By William Foulke
The match hissed to life, its flame wavering a little in the late afternoon as if threatening to go out. Claire Frye put the flame to her Newport before it could, then sat back on the metal high top chair and looked out over Dauphine Street among the rows of rainbow pride flags that lined the second-floor gallery. The view from the top was different, and she liked it. Her eyes found amusement in watching over the cracked sidewalks below as people neared the Good Friends Bar, then passed by, like it was a world within a world while she waited.
He would arrive soon.
Mitch Tenner—a goddamn asshole of a man, but a damn good writer nonetheless. Claire wished the latter was not true of him as she took in the stillness of the French Quarter, but she had to admit that it was. It was, after all, Mitch Tenner (a goddamn asshole) who she owed her career to.
Claire sipped her vodka tonic, enjoying the way it burned all the way down. It was the sure sign of a good drink. She turned her attention to the droplets of condensation beading down the glass of scotch she ordered for Mitch while she flicked her match out. They reminded her of sweat in the New Orleans heat of September, forming a ring of moisture on the check pinned under the glass. The last monthly check of a thousand dollars Claire would have to pay to Mitch. It seemed ritual to her—arrive early at the same bar on the fifteenth of every month and sit at the same table to meet the same man to give him the same check. Like an unstoppable drip.
Except this will be the last time.
Claire smiled at the thought, watching the ice settle beneath the golden-brown liquid in his glass. He would get his. It had been a long road, she reasoned, filled with everything unfavourable a woman could imagine having to best to remain on top. Being dominated by a man with a thirst for control. But that road ended here, at a bar far away from the Georgia apartment where it all began. It was a chapter that Claire regretted deep down but knew she had to discontinue if she wanted to stay on top. If she didn’t, everything she built would only crumble around her, little by little, at the hands of a man who wanted success as bad as she.
“Hello, Claire.” His voice slithered up behind her, and she didn’t have to turn to know who had spoken. Mitch was here.
She said nothing but forced a smile as his five-foot-nine figure walked into view and took the seat opposite her at the gallery high-top. His black plaid button down clung to his body, accenting his built figure like a tiger in street clothes. But Mitch’s blue eyes were just as playful as ever, and for a second, she felt sorry for him—sorry that it had to come to this. Her brown eyes met his gaze, and Claire wished right then that it was already over. Then it was shattered when he opened his mouth.
“Wow, money by the glass. Guess I should be offended,” Mitch smirked at her. He moved the glass off of the check and traced the wet ring with his index finger.
Claire was not amused by the bait, taking a long drag from the cigarette. “Only if you think it reflects my respect for you.” She sipped her vodka, brown eyes locked in her best cold stare on him. He deserves it, don’t let yourself think otherwise.
“Oh, Claire,” Mitch waved his hand at her and laughed. His head turned to gaze over the aged rooftops at the setting sun on the horizon, then back again. “The business portion of the evening is over. You gave me the check, and your little secret is safe from the public, at least for another month. Can’t we go back to being good friends?”
“Good was never the word I would have chosen to describe it, Mitch.” Claire flashed a sinister smile and brushed a lock of her curly blonde hair back. His smug attitude was getting to her, and for the first time since he arrived, Claire did believe he deserved to die.
“Oh, it was good once.” He winked at her. “I know that much.”
She could have thrown her drink at Mitch (a goddamn asshole) just for the comment. The gallery was littered with vacant tables, making the lack of witnesses tempting. But Claire restrained herself; murder was messy and best conducted in secret. Because, sometimes, secrets protected secrets. Especially the kind with which Mitch Tenner had been toying. Claire allowed her thoughts to drift back into the previous words of her nemesis while strings of conversation resonated from the open dark blue French doors.
The adjective “good” was true enough at one time, Claire reasoned. In 2004, she was a different person, and Mitch was too. Both graduate students at Emory University, she found him daring and insightful and—she had to admit—a damned good writer. Sometimes, she hated to admit, he was actually the best writer in the program. Claire could remember the intensity with which he dedicated himself, the way they both had to their crafts. That was how she found herself with Mitch (the damned best writer in the program) enough to think of herself as his girlfriend, enough to even find herself in his bed.
Looking at him on the gallery of the Good Friends Bar, Claire couldn’t deny there was an animalistic quality to him that was sexy when it was released. But she knew him well enough to know that, underneath the smug asshole in front of her, there was also a sensitive boy that still needed love and praise. That, when denied it, would seek it out the only way he knew how—control. And wasn’t blackmail just another word for control? But despite what good might reside deep within Mitch, she knew if she ever found him with his teeth nibbling her breasts again, it would be for the joy of good old-fashioned fucking. Nothing more, nothing less. In 2004, it was different; Claire Frye and Mitch Tenner were different people—still thirsty to get ahead but not yet parched. That factor alone made it easy to fall into his arms as he ravaged her and romanced her with his words.
Then there was the novel.
“It’s been too long, Mitch. I really couldn’t say,” Claire responded hoping that he believed that. She wondered what it was that made her desperate enough to steal his work. She supposed it was largely his doing. A woman might be sized up to a man, hear a hundred times that she lacked the spirit to be as good as a man, but it was the hundred and first time that might make her believe it enough to think theft is the only way to get ahead. That her own failed attempts at publishing a novella during the program were only evidence to the claim. Especially when the man spearheading the argument was the only person that she could say she loved. Especially when she found that man in bed with another woman and then he won the one-thousand-dollar graduate program fiction prize she worked her ass off trying to achieve.
Claire knew it was wrong, and she told herself at first that she was doing it to punish him. A theft for a theft. But that was never as true as she wanted it to be. Although she hurt, finding him entwined nude with a redheaded judge from the panel hours before the contest just didn’t hurt as much as the way he had compared himself to her and always seemed to come out triumphant, even writing about her as a stereotype. Despite the two novel successes she’d had since the publication of the work she’d stolen, victory never seemed as satisfying when she still had memories of friends at parties asking how much of Mitch’s stories really happened. When she had memories of hearing Mitch say that the only way that she’d get to the top was if she wrote “tawdry girlish dribble.” The edge of the top was always looming on the horizon, and sometimes it made Claire wonder if she really wasn’t as good as Mitch.
The theft began as chapter by chapter reading for him. She would pour over Mitch’s words, sometimes enveloped in his arms, her lips pursed at every brief moment of tension in each line. Then as the project grew to almost two thirds’ completion, he entrusted Claire with a full electronic copy in the weeks before the contest while he worked on his entry—and, she figured, the redhead. It was Mitch’s betrayal, writing about the most intimate details of their sex life, and his dirty taking of the prize she thought could have been hers that made her thirsty. And the knowledge the unfinished novel draft could be hers if only she put in some time to edit a few pieces and finish it off made the temptation that much more thirst-quenching. But as sweet as tasting the brew of its allure was, she couldn’t deny it came in a cracked and dripping glass.
“I could remind you.” Mitch winked again.
“No, you couldn’t.” Claire flashed a wicked grin, and tapped some of the ash from the end of the cigarette into the ashtray. It was the same look she’d had when she received the news of her advance for The Fury Inside. In 2005, Claire Frye’s stolen book was going to be picked up by Viking Press. But before the contract could be signed, Simon and Schuster placed a rival bid for the publication. That made Claire thirty-four-thousand dollars in advance money.
The novel was wildfire.
The New York Times hailed it as a unique twist on the classic metaphor of sex as power in a male dominated literary world. The idea of a woman finding inner liberation from rejecting male patriarchy and embracing inner fury through lesbian sexual conquests provided an alternate perspective on gender and sexuality, Newsweek reported.
“You know, Mitch, you’re not as dumb as you look,” Claire said simply. She sipped the vodka and tonic, relishing in its bite. Bait me if you will, it’ll be the last time, she mused.
“I’m touched, Claire, but really, I should say that about you.”
“Why is that?” She feigned innocence. He knew how to push her; being near him was beginning to take its toll. But be nice. It’ll be as if none of it ever happened soon enough. Claire’s grin returned as she took another drag of the Newport, knowing there was hope in that thought, as long as he sipped his drink.
“Well, the novel for one. There’s a couple thousand in advance and royalties that you fucked me out of. That was— “
“Pure brilliance.” She leant back on the chair, letting the smoke from her lips.
“Oh, it was.” Mitch’s fingers stroked the sides of his glass. “You took a polished rough draft, reworked with a little of your flare, tightened it with some needed changes, and look at you now.” The golden-brown liquid inside sloshed from side to side. Diluting. The ice clinked with finality, like the bell that would toll death. And although venom dripped from their lips with each exchange, Claire knew there was truth in the word brilliance to describe the crime. Only then, brilliance also described Mitch’s retaliation.
Between the raw and edited material of both writers, The Fury Inside rose from the depths of the unknown to conquer its competition for three weeks in a row. That earned Claire another twenty thousand dollars in first paperback rights. It was enough to gain a steady stream of fans and a deal with Simon and Schuster for two more books. The money came in, and Claire climbed with the book, allowing her to finance a small cottage in Sorrento and buy a certified Honda for its driveway. But she did not hear from its rightful author during her Luftwaffe of the literary market.
That worried her; the cup of success prone to cracking.
A year passed before Mitch responded. “No, Claire, I’m not pressing charges.” The relief that came with it was short-lived as he continued, like a cat enjoying playtime with its ensnared prey. “But you’ll be paying me monthly…just so you’ll always remember that I was better—even on my worst day. And that you could only climb to the top if you used someone else’s work to do it.” It was that remark which had cracked the glass of her success and begun the trickling formation of the payment plan Claire knew would tap her dry if left unstopped.
The crack that pushed her to prove him wrong.
“But then there’s this bar.” Mitch continued; his blue eyes looked from the drink up to her. “A gay bar not far from Bourbon Street. Either you’ve made a major life change, or your decision to meet here every month is your way of trying to embarrass me.”
Claire’s lips took in another drag, then held the cigarette towards the scenic horizon. She let the smoke out of the corner of her mouth. It was a truth she couldn’t deny; the one piece of their meetings that she could control was the setting. The last group of people a straight, alpha male—Claire reasoned—would be comfortable around were gay men on the prowl.
Mitch smirked; his hands held the arms of the black metal chair. “Still hoping for a little childish disgust.” She knew he was right. Both of their antics were childish at their core, but then again, you didn’t get to the top without getting just a little bit dirty, did you?
By now, the sun was turning the sky a brilliance of reds and purple. “I have to hope for something; you have had the upper hand throughout most of this. You could have sued right away and made triple what the book would’ve gotten you.” Claire stamped out the cigarette, her eyes watching the ashes splinter away and turn the end to dust at the edge of the ashtray.
“I suppose you do. But suing would have only retrieved the money—not awarded me your dignity and focus.” They shared a smile, the tension fierce. Then his expression softened a little. “But it’s a shame; we used to be good friends. Still could be—at least, I’d like to think so. One day.” Mitch took the crinkled check from the table and examined its front.
“Used to be,” her words were as sharp as glass. Because at the core, Mitch Tenner was nothing more than the child he’d been at Emory; power seemed the only way he felt he could be loved. Claire sipped more of the vodka; its coolness smooth against the warmth of Louisiana. Far in the distance, Bourbon Street could be heard coming alive with street performers and loud clubs as the state troopers put up their barricades and the night came to life.
“Still could be,” Mitch repeated. His words were gentle as he tapped the check against the table top; he watched it bounce in his fingers. His thick hair was dark chocolate in the setting sun, and for a moment Claire found it just as attractive as she did the first moment that she met him at Emory, passing by on the university green. Ice cubes of guilt floated in her stomach, and she knew in her heart she and Mitch weren’t terrible people. Deep in their souls, they were merely two flawed people who were exactly the same—driven to succeed at all costs. Because dreams themselves were thirsty things, and sometimes it took all you had to quench their thirst and make them real. Mitch might have been in the way, but maybe—Claire thought—killing him wasn’t the only solution.
His scotch was still untouched; Claire frowned at it. She didn’t want it to come to this, and now that it had, she wished there was another way. But the thirst of dreams sometimes took all you had when you allowed them to, and when they did, not even lovers were safe from their craving. Mitch was no different; if Claire could not break him, he would break her. Claire could not let that happen. With that understanding, she did her best to hide her pain and said, “Then, if we’re friends, why don’t you toast a lady?”
His eyes met hers then, and the gaze they exchanged was almost a truce between them. He forced a smile, almost reminiscent of that time on the university green under a different summer sun. Then he said, “To good friends.” Mitch palmed the glass. Most of its ice had melted, leaving slick sweat on the outside of it. The glass rose in the air; Claire felt her heart tighten. Waiting for him to drink. Understanding that it was too late to go back.
“To good friends,” Claire frowned and clinked the remains of her vodka tonic against the lethal scotch. Then she pressed it to her lips and drank the rest, watching Mitch (maybe not such a goddamn asshole, actually) take in the poison it contained.
He paused for a moment, then swallowed it in one gulp, and Claire would wonder for years later if he had somehow known it was tainted with the white oleander. His neck strained with its burn, and the glass clinked back to the table top. They stared at each other, allowing the silence to fill the void in the afterglow of their toast. The fires of their feud—like the match Claire used to light her cigarette—were extinguished. She solemnly took in the shine of the empty glass as the sun died in the distance, marking the end of their meeting.
“Well, I best be on my way, pal.” Mitch forced another smile, absently folding the check in his fingers as he rose from the table. His eyes—softer than she’d seen in years—never left her. She said nothing in response, her voice unable to say goodbye as he departed. Then when she was alone, Claire lit another cigarette. And stared again at the empty scotch glass.
It’s over now.
The thought was enough to empty her, knowing that she had won. Knowing that, in several hours, the white oleander poison Claire laced in Mitch’s drink would do its work. It would make Mitch’s mouth salivate to no end and cause massive abdominal pains. Then it would push his system into cardiac arrest, leaving the nearest coroner to believe Mitch Tenner (maybe not such a goddamn asshole but definitely a damned good writer) died of a heart attack.
A final fix for a good friend.
So, why doesn’t it feel like I’ve won? She didn’t know.
Claire continued to sit, pondering as she watched the sunset. She let the mixed emotions flow through her with the nicotine. She took a long drag and blew the smoke into the last of the dying daylight. It would be the last time that she would see Mitch Tenner alive, and his toast replayed in her ears. Her mind correcting it. To good friends—
—no, not quite good friends but friends at one time—
And the dreams that destroyed them.
Bio: William Foulke is the MFA graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts who will dethrone Stephen King as the Master of Horror. He lives in Pennsylvania where he’s hard at work on his first novel. He can be found at his website, HERE.
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