Joe Prospect spent the day clearing out his office. Some big private investigator he turned out to be. He’d lost the lease on the place for failing to pay the rent—for the last six months. Now he was sitting on a stool at a nearby tiki bar on Denton Avenue that moonlighted as a jazz club. Dead End Avenue, as the locals called it, was a dirty little part of Hollywood they didn’t show in the movies. If they did, no one would go to the movies. He sat there alone in the smoke, listening to the discordant music, reading macabre Black Dahlia headlines, and nursing a third mai tai.

“Don’t sweat it, Joe,” Eddie behind the bar said. “In this big, bright, shiny town, people are tripping over jobs these days. Just falling into ’em. You got a million options out there.”

Options, Joe thought. What was it Jimmy Elbow on the yard at San Q used to say about options?

“It’ll come to me,” Joe said out loud. Until then, he’d just sit there…

“Uncorking your dinner?”

He turned toward the voice that had said it. Either every light in the joint had just turned on or she had brought a spotlight with her. Her dark red hair was all done up and she wore movie star makeup. The white satin dress was doing everything for her figure that it was designed to. He knew who she was from the society pages, but he couldn’t figure out how she knew him.

He kicked an empty barstool toward her.

“That an invitation?” she said.

Twenty minutes later, he let her catch her breath from telling her story while he ordered another round.

He flipped through the pages of notes he’d taken.

“So, we got a lost letter to an old beau that was accompanied by some very naughty photos of you in and out of a blue silk kimono from your days in the skin trade, which you’ve masterfully hidden from your fiancé, the idiot son of a wealthy Pasadena family. You pay up or the blackmailers go public with the lurid letter and dirty pictures, which would cause a scandal and torpedo your nuptials. What exactly did the blackmailers say?”

“They screamed it at me,” she said. “‘Bring 50 grand and don’t call the police!’”

“You know, any side of beef doing muscle work could handle the payoff for you. Why go slumming it looking for me?”

She took a sip of her drink, lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke over his shoulder.

“You’re the only one who’s a former syndicate box puncher.”

“Aren’t we hard-boiled,” Joe said.

“All right—safecracker, if you like.”

“How might you know that?”

“You peddled your story to every studio in town. I got friends. ‘Safecracker sprung from San Quentin by Uncle Sam in ’45 to punch open Hitler’s vaults. In exchange, our hero gets a full pardon and a clean record.’ The studios wouldn’t buy it. I will.”

“In other words, you don’t have the ransom money, but your soon-to-be in-laws do. Only it’s locked in a box in a mansion behind a gate in Pasadena. I crack the safe, pick the cabbage, and leave a mess. To the square johns in Pasadena, the whole thing reads like a run-of-the-mill robbery, and your prurient past stays a blue-silk secret. Now, what kind of thing is that to do to some upstanding citizens?”

She dropped her cigarette in her drink.

“Please. They stole it skimming from city construction contracts. You’re just stealing it back. And there’s a handsome fee for a handsome dick.”

“I’m out of the game, as of today,” Joe said. “Ask Eddie behind the bar. He’s heard the whole tragic tale.”

She slid a white slip of paper facedown across the lacquered bar.

Joe turned it over and whistled.

“An outtake from the photoshoot in question,” she said.

Joe wiped the sweat from his upper lip.

“I still have the blue kimono,” she said.

“Where is it?”

“Usually ends up on the floor next to my bed.”

Joe waved to Eddie. “Check, please.”

Four exhausting days later, Joe woke up alone in the redhead’s bed. Whatever game they’d been playing, she was three moves out. Joe needed to catch up.

Grace Fowler worked the city desk at the Examiner and had always been good for the lowdown on the few paying cases Joe had actually worked.

“What do you want to get mixed up with her for, Joe?” Grace said.

“It’s a job.”

“No. Investigator for me on the paper is a job. Fraud investigator at Pacific All Risk with my brother is a job. She’s just a racket by another name. You’re a smart guy, Joe. Steer clear of this. You have all the options in the world open to you.”

There was that word again—options. What the hell had Jimmy E. said about that?

Joe shrugged and smiled.

“Come back in an hour,” Grace said. “I’ll have the file for you. And you’ll have a dinner date for me.”

He sat on the trunk of his car, parked on Mulholland Drive. He looked down at the lights of L.A. and at the black emptiness beyond that was the ocean at night. The file Grace Fowler had compiled sat in his lap.

“This is a bad girl, Joe,” he said aloud. “What do you really want?”

He hopped down and opened the trunk. The stark blue moonlight reflected off the polished metal handles of his old safecracking tools. He got in the car and pointed it toward Pasadena.

The drop spot was a clearing off a fire road in the hills beneath the Hollywoodland sign. Joe was to meet the redhead there at 8. The blackmailer was due at 8:30.

A black lead sled pulled into the clearing at exactly 8. She got out—of the passenger seat? She held a pearl-handled .32-caliber pistol.

“So that’s it,” Joe said. “A burn job.”

“Toss the boodle bag my way.”

“From doll to moll,” Joe said and dropped the money bag in the dirt. He looked at the pistol. “At least give me something to tell Saint Peter.”

“All right. I guess you rate the full skinny. I was in it for the money with the idiot scion from the beginning.” She nodded toward the black car. “Frankie and I busted our brains coming up with an angle on how to score, and then I heard about you from a producer I know at RKO.”

“I steal the dough, you knock me off, and you and lover boy blow town. Where does that leave the fiancé?”

“Right here,” Taylor Townsend said and stepped from the bushes.

“I thought he should hear the pitch firsthand,” Joe said.

The redhead shot her fiancé in the gut.

He looked down at the blossoming blood flower on his crisp white shirt. “I thought you said you loved me?”

“I said I loathed you.”

Taylor Townsend III, of the Pasadena Townsends, dropped dead in the dirt.

She turned the gun on Joe.

He flashed open his trench coat, flipped up a cut-down tommy gun, and sprayed the black car with lead and fire. The windshield exploded in glass shards and blood spatter.

Joe looked at the redhead. She hadn’t flinched.

“Thank you,” she said, still pointing the .32 Joe’s way. “I wasn’t sure if I could do it. We were high school sweethearts, after all.”

Joe pointed the tommy gun’s smoking muzzle at the bag of cash. “There was a lot more than 50 large in that safe—and there are a lot more safes out there.”

“That gives us a lot of options,” she said. She dropped her gun, peeled off her overcoat, and picked up the money bag. She ran toward him wearing only the blue kimono.

Then it hit him, what Jimmy E., the jailhouse philosopher, had said. “What did you really want when you chose the dame who landed you in the joint? You wanted your options narrowed down to a comprehensible few.”

He thought of working at the paper with Grace Fowler, or working for an insurance company with her brother. He thought of the millions of straight jobs that Eddie behind the bar had said were just waiting for him to fall into down there among the swimming pools and the country clubs and the movie stars. He couldn’t see it.

Joe Prospect watched the redhead in the blue silk kimono bounce across the clearing toward him. She had powder burns on one hand and 200 grand in the other. This option, he could comprehend.

andrew zembles
Andrew Zembles

About the Author

Andrew Zembles is a writer and lawyer living in Southern California with his wife and one mean cat. He is currently working on a novel and has renewed hopes for the further adventures of Joe Prospect and Grace Fowler.

Why noir?
I moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest around the time James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential was adapted for the screen. From then on, I read and watched all the classic and neo-noir I could get my hands on—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Walter Mosley, and of course Ellroy. In fact, the line about “options narrowed,” attributed to the fictional Jimmy Elbow in my story, comes from an Ellroy quote in a French documentary titled Los Angeles: Cité du Film Noir. And I never miss an episode of Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley. Also, my mother is a retired death penalty attorney, so for most of my life, I’ve heard real-life crime stories from her.

How did you learn of our contest?
I saw the call for submissions in the hard copy of the magazine. It looked like so much fun, with the typewriter, the Chandler quote, and the prompts in the typewriter keys. I had to be a part of it.

About Alta Journal’s Noir Story Contest

Nearly 100 people from across the United States and a half dozen other countries entered our 2021 Noir Story Contest. Participants submitted original fiction inspired by writers like Paul Cain, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Dashiell Hammett. The criteria for these hard-boiled tales? One story, 1,500 words or less, that includes the following five elements: (1) a lost letter, (2) a nearby tiki bar, (3) “Don’t call the police!,” (4) a blue silk kimono, and (5) “I thought you said you loved me.” The winning entry received a leather-bound edition of “Arson Plus” by Dashiell Hammett, printed and published by Thornwillow Press ($2,000 value)—a one-of-a-kind copy. Two runners-up received a numbered Patron’s edition of the Hammett story, also printed and published by Thornwillow Press ($138 retail value)—one of only 75 copies.

Thank you to everyone who entered and made this contest a huge success.
For more on the contest, click here.