eyes.

Tom paused, a small smirk on his face.  “Maybe. But so are you, honey.  It’s whywe got married in the first place.”  Hestood up to retrieve the paper and tossed it back on the pile with the others,then took Margaret’s shoulders and looked her in the eye.  “But I’ve never hit you, not once.  And I never will.  I compliment you all the time.  Hell, I realized you got a haircut a fewweeks back without you having to tell me.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said snidely, “a week after it happened.”

“How many husbands notice at all?” He watched his wife push his hands away and stomp out of the room, thenfollowed her wearily into the kitchen. “It’s a very becoming look on you. I always say it kid—you’re the prettiest thing I ever stole.”

But she didn’t seem to be in the mood for romance.  “So, you won’t make this easy on me becauseyou think I’m pretty?”

“Beautiful,” Tom corrected her. “I won’t make it easy on you because I love you.”


“So is this damn divorce idea.” Tom felt anger rising to the surface. He argued, “I gave you a home, I give you food, I give you jewelry,anything you want.  And all you ever crowabout is running away from me.  Why thehell should I let you go, Maggie?”

Margaret had picked up the neatly wrapped box he’d left on thecounter, stroking the velvet ribbon absently. She raised her eyes to meet Tom’s and told him, “Because you killed myfather, that’s why.”

Tom narrowed his eyes and didn’t have a word to say in reply.

“And, unless I get my divorce,” Margaret continued, “I’ll make suremy good friend the Chicago district attorney knows it.”

“You wanted him gone,” Tom said softly.  Everything else was irrelevant.

“And now I want you gone,”she said,  her tone disturbinglysoothing.  Margaret pulled the ribbonfrom around the package and neatly removed the paper.  She opened the box underneath and smiled alittle at the diamond necklace glittering back at her.  “I wonder where you got this little number.”

Tom considered her words, her dark eyes, her friend the districtattorney.  “I’ll call a lawyer,” he said,at last.

She grinned brightly at him and held out the necklace.  “Help me put this on?  I think it will look just lovely with this dress.”

He snatched the necklace from her hand, picturing the old womanhe’d demanded it from at a bank a few states over.  He slipped it around her neck and pretendedto fumble with the clasp, really debating whether or not to end both theirproblems right here and now.  “Thisdoesn’t mean you’ve won,” he growled in her ear, finally hooking the clasp intoplace and then striding out of the room.

They ate dinner in silence that night, Tom sitting stiffly in hischair at the table, while Margaret smiled radiantly and drank the good Italianwine a contact had recently sent them as an anniversary present.  The first words spoken were Margaret excusingherself to go to bed.  Tom sat at thetable for another ten minutes afterward, before shoving his plate away andpacing angrily on the porch. 

He wasn’t going to do it.  Hehad six crooked lawyers under his thumb, but he wasn’t going to give upMargaret—damn it, Maggie—without afight.  The self-satisfied smirk on herface was driving him insane with rage, and the only way he knew to combat itwas to keep her from getting what she wanted. When he finally went back inside, Tom fully expected the bedroom door tobe locked, but it wasn’t.  The room wasdark and his wife appeared to already be asleep, so he banged around the roomto find pajamas and only laughed when she rolled over and snapped at him tokeep the noise down.

“Sweet dreams, Maggie,” he said, as he stuffed his feet in underthe sheets.  He fell asleep with a smileon his face and his favorite gun under her pillow, just in case her silentfuming took a turn for the violent.

The next morning, Tom rolled over with his eyes squeezed shutagainst the early sun and flung an arm over what should have been Margaret’sbody.  The usual wake-up call wasforgotten as Tom opened his eyes and glanced around the room, realizing thathis wife was nowhere to be found.  Thehouse was silent, but he called her name, anyway, and got no reply.  Instead of a warm body, Tom shared the bedwith only a scrap of paper with a note scribbled on it: I know you won’t do it.  I betthe boys at the pen will love to meet a real celebrity!

If Tom hadn’t hated he so damn much, he would have admitted what asly move this was.  But he did hate her,he realized, as he got out of bed and hurried to wash his face and put on hisbest suit.  He hated her as he’d lovedher the day before.  Margaret Millerwould always be his crowning jewel, but she’d sooner burn in Hell than pull oneover on Texas Tom.

The gangster packed a suitcase and tossed it in his car, then headedout to the cluster of cabins he’d had built for his gang.  He roused his lieutenant and told him he wasgoing out of town.  “Some business totake care of,” Tom told him.  “Watch theranch.  Keep the boys in line.”

“You want us to come along, boss?” the lieutenant replied.  “I’ll have ‘em up and out in twenty minutes,tops.”

“I want you wise guys to lay low,” Tom said.  He forced a smile.  “I’ll be back in a couple of days.  Just some personal business I have to dealwith.  But I’ve got to head out now, tomake sure the job gets done.”

“Sure, sure, go on.  You wantme to check in on Maggie tonight?”

Tom’s eyes darkened at the mention of his wife.  “No,” he said, pulling his gun from itsholster and double-checking that it was loaded and ready.  “That won’t be necessary.”

Tom knew that Margaret had to be headed up to Chicago.  She had family there, plus the districtattorney she’d bragged about.  Tomwouldn’t be surprised if she’d screwed around with Elliot Ness, the head honchoof the FBI, himself.  He didn’t know whenshe’d left, but one of the cars and only a few changes of clothes were missing,so she was traveling light and fast.  Tomdrove all day and late into the night, but there was no sign of his wife on theroads.  He gave up around one in themorning and pulled into a roadside motel for a catnap, picking up the routeagain at dawn.  He’d given up on tryingto find Margaret.  He’d just have to beather to Chicago and talk some sense into her before she had a chance to rat himand the boys out to the cops.

Tom made it to Chicago in another four days.  The first thing he did was send word back tothe ranch, via telegram, that he’s be gone a bit longer than expected.  Then he hurried to the hardware store ownedby a large man named Frank O’Shea, a contact of Tom’s from way back.  The speakeasies he owned across the citybrought in more revenue than even the top criminals of the day saw in alifetime.

After the formalities, Tom got to the point.  “I’m looking for a girl,” he said.  “Long brown hair, green eyes, about sotall.  She’s from Illinois and hasfriends here, might know Chicago pretty well, actually.”

“You mean the pretty thing you picked up Lovington?  Having trouble with that one, aye?”  O’Shea laughed heartily.  When Tom grumbled a response, the businessmandecided to stick to the facts and avoid speculation.  “She came in last night,” he told him.  “Had herself a few fingers of whiskey andwent on her way.  She headed north whenshe left—alone, I promise you, Tom—and I think she left a hotel matchbook onthe counter.  Maybe.  I don’t remember the place.”

“I don’t care what she did,” Tom said, “as long as I find her.  Thanks for your help, Frank.”  He put out a hand for O’Shea to shake, thenstuck his hat back on his head and rushed from the store.

It wasn’t worth checking hotel registers for Margaret’s name (or anoticeable alias) or parking garages for the car she’d stolen.  It was still early in the day, so Tom madehis way to the courthouse and silently begged that Margaret hadn’t yet stoppedby.  He watched lawyers in stiff suitsand prisoners in their Sunday best run up the stairs, shaking withanticipation.  Someone important enoughto draw a crowd of newspaper reporters arrived in a shiny car and Tom almostmissed Margaret’s arrival in the rush. He took the stairs two at a time to get ahead of her and waited to catchher arm at the top of the stairs.  Shewore a new black trench coat and sensible shoes, with a few layers of powderunder her eyes to hide a hangover.  Shetried to shake him off.

“Sweetheart,” Tom said, flashing a dangerous smile, “let’s go for awalk.”

“I’m going inside, Tom,” Margaret replied coolly.

“You’re not,” he assured her, tightening his grip.  “Let’s go.”

As they waded back down through the crowd of spectators, Margaretasked quietly, “You still won’t give me up?”

“It’s a matter of pride.  I’mnot going to mar my record with a divorce.”

“You can hardly say the word.” Margaret smirked.  They crossedthe street to avoid the crowd.  “I didn’tsee the D.A. yet, you know.  We can stillforget this ever happened.”

Tom watched her as they walked, then slowly shook his head.  “You betrayed me.  You thought about it, anyway.  I can’t have that, kid.”

“I’m not a kid!” she exclaimed suddenly.  “God, you’ve got a thick skull.  I know what I want and I know what I’m goingto do.  I’m turning you in, Tom, and whenyou hang, I’ll be a damn folk hero—the only girl he ever loved, the only girlthat got away, unscathed.”

They had strolled out of sight of the courthouse and this citystreet was smaller and very quiet.  Tomstill had a firm grasp on her upper arm. He and Margaret could almost be lovers again, caught close together andenjoying a quiet morning in a dirty city.

“The only girl that got away,” Tom echoed, thoughtful.  “That certainly has a nice ring to it.  But it’s not quite the truth.”

Tom’s first mistake had been marrying Margaret.  His second was murdering her.  He pulled his gun out from under his suitjacket and shot her twice in the abdomen, so close that her blood warmed hisskin through his shirt.  She choked onher shock and grasped at Tom to keep herself upright, but he gave her a gentlepush and watched with interest as she sprawled across the pavement.  Tom raised his eyes and spied a womanwatching the scene from her window, but she let the curtain fall back intoplace when he met her eye.

Tom holstered his gun and took the time to squat beside hisbleeding wife.  Her eyes were bright withterror when she looked up at him, her hands pressed over her stomach to staunchthe flow of blood.  A puddle formedunderneath her and Toms shifted his foot out of the way.

“I told,” she whispered.  Tomleaned closer to listen.  “I met with theD.A. and I told him.  About you.  About what I’ve…what I’ve seen.”

“And you didn’t tell him about that woman you killed in Wichita orall that money that isn’t yours.”  Tomnodded, unsurprised.  “You’ve always beena planner kid.”

“Always,” she gasped.  Sheclosed her eyes, and the struggle to open them again was plain on herface.  “You’ll hang, Tom.”

A triumphant cry rang out from the top of the block and Tom raisedhis head.  The reporters from thecourthouse had abandoned their original quarry, in exchange for a wantedcriminal and a fresh corpse.  Margaretwouldn’t die alone on a quiet Chicago street. Suddenly, the sidewalk was swarming with newspapermen, bringing withthem the bright flash of cameras and babble of voices.  No one thought to call for help for Margaret;she wasn’t long for the world, anyway, and there was a story at stake.

“Texas Tom!” someone shouted over the chaos.  “Tom, why did you do it?”

“Tom, is it true this is your wife?”

“Did she take your money? Was there another man?”

Two uniformed officers forced their way through the crowd, gunsdrawn.  Tom raised his hands wearily andallowed each of them to take an arm.  Hefelt the cool metal of handcuffs on his skin. The reporter’s questions mingled with the tired recitation of his rightsby the cop on his left, and Tom’s mind filled with a haze that deadened theexcitement around him.  “I should haveexpected as much from her,” he said quietly, meeting Margaret’s eyes again.

The photographers were crouching to capture the dying woman’s finalmoments. Covered in her own blood, Margaret forced a weak and wickedsmile.  She again mouthed the words,“You’ll hang.”  Then she closed her eyesand didn’t bother trying to open them again.

“Sweet dreams, Maggie,” Tom said aloud, speaking to the bloodpooled on the sidewalk.  “You were theprettiest thing I ever stole.  And youwere worth it all.”

More police officers arrived, trying to clear away the scribblingpencils and flashbulbs, but they were unable to fight the tide of currentevents.  The original officers who had arrestedTom started forcing their way back through the crowd, shoving roughly at thecameras being shoved in their face. 

Someone stole Tom’s hat off his head to get a better shot, so heraised his head to make sure he got a good picture on the front page.  He’d be there; Maggie, too.  She was gorgeous and he was infamous—onlyDillinger had a shot at dethroning them.

“Can I say something?” Tom asked the officers.  One of them shook his head and the otherhesitated.

“Make it quick,” the first muttered.

They turned him around so Tom was facing the crowd again and a hushfell over the street.  In the background,one of the cops carefully draped Maggie’s body in a crisp white cloth.  “Do me a favor, fellas,” Tom said, his voiceclear in the silence of the morning.  “WhenI hang, make sure you spread the word that it wasn’t me who got myself intothis mess.  I’m damn good at what I doand I’d never let myself get caught on a job. I have a reputation to maintain, after all.”  He grinned and the reporters chuckled,clicking a few more pictures for posterity. “When I hang,” he continued, “make sure everyone knows that it’s a womanwho put that noose around my neck.”

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