The Phantom Lady herself. Ella Raines lights a cigarette.
Miss Briest had gone home hours ago. I sat alone in my office late into the night going over the events of the last few days in my head one more time. Another philandering husband trying to pull the wool over his wife's eyes. An executive with a corner office on the top floor of the downtown corporate headquarters for some auto manufacturer. Didn't matter which one. Six figures a year, a healthy end-of-year bonus each December, and a large house in a leafy green neighborhood with well-manicured lawns on the old east side.
What did matter was Kermit Goad's running around with a young secretary he'd hired a few months back. Some shapely victory girl with auburn hair called Babs, who did her bit on the home front. Couldn't file, answer the telephone, or make a pot of coffee to save her life. Always fixed her hair and make-up while sitting at her desk though. Immaculate fingernails too. Typing was not a term with which she was familiar. Beauty school dropout rather than business college was my guess. Easy on the old eyes though.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Goad had something cooking on her own side of the marital bed. A porkchop in his mid-30s named Carlton something-or-other-the-third, who helped her avoid domestic duties two or three times a week. Tall. Tan. Broad shoulders. Blue eyes. Prematurely salt and pepper. An ample helping of afternoon delight in a crested navy blazer and creased chinos with horse bit loafers off the courts.
They called it tennis lessons. But I had a few furtive photos of their grand slams taken through the blinds of some no tell hotel north of town along Route 27 where they met. No way anyone would confuse it with Wimbledon. A newly restrung racket and a fresh can of balls? Forget about it. Game, set, and match seemed to be the last thing on the minds of Mrs. Goad and her pal Carlton.
Tennis elbow wasn't exactly what troubled him, though, following these routine trysts based on those same pictures, which occupied a folder in the filing cabinet behind me. It was pretty clear why he wasn't what you'd call loquacious in the immediate aftermath. That and the rosy expression on her face. One afternoon over lunch at her country club, Mrs. Goad obliquely spilled the beans to a couple of girlfriends who knew the score. The latter had inquired through exaggerated whispers how things were going. All that the dishy Mrs. G. let slip was that the bronzed tennis coach was really helping her game.
In short, he did everything.
I'd just poured myself another slug of the rot-gut and tossed the almost empty bottle back into the bottom drawer when the door opened. And there she was. A brunette in a hat. A tall drink of water. No ring. She sat down, took out a cigarette from a leather case in her handbag, tapped the end a couple of times, and waited for me to light it. I clicked open my Zippo and asked her to tell me everything. From the beginning.
Turned out she was an assistant professor at the local college. A textile and design historian who wore vintage. Said she had a problem. A couple of heavies working for The Dean of Students were leaning on her to give a passing grade to some obnoxious rich kid named Connor from Chicago.
He was a real yahoo with a fade haircut, flip-flops whatever the weather, and a Vineyard Vines ball cap worn backwards 24/7. The latest iPhone permanently attached to his left hand. Late model car. His own credit card and a furnished apartment in a nice area off campus. All the trappings of upper middle class life without any of the polish. Barbed wire tattoo around an upper arm. False bravado. False bonhomie. A loud voice, forced laugh, and coarse sense of humor. Always performing for his four or five fraternity droogs, who were in the class too. Saw nothing wrong in filling the room with a green cloud of his own stench just for laughs. A real gem.
But young Connor had other issues when it came to his performance in the course. Sporadic attendance. Unprepared when he bothered to turn up. Wasted others' time in class. Slipshod work turned in two or three days after project deadlines. Like clockwork. Acted like the world owed him something. Began every utterance with "Dude, I'm an athlete. . ." Indulged. Entitled. Complacent. Chronically disengaged from life at 19 or 20. Given everything possible by Mother and Father except a clue. Yet unwavering in the certainty that he'd change the world six months after graduation and an unpaid internship.
You get the picture. It was the usual late millennial Gen Z story. Not that I'm a cynic or anything.
I spotted a clean glass on a bookshelf across the room and went to get it. Asked her to join me for the rest of the hooch before we discussed compensation. She said sure, thanks. And don't worry. Money was no object. As long as she didn't have to change the kid's grade. Of course, it'd be nice if I could get The Dean's goons off her back too. Before a formal grievance was filed, the college's Office of Mediation involved itself, and the papers got wind of everything.
She slid a fat, unsealed envelope across the desk to me. I handed her the glass with the last of the Seagram's V.O. in the bottom, sat down again, and peeked inside. Looked like I'd take her case judging by the number of large bills. I'd needed a new taupe suit for some time anyway. It never dawned on me, though, to consider where a junior faculty member found that kind of dough. Still, I played along.
"You must really want this problem to go away, Miss?" I raised an eyebrow, tossed the envelope back on the desk, and lit my own cigarette.
"Noir. June Noir. Ph. D." Her voice was a throaty alto that reminded me of a young Kathleen Turner. Or maybe Lizabeth Scott in her prime after a swallow of second rate bourbon and an unfiltered Lucky. "There's more where that came from," she added and stubbed out the remainder of her cigarette in the heavy glass ashtray on her side of my desk.
I replied that I didn't think it'd be a problem, opened my top drawer, and rifled through a sea of tangled paperclips, rubber bands, and the odd coin or two for some paper and a pencil, so we could hash out the precise details. Names, dates, addresses, and so forth. I shuffled around in the mess, distracted for about 90 seconds, so I never saw it coming.
When I glanced up again, she was right there. The hat was gone. She grabbed hold of my loosened tie and planted a hungry kiss on my lips before I knew what hit me. For a split second, I wondered how much reading she assigned her students each week. And whether she relied on lecturing, or used a flipped classroom. Pedagogy. Active learning? Student-centered? Collaborative? Who knew? It was all the same to me.
Before I could say anything, the professor ran her hands through the hair on the back of my neck as I stood from my chair in shock. She leaned into me for another kiss. Opened her mouth. Suddenly, every nerve in my body woke up, and I felt like I was on fire.
I hadn't been kissed like that in a long time. I liked it. A lot. Natural instincts took over. I wrapped my arms around her and returned the favor. That's when my real troubles began. . .