the woman in the red raincoat

by dm gillis

Vancouver, 1949
Trudy Parr had been falling all of her life. It was an enduring dream. From a hotel room window, high over the street. She would open it and edge out, earnest in her aim, nauseous from the height. And, having written her brief neatly folded letter of apology, unaware of the antecedent – did she leap or dive? – she fell. Flags and lighted windows, the moon and tresses of neon. Since childhood. But she had always woken before impact. The wind in her hair and comfort in the outcome. With the redemptive pavement rushing toward her, she would wake. In the dark of night or grey dawn, hearing perhaps a lonesome wakeful bird just outside.
But not that night. That night she didn’t wake before shattering like a mirror, her self reflected ten thousand times.
She sat on the edge of her bed, smoking. Having witnessed the infinite glare of extinction.
It was 4 a.m.
Finally, she stood and looked out of the window. She could see English Bay from her suite at the Sylvia Hotel. The freighters shone like cities on the water. It was early July. The sun would be prodding the eastern horizon. She looked west. Her dream had had the density of stone. It would sink in the bay, if there was a means.
She snuffed out her cigarette and had a shower.
10 am Commercial Drive
“Caffè lungo and Cornetti,” said Trudy Parr. “Have you see Melisa?”
“She no come in today,” said Tony Nuzzo, starting Trudy’s order. “That’s strange because she’s usually in round eight o’clock. She come in yesterday, but very sad I think.”
“She gets that way, you know?”
“Yes.” Trudy knew. Melisa Patton did get sad. They’d been friends all their lives, and she could remember Melisa’s long years of sadness. She was an artist, a painter of stunning canvases. And she sold them in galleries as far away as New York.
“You take a table,” Tony Nuzzo told Trudy Parr. “I bring it to you.”
Trudy Parr sat by the widow. Commercial Drive was a busy east Vancouver high street in an Italian neighbourhood. Through the window she saw merchants and customers hurry by. Tony Nuzzo arrived with her order. He’d placed two small chocolate cookies next to her Cornetti.
“A little chocolate for you,” he said. “You too thin, Trudy Parr.” After twenty years in Canada, Tony Nuzzo’s English was still broken. And he had held onto old country ideas. “A man likes a woman with a little width, if you don’t mind me to say so.”
Trudy Parr smiled.
“I’d like to sit down with you,” Nuzzo said. “May I?”
“Of course.”
“Grazie, grazie.” Nuzzo sat. “It’s about your friend, Melisa. It’s none-a-my-business. But she really didn’t look so good yesterday. She’s pale. No smile. No Hello Tony, how you today? And it’s July. It’s warm. And she’s wearing this paint stained sweater, long sleeves. But I see bandages poking out. Her wrists, maybe her whole arms, wrapped in bandages.”
Trudy Parr tried not to look worried. She’d attempted to return Melisa’s call from the day before last evening and this morning. Her secretary had said the caller, Melisa, sounded especially melancholy. There’d been no answer when Trudy called back. It was Melisa’s studio number. She was almost always there. Now this. Bandages. Melisa had, in the past, cut herself when things were bad. Her arms. Her legs.
“Did she say anything when she was here?”
“No,” said Nuzzo. “She just had two espresso, one after the other, and left. Maybe she’s unlucky in love, huh?”
“Maybe,” said Trudy Parr. She bit a chocolate cookie and sipped her coffee. “I’ll ask around, check her apartment and studio. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.”
“That’s fine,” said Nuzzo. He stood up with a broad smile. “You good at that kinda stuff, you bet.”
The apartment and studio were on the Drive, a half block away from each other. Trudy Parr knocked and there was no answer at the apartment. The door was locked. But she found the studio door open when she arrived. She went in.
The large room reflected Melisa’s obsession with neatness, in spite of the paints and canvasses, splattered palettes and linseed oil soaked rags.
On the easel was an unfinished painting of a woman, seen from behind. She was walking away from the viewer, in the rain, without an umbrella. Her coat was bright red, with darker rustier shades in the creases and folds. The surrounding colours, however, people, buildings and automobiles, were bleak. Strangely hopeless, she thought. But it was a treasure, nonetheless, to Trudy’s untrained eye, nearly complete.
On a desktop under a lamp, she discovered a roll of gauze and a small metal case containing blue Gillette razor blades. Next to them was a bloody rag and a beaker stained with a dry rust colour substance. Trudy Parr shivered. Melisa was talented and a striking woman, educated and revered. What provoked her?
“Hello,” came a voice from behind her. She turned round and saw a small man in a dapper suit and his hat in hand. “Have you seen Miss Patton?” he said.
“No,” said Trudy Parr. “Who are you?”
“A patron. An admirer. A costumer.” His eyes fixed on the painting on the easel and he said, “Ah, she’s nearly done. It’s exquisite.”
Trudy Parr looked over her shoulder at the painting. “Yours?” she said.
“Indeed,” said the man. “A special commission. A vision.” He walked into the studio and up to the painting, removing his soft leather gloves. He ran his fingers over it gently, feeling the texture of the brush strokes. His eyes closed as he did it. He seemed to be experiencing a strange ecstasy.
When he was done, he wiped his brow with a yellow silk handkerchief. “Do you know anything of her whereabouts?” he said.
Trudy Parr saw odd markings on the back of the man’s hands. Circles and cruciforms. And a cursive script she didn’t recognise. They might have been tattoos, but appeared different, like blemishes. The man noticed and put on his gloves again.
“You’re a curious one, aren’t you?” he said.
“Some people have said so,” said Trudy Parr. Suddenly the man didn’t seem so small anymore. His eyes were darker. She swore she heard whispering.
“It’s a hard life for a woman, is it not?”
“That’s a peculiar thing to say,” said Trudy Parr.
“I mean for a woman to establish herself in the world of men.”
“What’s your game, mister?”
“If you find her,” said the man, taking a card from his shirt pocket and handing it to her, “would you call me? I understand you do that sort of thing for a living. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Trudy Parr looked at the card. No name. Only a phone number.
“I think you’re the last person I’ll call when I find her,” she said.
“That’s entirely the wrong attitude,” Miss Parr.
“You know my name?”
“My knowledge of things here is not unlimited, but I know that much.” He grinned. But if he meant it to be an agreeable smile, he failed.
In a moment he’d put his hat on his head and walked to the door. Before he left, he turned and spoke again.
“In creating this singular masterwork, Melisa Patton is only repaying a favour. As the granter of that favour, should I be vilified for collecting on it?”
Trudy Parr said nothing. Only wished he would go away. He did, without the sound of footfalls as he proceeded down the hall.
7 pm Tony Nuzzo’s
“And so far that’s all I know,” said Trudy Parr. She had intentionally failed to mention the small man and the whispering that had surrounded him.
“A mystery,” said Tony Nuzzo. “She’s gotta be round somwheres.”
“She’ll show up.”
A man in a summer suit needing a press came into the establishment and looked at the menu.
“Can a fella just get an ordinary cuppa joe round here?” he said.
“I make,” said Tony Nuzzo, getting up. He knew a flatfoot when he saw one. “I make. I know whatsa guy like you likes.”
It was police detective Olaf Brandt.
“That’s fine,” he said, and dropped a nickel onto the counter.
Nuzzo looked at the small coin and rolled his eyes.
Brandt took a seat across from Trudy Parr.
“I hear you was looking for Melisa Patton,” he said.
“That’s right.” She braced herself. Cops like Brandt didn’t patronise shops like Tony Nuzzo’s, unless they had a reason.
“It’s bad, Trudy,” he said. “We found her this afternoon. She took a room at the Astoria Hotel.”
“She jumped early this morning round four a.m., best we can figure. She mentioned you in her suicide note. How you were best friends. How she was sorry.”
“Four? This morning?” Trudy Parr recalled the terrible sequence and clarity of her dream. “Why’d it take you this long to get to me? I’ve been calling in to the office all day.”
Tony Nuzzo arrived with a cup of black coffee and put it down in front of Brandt. Then he stood and listened.
“No one noticed her until this afternoon when somebody looked out of a window. She fell onto an awning, not the street. Sorry, Trudy. Her note said something about a fella that wouldn’t leave her alone. He wanted a painting in the worst way. She said she didn’t have the blood in her to finish it. I guess that’s artist talk. Note said you should run like hell if you meet the runt. A real little swell. Dresses like a millionaire. She didn’t want to write his whole name in the note, said it would be bad juju for the people who read it. Called him Bub for short.”
“He ran his hand over that painting like he was gonna have one hell of an orgasm,” Trudy Parr said.
“Who?” said Nuzzo.
Brandt sipped his coffee, and raised an eye brow.
“That’s some damn fine java,” he said.