Lipstick on a Cigarette
– Fiction by Christine Johnson –
“It’s him – I’m sure of it.”
“Lizzie, I think your imagination is working overtime. It’s not him.”
“It is so. You wait. Tomorrow we’ll go to the store and get a paper – his picture has been on the front page every day. Then I’ll prove it to you Leigh.”
I hung down from the top bunk holding a flashlight under my chin. “Am I scaring you Leigh?”
“Well you should be afraid. There’s a maniac taking us out horseback riding – an escaped murderer – and you aren’t scared?”
“Lizzie, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to get your mom.”
“You should and then we can tell her to lock the screen door but that wouldn’t do any good because it’s just a dinky little hook – he could give it a good push and he’d be in.” I hung back over the bunk with my flashlight and cackled. Leigh covered her head with her blanket and whimpered, “Please stop – I am scared.”
“Okay, okay. Sheesh, I wouldn’t have invited you to the lake if I thought you were going to be so jittery. Don’t worry – he’s in enough trouble already, he’s going to lay low. That’s probably why he’s here – who would think he’d have come here, eh? Leigh?”
All I heard was the rhythm of Leigh’s breathing. Either she’d fainted or she was sound asleep.
No way could I sleep. I took out Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion – the cabin we’d rented was filled with books and I’d been thrilled to find a Trixie Belden. At twelve, I felt like I was getting a bit old for Trixie so I kept my reading material hidden from my best friend, Leigh. I felt under my pillow for a Pixie Styx and tapped some of the explosive sour powder into my mouth and thought how happy a Pixie Styx and Trixie Belden made me. Especially Trixie, that girl took no guff and solved mysteries with her hands tied behind her back. I wanted to be Trixie.
If someone ever wrote a series of books about me, the titles might be something like Lizzie Maxwell and the Mystery of the Disappearing Father or Lizzie Maxwell and the Secret of Weekends at Grandma’s. I wasn’t a little kid, I knew that my life was not a storybook but I wished it were. Sometimes, I felt weary with all the secrets I carried. I couldn’t tell anyone about Sophia’s mood swings or my father’s absence – I wouldn’t have told anyone anyway but my grandma sat me down after each incident and said: “No one needs to know our business Elizabeth”. My life was like a roller-coaster – the highs taunted me with the promise of fun, fun, fun and the lows socked me in the stomach and left me gasping for air. But when we were at the cabin we rented every summer for two weeks, I could pretend that we were normal and I could have adventures like the wonderful Trixie Belden.
I was tired. Our first day had been spent at the beach – jumping off the dock and swimming until Sophia called us over to the blanket and gave us sand-filled peanut butter and jam sandwiches and orange Kool-Aid. I hated orange Kool-Aid but it was Leigh’s favourite. Sophia was very different from Leigh’s mom or any other mom I had ever seen. She didn’t want me to call her mom – she said it made her feel old. And she looked like a movie star – everyone stared when we walked onto the beach – everyone stared wherever we went. And I was quite sure they weren’t staring at me. I often heard the word “bombshell” when my mother appeared. After we had our sandwiches, Sophia told us to go back to the cabin, get out of our wet bathing suits, and hang them on the line and then go horseback riding. She would stay on the beach, reading the book I’d given her at Christmas – Great Expectations.
At the stable, Charlie picked out two gentle-natured mares. Leigh and I hadn’t been riding since the summer before but we had no trouble mounting our horses. Charlie led us to the head of the the trail and told us to wait for the new guy.
“But Charlie, we want you!” Leigh and I said the words together which made all of us laugh.
“Aw girls, I wish I could but I promised the wife – I’m gettin’ too old for trail riding. But you’ll like Hank. He’s an Americun, eh? And kinda shy so be nice.” He pointed at me. “Don’t you give him any trouble, missy, or I’ll tan yer hide, hear me?”
“Yes, I hear you.” I attempted an angelic look which made both Charlie and Leigh laugh.
“Here he is.” Charlie turned toward the approaching rider and horse. I froze.
The man riding towards us didn’t smile or wave. He nodded to Charlie and said “Hey”. I looked at the man and then at Charlie.
“Charlie!” I used a stage whisper which was louder than my speaking voice. “Charlie, I need to talk to you.”
“Lizzie, what did I tell you? Now mind yer manners.” The man positioned his horse beside Charlie. “Hank, you’ll be leadin’ these two crackerjacks today. This here is Leigh and this one is Lizzie.”
Hank peered at both of us. I felt his eyes linger upon me and I didn’t like it. I frowned at him and said nothing. Leigh gave a tight wave, sort of like the Queen. Hank turned his horse toward the trail and nodded to Charlie. “See ya in an hour boss.”
I hoped that I would see Charlie in an hour. I was convinced that this man, so-called ‘Hank’, was in fact Richard Speck, the infamous killer of eight nurses in Chicago. He murdered eight grown women – what chance did Leigh and I have? Charlie would be sorry – I had tried to tell him. Now, all they’d find would be our bound, bruised, and violated bodies deep in the woods.
Nothing happened – Speck didn’t say one word. He nodded when we asked if we could gallop through a meadow and he actually smiled when we got back to the barn and Charlie asked him if I had given him any trouble. But I saw the sneer in his smile – a warning, that he was watching me watching him.
I fell asleep rehashing every detail of the man – tomorrow I would verify that it was him and prove to Leigh that I was right. I was beginning to think this case would have been too much for even Trixie – I don’t recall her dealing with mass murderers.
I woke up to the sound of a woodpecker tapping on the roof. Sophia was striking a match to light her first cigarette of the day. The percolator chuckled and burped. Everything was so easy at the cabin. Sophia and I stayed out of each other’s hair. At home, Sophia despaired at the way I dressed and the way I acted – she was the bombshell and I was the tomboy. But at the cabin, she seldom gave me her withering, “where exactly did you come from?” look. I joined her at the kitchen table.
“Morning.” She didn’t look up from her copy of Vogue. That magazine lasted the entire two weeks, it was so thick.
“Morning.” I was toying with the idea of sharing my theory about Speck with her.
“Sophia?” I topped up her coffee and brought the cream over to the table.
“Hmmmm?” She was looking at bathing suits and tsking. “Gawd, these are attractive? Look at them Liz, unbelievable!” I gave up on the idea of telling her about Speck – once Sophia was focussed on fashion, there was no getting her attention.
“You’re right Sophia. Your suits are way more attractive. They should consult you when they put the summer magazine together. You are so stylish.”
Sophia’s head snapped up so violently, I was afraid she’d given herself whiplash. “Are you mocking me?” Sophia was a tightly-wound woman, my dad used to say.
“No, no. I mean it. Everybody always says, ‘she can’t be your mother, she’s so gorgeous’”. I watched her as she got up from the table to perform her cigarette disposal routine. She dipped the lit end in water, wrapped it in Kleenex, and deposited it in the garbage. “Hiding the evidence”, she’d say. My dad hated smoking and even though he was long gone, she kept up the ruse.
Sophia smiled as she turned to look at me – a smile that lit up the room. I think she’d been born with a set of bright, gleaming teeth.
“Aw Liz, you have your good points too.” She stopped for a moment and looked up to the ceiling, perhaps searching for my good points written on the beams. “You’re … a really fast reader!” At that, she jumped up, grabbed my hand, and said, “Let’s jive. I’ll lead.”
This was the way many of our conversations ended. Sophia loved to jive and I’d gotten pretty good.
“I told you it was him – Richard Speck – that’s his real name. Hank – give me a break!” I pointed to the picture. In my most Trixie Beldean voice, I said, “Now what Honey?”
“Why are you calling me Honey?” Despite having been my friend forever, Leigh had never shared my enthusiasm for Trixie Belden.
“Because you’re so sweet?” I’d been deep in thought, after the jive session with Sophia and before Leigh appeared in the kitchen, about what Trixie would do in this situation. I suppose I had drifted into her world a little too far. Honey was Trixie’s best friend and reluctant partner in solving mysteries.
“Uh huh. Lizzie, you are nuts. And this picture – it’s really hard to tell. Anyway, you couldn’t even see Hank’s face – his cowboy hat was pulled so low.”
“See what I mean? He’s hiding his face because he knows the Feds are looking for him.”
“The Feds? Who are the Feds?”
“Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI.”
“Lizzie, let’s just go for a swim, okay?” Leigh shook her head almost sadly – she was twelve going on forty-two.
After another sand-filled lunch on the beach with Sophia, Leigh and I meandered to the stables. We took a short-cut through the woods to a stream. I wanted to check on the water level, a habit I learned from my fishing days with my dad. Leigh sighed deeply but followed me anyway. I heard him before I saw him.
“Leigh, cheese it – it’s him!” I pulled her down onto the ground beside me.
“Lizzie, what are you doing?” Leigh was wriggling out of the grasp I had on her wrist.
“Trying to save your life! Now be quiet.”
Speck was standing by the stream, taking drags from a cigarette. He was talking to someone but I couldn’t see who it was. Whoever it was made him laugh and his laugh was pure evil. It was hot and mosquitoes were buzzing and biting but I didn’t want to leave until I found out who he was with. We were too far away to hear their conversation so I decided to move closer. All of a sudden, I heard a slap and Speck’s head swiveled in our direction. I looked at Leigh and realized she’d smacked a mosquito. I grabbed her hand and ran all the way back to the cabin. Later, I insisted we go riding just like we’d planned even though Leigh was still spooked by being dragged through the woods. I had to keep Speck under surveillance.
The trail ride was the same as the day before. Nothing happened – we rode, he nodded when we asked to gallop. Leigh’s eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her head. I had to put a cold cloth on them when we got back to the cabin. I realized that I was going to have to do this on my own. That night, I fell asleep thinking about how it would be if Trixie and I were working together. I woke up kicking off my blankets that had wound around my legs and screaming bloody murder. Unbelievably, Leigh slept on snoring quietly. And nothing from Sophia’s room.
It was three o’clock, according to the fluorescent turquoise numerals of my bedside travel clock. There were a few early birds stirring like me – they would be trying to find worms, I would be trying to capture a cold-blooded murderer. I had to gather evidence and then I could go to the RCMP office in town and alert them. I would probably receive a commendation and perhaps, a letter from the Queen. I thought about what Trixie would do. She would gather clues from where he lived. But Speck was probably there right now sleeping. It would make more sense to go back to sleep and investigate during the day when I could be sure he wouldn’t catch me in the act. I unravelled my blankets and fell back to sleep, dreaming of Trixie and the Queen.
The next morning, Leigh woke up moaning. She was covered in mosquito bites and on top of that had a killer sunburn. I slathered her back with Noxzema and calamine lotion, fixed her breakfast, and gave her a stack of Betty and Veronica comics. I put a tall pitcher of ice tea by her bed and told her I’d be back for lunch. It was time to catch a maniac.
There were seven doors on the bunkhouse so I had to find out which one was Speck’s. Charlie came up behind me while I was pondering what to do.
“Lizzie, what are ya doing here? Your ride isn’t until this afternoon.”
“I know Charlie but I was just wondering if … if I could leave something for Sp…, I mean Hank.” Close one.
“Hank? What do you want to leave for Hank?” Two years earlier, I had been branded by the entire lake community as a hooligan – just because I’d started a small fire when I was conducting a scientific experiment: does wax paper burn? I’d had a difficult time winning back trust and Charlie, who had extinguished the fire, was one of my toughest nuts to crack.
“Oh…it’s just a…um…a note. Hank asked me if I knew of any good beaches so I … well, I wrote down a list for him. So I wanted to give him the…uh…note.” I beamed…I was scathingly brilliant, as the great Hayley Mills would have said if she’d been there.
“Lizzie,” Charlie looked at me skeptically. “Lizzie, if you are up to somethin’, I meant what I said before, I’ll tan yer hide.”
I tried to ooze sincerity. “Charlie, I just want to leave him a note. Which one is his door?”
Charlie stood his ground. “Give it to me and I’ll give it to him.”
I swear I heard a voice, Trixie’s I think, whisper in my ear, “Sophia gave you a shopping list yesterday, it’s in your pocket. Fold it in half and give it to him.”
So I did. I pretended to leave but I actually slipped into the horse barn where I watched Charlie’s movements. He puttered around in the corral for what seemed like an hour and then, looking around for me I bet, he slipped my note under Speck’s door – lucky number seven!
I kept thinking about the nurses and how he’d taken them, one by one, and killed them, among other things. Who did I think I was to search his room? How did I think I’d get away with it? But then Trixie entered my head and I thought about how all her adventures and mysteries turned out fine, even when she was frightened. On the other hand, she had never dealt with a true maniac like Speck.
I had several pieces of evidence: his similarity to the picture in the paper, his suspicious “shyness”, and his evil laugh – it was all pretty lame. I needed physical evidence; then I could go to the RCMP, commendation and letter from the Queen to follow. I slithered into his room like a cunning snake – luckily his door was unlocked – I had yet to learn how to pick a lock.
Speck’s room was as neat as a pin. The bed was made with hospital corners. The bedside table lamp was draped with a scarf, much like one of Sophia’s – the scarf diffuses the light for a romantic effect, she’d told me. While I was pondering his taste in lighting, I picked up the book that lay on the bedside table – Great Expectations. I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at the scarf and the book. Could be a coincidence. Could be.
This mystery had taken a detour and I didn’t like where it was leading. I took a deep breath and thought of Trixie – just because it might be hard to take, she never shied away from the truth. I upended the wastepaper basket that sat neatly beside a small table that must have served as a place to eat. I found what I hoped I wouldn’t find. I didn’t pick up the rest of the garbage and put it back into the basket – I didn’t have the heart.
Our third trail ride was identical to the first two – Leigh had recovered enough to go riding by the afternoon but she complained the entire time. Speck just led the way, saying nothing, doing nothing. I was wishing he was in the tank, awaiting the FBI boys from the States.
“What is with you Lizzie? You look awful. Ouch!” Leigh gingerly touched her shoulder as she needled me.
“Nothing. Nothing at all Honey.”
“Honey? Quit calling me that. Are you reading those Trixie Belden mysteries again?”
“Hell no – Trixie Belden is for little kids.” Leigh’s eyebrows shot to the top of her forehead when I said “Hell”.
“Lizzie, I think you have sunstroke – you’re acting really strange.”
I smiled and got her talking about the possibility of the two of us going to a private girls school in the fall – ever since we saw Trouble with Angels, we were desperate to experience an all-girls school taught by nuns. Neither of us understood why not being Catholic would be a problem. It was easy as pie to get that girl off topic.
I dropped Leigh off at our cabin and re-applied Noxzema and calamine lotion to her bright red shoulders. Once she was settled, I walked down the road leading into town. I needed to figure out what to do. One mystery had led to another – one that I really didn’t want to solve. I was deep in thought when I realized Speck was riding toward me. His horse stopped so close, we were almost nose to muzzle. Speck looked down at me.
“What’s this?” He let the grocery list flutter to the ground beside me.
I picked it up and looked up at him. “Looks like a list of groceries – do I win a prize?”
He failed to grasp my wit. “Charlie said you asked him to give it to me – why?” He stared at me with weasely eyes.
“Ever hear of losing your marbles? Let’s just say Charlie is getting a little mixed up in his old age.” I smiled as sweetly as I could, given the plug of chewing tobacco he had just spit out and which landed between my two feet.
“Yeah…well…you just watch yourself, little missy. Don’t go pokin‘ yer nose into other people’s business, hear me?”
Speck turned his horse around and headed toward the cabins. I stepped gingerly around the tobacco and kept on walking into town.
If this had been a Trixie Belden mystery, Trixie would have shown her father the evidence. Mr. Belden would pick her up and swing her around and say, “Trixie, many women wear Coral Blush lipstick and smoke menthol cigarettes. Your mother was home baking a pie for all of us, you silly goose!” and then he’d smile at Mrs. Belden and she’d tousle Trixie’s hair and all would be right with the world.
The next day, Charlie took us on our trail ride. He said Hank had left in the middle of the night, leaving him short-handed.
When I picked up the newspaper after our ride, a photograph of Richard Speck being arrested in Chicago was on the front page. I showed Leigh and she rolled her eyes.
“You’re not going to admit you were wrong, are you?
“Leigh, how can you say that? Can’t you see – it’s him!”
“How could he get from here to Chicago in a night?”
“Uh, there’s this new-fangled invention called the … uh, what is it, oh yeah, the airplane.”
Sophia was sitting with us in the kitchen. As she laid her cigarette in the ashtray, I looked at the filter. She looked up from her magazine.
“What are you two talking about?”
“Oh you know Liz – always coming up with crazy ideas.”
Sophia smiled back at Leigh.
“She thought Hank looked like that killer, Richard Speck, and now he, I mean Hank, left last night and Richard Speck was just arrested, Lizzie thinks it was the same guy!” Leigh broke into gales of laughter. Sophia didn’t. She just stared at me.
“That’s what Charlie said. Actually, Charlie said ‘that good fer nothin’ Americun took off like a thief in the night’ – that’s what he said.” As I spoke, I watched Sophia’s face.
“Huh. Interesting.” That was all she said as she tapped the ashes from her cigarette and went back to reading her Vogue.
When we got home from the cabin, I thought my mystery-solving, Trixie-loving days were over. But when Leigh called to tell me about Speck, I began to think perhaps not. I was staying at my grandmother’s because Sophia was “away having a little rest” in the words of my grandmother. I knew that she was back in the hospital but I played along. I was absent-mindedly flipping the pages of Trixie Belden and the Red Trailer Mystery when my grandma called me to the phone.
“ Lizzie! It’s me.”
“Hi Leigh. What’s up?”
The girl sounded positively excited.
“Well, last night I was watching the news and Speck was on!”
“What? What do you mean he was on?
“He was being interviewed and when the reporter said, ‘Hello Mr. Speck’, Speck said ‘Hey’ just like he did when we went riding with him! You were right! It was him!”
I sat for a minute. Should I tell her that a lot of people say ‘hey’, especially Americans?
“Holy moly Leigh – we were so close. We could have turned him in or …”
“Yeah, I know. He could have killed us both!”
“But he didn’t – all’s well that ends well. Thanks for calling Leigh. I’ll be home soon and then we can plan how we’re going to talk our parents into sending us to private school!”
“Bye Lizzie. And Lizzie – you are way better at solving mysteries than Trixie.”
I thought about Trixie. If this were a Trixie Belden mystery, Mr. Belden would arrive with a twinkle in his eye and say, “Trixie, your mother is having a little rest and meanwhile, you and I are going to go home and spruce the place up!” And then he and Trixie would walk out together hand-in-hand and he would be whistling a cheery tune. But I wasn’t Trixie and so I sat on my bed and waited for my grandmother to call me for dinner. We would chat about the weather while we both silently hoped that the roller-coaster would come to a stop again soon.
About the Author – Christine Johnson
Christine Johnson was a folksinger, teacher, social worker, and now after retiring, she devotes her time to writing. She lives in Lethbridge, Alberta with her husband and dog; part of her heart, however, belongs at her cottage in the Crowsnest Pass where she does most of her writing. She is a member of the Writer’s Guild of Alberta, has been published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal online), Canadian Stories, Whetstone, the Globe and Mail, WestWord magazine, and Story Quilt (online).
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