Looking out the window at a gray, windy day here in Key West, I was reminded of an earlier short story of mine, a little opus titled Fully Loaded. It’s a slice of Southern noir, and since I just got done reading and reviewing Quarry’s Choice, a very noirish novel by Max Allan Collins which, like my short story, is set in Biloxi, Mississippi, I thought now would be an ideal time to revisit this little gem of a tale. Here’s a brief description:
It’s 1984 and Biloxi has seen better days. Sherry Lamar, used car saleswoman extraordinaire, is feeling the pinch. Then one day, a stranger walks onto her small car lot and ushers her into a world of steamy sex and murder.
And here’s a little taste of the beginning:
The rain finally stopped. It was the middle of the afternoon, nearly three, and it had been coming down since nine this morning.
Thank God for small favors, Sherry thought. At least there were a few hours left to try to make some money.
Because nobody, but nobody, went shopping for a used car in the pouring rain.
Through the window of the sales trailer, she saw slivers of sunlight cutting through the gray clouds. Out on the lot, the water beaded up on all the freshly-waxed cars. Nothing made a vehicle look better than that. Dings and dents always faded away under the silvery droplets, as did any evidence of body work, and even the back line cars looked good.
She looked down at the ashtray in front of her. Her cigarette burned itself out. She thought about lighting another one.
Quitting smoking would save her around two hundred a month. These days, she needed every penny she could lay her hands on.
It wasn’t always that way.
Up until a couple of years ago, if you were talking used car sales along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the name of Sherry Lamar was always at, or very near, the top of the page. You had to look pretty hard to find anyone between New Orleans and Mobile with better numbers.
These days told a different story.
Tourism in the area had been slipping for years now, taking the convention business down with it. Weekend visitors from New Orleans, spring breakers, they were all staying away. Even people from upstate were selling their long-cherished vacation homes down here at bargain prices. That worn-at-the-heels look had set in like grape juice on white linen, and the Coast was now a faded remnant of its earlier, swinging self.
Because of all this, not much money was circulating, so the hard-goods businesses felt it. Oh, there was some loose talk floating around about legalizing gambling, but that was a pipe-dream if ever there was one. Mississippi had about as much chance of getting legal gambling as Mondale had of beating Reagan in next week’s election.
She was seriously debating whether or not to light another cigarette when she saw a customer wander onto the lot.
Kenny was up. She called to him in the bathroom.
“Kenny. You got a customer.”
“Go ahead and take him, Sherry,” he replied from behind the closed door. “I’ll get the next one.”
As she stepped out of the trailer, the sun finished shoving the clouds aside. A slight breeze began drifting in from the Gulf, trying to sweeten the sticky air. It didn’t do the job.
He stood near the front line, by the blue ’81 Cutlass.
“Hi,” she said. “Looking for something special today?”
“Hey,” he replied, turning his attention from the car to her. “About time this rain stopped.”
He was dressed in a nice shirt and pants, and was maybe a little older than she was, around thirty-five, but that was all she noticed. She never got past his dark brown eyes. They held her still in the middle of the hot, sunlit lot.
“Is … is there … something particular I can help you with?”
Now he smiled. She liked that, too.
“Well, if I wanted to buy a car, I’d certainly want to buy it from you, lovely lady.”
She accepted the compliment gracefully. “What can I show you, then?”
“You can show me the manager. I’m looking for a job.”
“A — a job?”
“Yes. A job. Selling.”
“Well … I don’t think we have any openings. Things have been —”
“What’s your name, anyway?”
She absently brushed back a dangling shock of hair from her forehead. “My name? I thought you were looking for a job.”
“Mine’s Marty. What’s yours?”
A little laugh, then, “Okay, you win. I’m Sherry.”
He took her hand, kissed it. “I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Sherry. Now if you could show me the way to the manager’s office so I could — whoa, wait a minute. Unless you’re the honcho around here. Tell me, your highness, is this your empire?” He gestured around with his arm, sweeping the small lot.
She laughed again. “No, it’s not mine. Not by a long shot. You want to see Al. But I can tell you that he’s not looking for —”
“I know, I know. It’s been slow. But I’d be very much obliged if you’d introduce me to him anyway, so he could tell me. You know, kind of make it official. Tie a ribbon around it, so to speak.”
He smiled again. Boy, did she like it.
Sure, she’d bring him in. Hell, she’d hire him herself if she could.
Inside, the air conditioning tried its best to cool things down, but couldn’t quite get there. The door past the bathroom said “Manager”. She opened it and stuck her head through.
“Al, there’s someone here to see you.”
“Who is it?”
“He’s look —”
He slid in front of Sherry, then stood in the doorway.
“The name’s Moran, sir. Marty Moran from Miami.”
He stepped up to Al’s desk, extending his hand. Al took it.
“Well, Marty Moran from Miami, what can I do for you?”
The afternoon sun beat through the window directly into the office, backlighting Al, landing right in Marty’s face. He tried not to squint.
“I’m looking for a job. I’m a salesman.”
“Hnh. You sure picked the wrong time to come lookin’,” Al said, shaking his head. “We got all the sales force we can accommodate right now.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s what Sherry here was telling me. Things have been slow around here.” He stole a quick, sidelong glance at her. She caught it. “But I’m a damn good salesman and I really wish you’d think about it. I just got into town and I need a job.”
“Where’ve you worked before?”
“Miami mostly. A couple of note lots, the used car department of Anthony Abraham — he’s a big Chevy dealer — and I even did some work for a wholesaler. Before that I was in Fort Lauderdale for a couple of years. Same type of thing.”
Al eyed him carefully. He could spot the nickel-dimers and the weak sisters every time.
Thirty-five years in this highly competitive business can give a man that kind of insight, and Al had it. Very little got by him. Eye contact, body language, voice inflections … so many tells on a person, and he knew them all.
“What brings you up here to the Coast?”
Marty replied, “The last place I worked went out of business.” He realized that wasn’t enough of a reason, so he added, “And I, uh — wanted to leave the area.”
His eyes briefly flicked down toward the floor. Al spotted it. The first crack in the armor.
“Well, I … I had ex-wife problems. I wanted to get away.”
Al chuckled. “Hnh! Is that all? Shoot, I expect every man who’s ever had an ex-old lady has had some kinda problems with her. That’s the way o’ the world, son.”
He lifted his bulk out of the chair, then walked around to the front of the desk.
“I still can’t put you on. But if you’ll give me a number where I can reach you, I’ll let you know if something comes up.”
“I’m at the Hotel Gulfport. Room ten.”
Al jotted it down. “Like I said, I’ll let you know.”
They shook hands, and Sherry escorted Marty to the door.
She walked with him through the lot. The Gulf breeze hadn’t done much for the humidity. Colored streamers flapped lazily overhead. Black clouds formed off to the south, promising more rain.
Streetside, she said, “Marty, he likes you. He wasn’t just giving you a line of crap in there.”
“I know,” he said. “But what about you? Do you like me?”
He looked at her for a second, then he said through his smile, “I’m sorry, darlin’, I don’t mean to put you on the spot. It’s just that I feel like … well … I tell you what. You want to have a drink with me when you get through tonight?”
Those eyes again. She’d go anywhere just to stare into them. To have them looking back at her.
His build was only average, kind of wiry, you know, not at all muscular — she never went for those weight-lifter types, anyway — but still, somehow, Marty dripped with masculinity. The hot flash of desire jabbed at her insides, then jabbed again.
She agreed to meet him at seven-thirty.
The whole story is available on Amazon right now, and it’s only 99¢! Come on, you know you want to read the rest of it. Don’t let me down.