Lessons Burned – 1st Draft

“You’re early,” she says. She sits back against her lounger like she’s a bombshell in the movies. One skinny arm hooks behind her head, red lips puffing a long, filtered cigarette, and she gazes up at me like she’s waiting for me to do something.

I stare back at her for a moment, trying to calm my nerves as I clear my throat. This story came across my desk last week and boss-man has been all over me to get it done. I would have been better off interviewing Jack the Ripper. Katie “Man-Killer” Hart is as infamous as Billy the Kid, only most people don’t realize just how dangerous she really is. I adjust my tie and pull out my legal pad and pen.

Katie puts her cigarette out on the floor with no regard for the carpet. Her gaunt face is flat with the expression of boredom. This woman is about as big around as a lamp post. Her silk robe hangs from her shoulders like she just wrapped herself in curtains, and I can tell she’s been hitting the medicine cabinet.

“What’s wrong with you? You a mute?” Her voice croaks out like she’s swallowed a kazoo.

“No,” I answer.

If I had to guess, she’s in her fifties. The lines around her lips deepen with every puff of her cigarette. She’s definitely seen better days. I make a note of her failed beauty, hoping she won’t see it.

“Uh…” I’m sweating now. I had a list of questions, but all I can think is how the white, silk robe she’s wearing is hanging open, and she doesn’t seem to notice or care. Beside the chair I’ve been offered is a table and a glass of scotch. I’m not sure I want to drink from it.

Katie Hart rolls her eyes and leans forward. “Well, get on with it. I don’t have all day, young man.”

I give her a quick nod and take a deep breath. “You’ve been running this place for how many years?”

“Oh hunny, I don’t know. I was about twenty when I came here to work.” She reaches for the bottle of scotch on the floor, tosses it back, and takes a gulp. I have to admit I’m impressed. She doesn’t even flinch as it rolls down her throat.

“You seem to run a pretty tight ship here. Authorities haven’t been able to pin anything on you or your employees.” That statement could get a man killed, but I’m hoping my journalist status will protect me. I eye the glass of scotch beside me.

She grins, hinting she’s aware of my rising tension. Katie is no fool. She’s made a career out of knowing what men are thinking. That’s exactly why she’s left a drink for me. “Those authorities are half of what keeps my business running.” There’s a hint of laughter in her tone.

I believe her too. I wonder how many of her patrons are police officers, politicians. Better not ask that one or I might find myself in jail on trumped up charges. I wipe the sweat from my brow and give in to my weakness for good scotch. The glass is cold beneath my fingertips, condensation dripping as I lift it from the table. She’s watching me with a smirk as I tilt it back and take a swallow. She’s toying with me and enjoying it.

“What are the conditions like for your girls?” I ask. I’m trying to avoid eye contact.

Katie stands, lighting another cigarette and saunters over to the window. She moves like she’s the movie starlet, Joan Crawford, and I’m supposed to admire her. “I keep my girls healthy. When they aren’t working the beds, I have a crew cleaning their rooms. I keep them fed too. I’m not like that woman who used to run this place.”

“Ah, Madam…”

“She was no madam,” she says, cutting me off. There’s an edge in her answer. She obviously didn’t like her predecessor. “Dolly was nothing but a pimp with tits. No one was sad to see her go.”

I nod even though she isn’t facing me. Dolly was found dead in an alleyway behind this place. The cops said she’d been there for weeks and rats had eaten half her face. The thought makes my stomach turn. I take another sip of scotch. “How did you come to work here?”

Katie takes another drag of her cigarette and turns around to face me. At this distance I can make out just how beautiful she might have been once. Years of this place have damaged her. “I had a bright, shiny future once. I wanted to marry a nice, rich man, pop out a few kids, and live in a big house in the swanky part of town. I had it all planned out.” She moves closer, hips swaying beneath her robe with each step. “So how’d I end up here?” She lets out a short laugh and drops her cigarette on the floor. “Well, I married a man all right, but there was nothing nice about him and he certainly wasn’t rich.” She steps on the cigarette and twists her high heeled toe.

I wonder how often the carpet is replaced. I don’t notice any obvious burn marks except the ones she’s just made. “So he hit you?”

“Hit me,” her tone sharpens. “That man damn near killed me. He broke just about every bone in my face once.”

“What happened to him?” I know right away that’s a stupid question. Everyone knows what happened to Joe Hart. Those are just rumors though. There was never an official investigation.

“I killed him,” she answers matter of fact like. “I like clichés, so I laced his dinner with rat poison and watched him choke to death on his own blood. I’ve never seen so many shades of purple in my life.”

If that wouldn’t frighten a man, I don’t know what will. My eyes wander to that glass of scotch again and my heart leaps into action. I scribble on my legal pad to hide the fact that my hands are shaking. Boss-man expects a full story. He said he wants to know everything about Katie Hart. I’m not sure if I do. Not that Joe Hart didn’t have it coming. The man was scum, but I keep asking myself what else she is capable of.

Katie returns to the lounger and leans back. Part of a breast is exposed. My cheeks flush, and I avert my eyes as soon as I catch glimpse of a taut, pink nipple. “You…uh…”I fumble for words as I gesture to her bared breast.

She snickers and covers up. “Never seen a tit before?”

“Well, yes…” I swallow. My heart is racing now.

A smile spreads across her face. I catch a glimpse of who she might have been once. She likes me, I think. I hope. I doubt she likes many men. Maybe I shouldn’t have drunk the scotch.

I flip a page on my legal pad. “Do you ever regret killing your husband?”

Her smile fades. “He deserved it, and I deserve an award for getting rid of him. I wasn’t the first girl he beat and I wouldn’t have been the last if I’d let him live.” Her black, penciled-in eyebrows turn inward. “I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again.”

I believe that. Though, I’m fairly certain she has done it again. Boss-man will want me to ask, but I hesitate. Katie is a known man-killer, and I’m not sure how much protection my journalist status offers. I adjust my tie again as I consider my next words with care. “What happened after you killed him?”

Katie can’t sit still for more than a few minutes. She stands again after pulling another cigarette from an ornate silver case. “Well, I expected a payout from his life insurance. The bastard had the last laugh though. He hadn’t been working in months. His insurance was cancelled the week before I killed him and I was left without a dime. I had to feed myself somehow, so I started looking for work in the city.”

“Was this the first place you found?” I feel the tension start to ease as I move forward, though that may just be the scotch.

She lights her cigarette and shakes her head. “Back then girls could find jobs all over town, but no one who hired them wanted to pay more than a dime a day. I tried to stay straight-laced for a year or two, but I was barely able to pay rent.” She draws a deep breath and lets the smoke roll off her lips as she speaks. “I was a pretty young thing and men offered to pay for my company before I’d even considered it. I wasn’t exactly excited by the prospect, but that changed when one of them offered me twenty for a night. I started taking anything over ten which went on for a few months. I found out the hard way that if a working girl didn’t know what she was doing, she would likely end up dead on the street.”

Katie stares off into the distance like she’s remembering something she’d forgotten. She taps her cigarette, letting the ash land on the carpet beneath her feet. I start to relax. She has no reason to kill me. I’m only here for the interview, an interview she requested. I can’t help but ponder the reason for that.

She returns her gaze to me with a few long-lashed blinks. “I bought myself a little revolver with some of the money I’d saved. I tucked it into my handbag and took it with me wherever I went. I never intended to use it.”

“You used it?” Another stupid question. She probably thinks I’m just another stupid male. Maybe she did slip something in that scotch.

“If I hadn’t, you’d be interviewing some Mary Poppins about her makeup.” She moves back to the window and runs her hand down the red, velvet drape. With her back turned, I notice the shape of her hips, the roundness of her bottom. It’s no surprise men were paying good money for her company. I realize I’m aroused by this woman. There’s something sensual about the way she moves, a breath in her voice that calls to my desires.

“One of my regulars thought I owed him something for all the money I made off him. When I demanded he pay the full amount like we’d agreed, he got real mad. He wrapped his hands around my throat so tight I started seeing spots. He didn’t know I had a revolver on the nightstand.”

I’m writing on the legal pad, trying to keep up with her. “So you shot him.”

Katie nods and looks back at me. “Wouldn’t you?” she asks.

I don’t answer, but she knows what I’d say. Of course, I would have. “Were you arrested?”

“They tried getting me with murder, but the bruises on my neck were proof enough that it was self-defense. Those smug bastards got me with whoring myself out though. I spent a few nights in jail and went looking for something safer.”

“That’s when you found this place.”

Before she can answer, a young red-head in nothing but a sheer gown and high heels walks into the room. She can’t be more than seventeen by the looks of her, but she doesn’t appear to be bothered by the fact that she’s working here. In fact, she looks rather proud. She flashes a flirty smile at me and waves with three little fingers.

Katie looks her over with that bored expression of hers. “No Johns tonight, Prissy?”

Prissy shakes her head and bites her round little bottom lip. I could bite that lip for her. She’s got the face of a doll on the body of a model. Damn, I need another drink. I look away, trying to convince myself to take it easy. If Katie knew what I was thinking, she might not like me as much. I can’t have that.

Katie shoos the pretty little thing away and turns back to me. There’s a knowing grin on her face and a gleam in those bright green eyes. She thinks of me as a sad form of entertainment.

My head is spinning and I need to get this interview over with. I clear my throat and adjust my tie one more time. My throat feels tight. Don’t look at the glass of scotch. “Over the last twenty years there have been a string of disappearances and deaths linked to your business. Do you have any thoughts on that?”

She laughs and moves back to the window. She keeps looking for something. I haven’t worked out what it is though. “I don’t think much of it, to be honest. I can tell you exactly what happened.”

I don’t think I want to hear the rest, but she’s going to tell me anyway. I watch her as she starts to remove her robe, my heart picking up the pace again. Why is she undressing? She tosses it to the floor in a puff of white silk and stands before me in nothing but a pair of black high heels. Even at her age, she’s got the body of a twenty year old. I wonder how she’s done it.

Katie grins and walks back to the lounger where she picks up the bottle of scotch again. She downs it like it’s water, barely stopping for air. I’m completely baffled. There are only a few drops left in it by the time she finishes.

“I killed all of them. Every last one of them. Some of them were hitting my girls. Some of them were hitting me. Others…” She snickers and shrugs. “I just didn’t like them. They reminded me of Joe.”

I swallow again. I hope I don’t remind her of Joe. My stomach is in knots. “How?” I ask.

“Poison.”

That word scares me. Did she poison me?

“Don’t worry kid. I like you well enough.” Katie sits on the lounger and looks me over. “Tell them they will find all the bodies under the floor.”

“Tell who?” I ask. She wants to be turned in?

She lifts the lighter she’s been using and flicks it a few times, watching the flame dance with her easy breaths. “Don’t you want to know why I asked for you?”

I nod, watching her like a boy in watching his first striptease.

“I’m sick of this place,” she says in a flat tone. “I’m bored. I wish the men all die. Every one of them thinks they just paid for the night of their lives. Men are so stupid.” She scoffs and shakes her head. “They come through here like poor men in a soup kitchen, expecting handouts and a hand-job on the house. I can’t do it anymore, and I won’t. Neither are my girls.”

I’m stunned. There’s a look on her face like she’s got something planned and I can’t know what it is. It’s big though. She wants me to know that much. “I don’t understand.”

Katie looks away and pulls another cigarette out from her case. “Better get goin’, kiddo. I can’t guarantee you’ll like being in here a few minutes from now.” She lights the cigarette, her lips puffing away at the filter. Her long thing fingers hold it like it’s attached to her hand. “You be a good boy and tell my story, will you?”

I nod, standing from the chair. I’m too afraid to protest or ask why I won’t like it. “Thank you, Miss Hart,” I say as politely as I can. I sound like I’m thirteen again and my voice cracks.

She doesn’t say anything more as I turn to leave. I wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t plan on sticking around to find out.

“One more thing,” Katie says just as I’m stepping through the door.

I look back, a hint of worry on my face, I know.

“Take Prissy with you. Her momma is missing her and I promised to send her home.”

I give a short nod and walk out the door.

***

Boss-man is more than satisfied with my interview. He gives me a pat on the back that nearly knocks me over. I’m getting a raise, he says. That’s good.

I don’t know why I feel so terrible about it. After Katie Hart’s building burned to the ground, they found over twenty bodies under the floors, just like she said. I should be proud of myself. Instead, I’m disappointed. In the rubble, they also found the bodies of eight women, including one about the same height as Katie. They say all of them died in the fire that she set herself.

Only girl that made it out is Prissy. I’m seeing her Friday night, a prospect that excites me.

I sit at my desk and take a sip of the coffee that’s gone cold over the last hour. Howard, the mail guy, rolls past and tosses an unmarked envelope to me. The only thing written on it is my name, Mitch. It smells of perfume and cigarettes.

I flip it open and pull the letter from inside. There are only a few words on it and a pair of lips in red lipstick.

Hey kiddo,

Great job with my story. I was glad to see it made the front page. You hit the nail on the head with the title too. Lessons Burned has a nice ring to it.

~K. Hart

I blink at the letter with eyes wider than saucers. I can’t say I’m all that surprised she’s alive, but why did she even bother sending this to me? A sense of pride swells within. I survived one of the most prolific serial killers in the U.S. and she even though to write me a letter. I fold it neatly and place it in my bottom drawer. I’ll never tell.

Katie “Man-Killer” Hart dances in my head for the rest of the day. Something about that woman speaks to my desires.

Copyright © 2015 by Sophie Giroir

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