Black Coffee

By Andrew MacRae

Peggy stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray on the kitchen table. With one manicured nail she counted six butts including the latest. She arranged them among the ashes in order of being smoked based on the brightness of the red lipstick left on each, the most recent having the least. When that task was completed Peggy forced her eyes up from the ashtray and tried to focus on the kitchen clock. The black cat's tail and eyes moved smoothly, back and forth, back and forth, pulling her eyes with it. The electric clock's cord hung down the faded yellow wall to an outlet near the floor.

"Stupid clock," she muttered while trying to focus on the time. "It can't even tick right. Can't tick. Can't tock. Can't hold still for me to see what time it is."

Peggy picked up her coffee cup and drank the last dregs. The wooden legs of her chair scraped against the linoleum floor as she pushed back. She put one hand on the table and pushed herself up while with her other hand she tugged her flannel bathrobe tighter around her. She shuffled in her slippers over to the stove, stopping in front of the clock.

"Ten-thirty? Jeeze, is that all?" Peggy went to the stove and picked up the percolator. She swished the remaining coffee inside, trying to gauge how much was left. Not much. She poured what was left into her cup. It barely filled the bottom. She thought about making another pot but changed her mind after looking at the sink. It was filled with dishes from Ed's breakfast and dinner the night before and she would have to move them to get to the faucet and it just wasn't worth the trouble.

Peggy muttered a half-hearted curse. What was the point of having a husband who owned his own business if he wasn't willing to spend a little money on some hired help, anyway? Ed had always talked big before they were married. He talked about his fleet of delivery trucks and his laundry service. What he didn't talk about was how he spent all his time there and how every penny went right back into the business. Peggy could count on the fingers of one hand how many times they had gone out for a good time in the two years since she and Ed had gotten married and she'd quit her job at the Cozy Corner Cocktail Lounge.

Peggy swallowed the remaining coffee and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. She turned and headed for her bedroom.

An hour later she was showered and dressed and making an effort at cleaning the kitchen. She wore a simple flowered housedress, her shoulder length blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she had traded her slippers for a pair of sneakers. Her only surrender to vanity was the fresh red lipstick now in place. The kitchen radio was on. Harry James' band was playing something quick and jazzy and she half danced around the kitchen. Plates and cups soaked in a sink full of greasy soapy water. The eggshells joined the empty package of bacon and the contents of the ashtray in the white trash bin near the door to the garage. Peggy stopped for a moment to survey her work, "Not bad."

She decided to reward herself with another cigarette, her first since getting dressed. She picked up the pack and shook it. It was empty.

"Damn," she said under her breath as she remembered. She was going to pick up another carton the afternoon before when running errands. Now she would have to go out to buy some at the corner market and that meant meeting people, most of them nosy neighbors who she knew talked about her behind her back. "Damn, damn, damn!"

Her flow of cursing was cut short by the sound of the doorbell.

"Mrs. Carlson?"

Peggy stared at the man standing at the front door. The bright midday sun and his starched white uniform made her eyes hurt. She shaded her eyes with one hand. The man was tall and well built with a rough but attractive face. That made up for the fact that his uniform was all too familiar.

"Mrs. Carlson?" the man repeated. "Your husband asked me to swing by while out on my route and drop these off for you." He held out a small stack of papers.

Peggy took them without comment. They were brochures for vacation cabins along the coast. Peggy sorted through them quickly, then for some reason felt obliged to explain.

"My husband and I are planning on driving down the coast in a couple of months." Her voice trailed off as she saw the pack of cigarettes in the man's shirt pocket, just below his nametag. She swallowed.

"Tom, can I bum a cigarette off you? I'm all out and I'm just dying for a smoke." She accepted the pack and drew out a cigarette and put it to her mouth. She tried to hand the pack to Tom.

"Keep it. I've got another pack in the delivery van." Tom flicked a lighter to life. Peggy leaned forward to reach it.

She took a long drag, held it for a moment and let the smoke slowly escape through pursed lips. "Thanks." Music drifted through the door behind her from the back of the house where the kitchen radio was still playing. Peggy put a hand to her hair, looked up at Tom and studied him. He returned the stare. Peggy licked her lips. "Would you like a cup of coffee? I was just thinking of making another pot."

Tom looked up and down the street before answering and when he did it was with an easy smile. "Sure, I've got a few minutes to spare before I have to be back at the shop."

Peggy put her hand on Tom's arm. "I just remembered. It will have to be black. I'm out of milk."

Tom's smile grew. "Don't worry. I think you've got just what I want," and he followed Peggy into the house. The door closed behind them.

* * *

Ed Carlson edged the Cadillac slowly down the coastal road. "I sure hope we don't meet anyone coming the other way, Honey." He stole a quick glance over at Peggy slouched on the seat across from him. "I don't know if we could get past each other. One of us might have to back up and I'd hate to have to do that on this road."

"I told you, it's not my fault. The brochure said the cabin was just a short drive from the highway. Besides, you have to admit it's a nice view." Peggy turned and looked out the passenger side. The ocean stretched across the horizon, the shore lost to view a hundred feet or more below them. A seagull rose on air currents from below the cliff and up over their car. Ed's eyes followed the white bird, then came back to the road in front of him. A shudder went through him.

"You know how I feel about heights."

"Oh, come on, don't be such a baby. It's not all that high up." A cruel smile played across her face. "You're making such a fuss over nothing."

Ed wanted to reply with a cutting remark but Peggy had turned away and was looking out the car window, and besides, he didn't want to get into it with her. They had the cabin for three days and she could be hell to live with when in a bad mood. He gripped the steering wheel tighter and concentrated on his driving.

After a few minutes he made an effort to make amends. "Well, we've gone at least fifteen miles. I guess it shouldn't be much further." He looked over at Peggy but she was still staring out the window. He navigated a particularly tight turn and tried again. "I'm sure we'll get there soon." No sooner had he said it than they rounded a bend and found themselves at the end of the road. A cabin stood in front of a small turnaround. Ed parked the car and he and Peggy got out. They stood for a moment on either side of the car, not speaking, taking in the view before them.

The cabin was modest in size but well-kept. Behind it was a square of neatly mown grass bordered by a short white-painted picket fence. Directly past the fence lurked a steep cliff with nothing but the wide expanse of the ocean beyond. Ed turned away from the fence, the cliff and the ocean and went around to the trunk of the car, opened it and removed their suitcases.

"I'll put these in the bedroom. How about fixing some coffee?"

Peggy didn't answer. Ed looked at her. She was staring at the fence and the ocean beyond, a faraway look on her face. "Did you hear me? Make some coffee, will you?" He waited for an answer and then gave up. He carried the suitcases up the front steps, set them down while unlocking and opening the door and took them inside. Only then did Peggy follow.

* * *

Ed rested his hands on the picket fence, took a deep breath and looked down. The drop must have been sixty feet, if not more, too high for him to see the rocks at the base below. He heard waves crashing on the unseen rocky shore and the scent of salt water and seaweed was carried by a light breeze blowing up the cliff face. The fence rails moved slightly under his hands and he let go and backed up a few steps. At the same moment Peggy's mocking voice came from behind.

"Wow, you are jumpy, aren't you?" She slipped around and in front of Ed. She held a highball glass in each hand. A cigarette hung loosely between her lips. The ice in the glasses clinked and sunlight shimmered on the drops of condensation. Ed took the one she offered him. He clutched the glass tightly.

"I thought you were making coffee?"

Peggy took the cigarette from her mouth and flicked it over the fence and out over the cliff. Ed's eyes followed its arc.

"There wasn't any." She answered his next question before he could ask it. "Yes, I checked all the cupboards. And yes, I specifically asked that there be a fresh can when I booked the cabin." She clinked her glass against his. "Come on. Drink up. The bar is well stocked and since we already paid for it we may as well enjoy it. We can go into town tomorrow and pick up a can of coffee."

Ed took a gulp from the glass he held and tried to steady his nerves. He looked out across to the horizon. That wasn't as bad as looking toward where the earth disappeared into space.

"There, isn't this nice?" Peggy slipped her free arm into his and Ed had to admit that it was. The evening sun was just starting to touch the horizon and wisps of clouds flecked with pink floated over it. Somewhere behind them a crow called from its vantage place in the dark forest that surrounded the cabin. The heavy evening air smelled of ocean and pine.

"Go on, drink up." Peggy gave an encouraging lift to Ed's hand holding his glass. "I made a whole pitcher and we don't want it to go to waste." Ed obliged his wife by draining his drink. As she took his empty glass from him he gave his head a shake.

"Wow, what'd you put in that? It's got quite a kick."

"Oh, just the usual. You're not used to the good stuff, that's all." Peggy held her glass behind her back so Ed couldn't see that it was still full. They turned toward the cabin. As they walked Peggy kept her glass behind her and, unnoticed by Ed, quietly poured its content into the grass.

Once they were inside Peggy took Ed's glass and refilled it from the pitcher on the counter. He raised a hand in protest but accepted it anyway.

"Tell you what, lover boy." Peggy pulled Ed over to the sofa and made him sit down. "You drink that up like a good boy while I go into the bedroom and change. I've got a new nightie that you're going to just love taking off me." She leaned over him and kissed him on the lips. His free hand went to her waist and then to her rear. She lifted Ed's hand and put it in his lap.

"Uh, uh. Not yet. No touching until you finish that drink, then you can have all the fun you want with me." Ed gave a lopsided smile, put the glass to his lips and took a large swallow. His eyes followed Peggy as she walked to the bedroom, closing the door behind her. He took another drink.

* * *

A short time later Peggy came out of the bedroom. She was dressed in tight jeans and a blouse knotted at the waist. She crossed to where Ed was sprawled on the sofa. His legs were splayed out before him and his head lolled back. A slight snore accompanied his heavy breathing. Peggy took the empty glass from his hand and put it on the side table. She straightened and looked at the clock over the mantle. It ticked, she noticed, the way a clock ought to. It was a quarter to eight.

She heard the sound of a car approaching. Peggy listened as the driver parked outside the cabin and a car door closed with a quiet thud. Moments later there was a discreet knock at the cabin's door. She went over to it, opened it and Tom came in.

Peggy threw her arms around him. "Oh, Baby, right on time. Come on in."

Tom took her arms and pulled them down to her side. "Easy Kid. What about Ed?" He looked past her into the cabin.

"Ed? Take a look." Peggy swept one arm back in the direction of the sofa. "Good Old Ed is dead to the world." A nervous giggle escaped her. "Get it? He's dead to the world and soon he's going to be dead to me, too!" Her eyes were bright with an unnatural excitement and her face was flushed.

Tom put his arm around her waist. "Calm down, Peggy. Don't go losing your nerve now." She looked up at him and they kissed.

It was a long kiss and when it was over Peggy spoke in a low tone. "You can always back out, you know. Ed would wake up in the morning and never find out."

Tom kissed her again. "Uh, uh, Kid. You and I are in this for keeps." They turned together and looked at Peggy's husband who gave a loud snore. "I suppose we should get to it."

Peggy took Tom's hand. "No reason to rush, lover. Nothing's going to wake him, and besides," she cast a glance at the window where the last light of the evening lingered outside. "We should wait until it's completely dark anyway."

"What should we do until then?"

Peggy ran her tongue over her lips and looked at Tom with half closed eyes. She took a couple of steps away from him, tugging on his hand. "There's a perfectly good bed in the other room. Be a shame to waste it before I start playing the part of the grieving widow, don't you think?"

Tom agreed.

* * *

It was Friday night and Billy Jenkins was peeved. He had wheedled and begged for a week to switch shifts and get the night off so he could take Julie to the drive-in and now she went and decided they had something more important to do.

"But don't you see, Billy? Maxine trusted me to set up that cabin for the Carlsons and it's my fault I forgot to leave them some coffee." She took the paper bag holding a large can of coffee from her lap and placed it on the car floor. She reached over and squeezed Billy's shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll make it up to you. I promise."

Billy glanced at her. Julie smiled and his heart melted. "Well, I suppose you're right. It shouldn't take more than half an hour to get out there and back. We'll still be in time for most of the first feature and all of the second." Between Julie living with her parents and his room at the boarding house where visitors weren't allowed at night, the drive-in was their only chance to be alone together. He pressed his foot to the pedal. The straight-eight engine responded with a roar and the big sedan raced through the night.

"Steady, Billy, this road's pretty scary."

"Don't worry, Julie, I could drive this road blindfolded." Nonetheless he eased up on the gas.

The minutes ticked by as Billy's car traveled the tiny, twisting road. Finally they rounded the last bend and their headlights swept across the small cabin and came to rest illuminating the grassy spot behind the cabin near the cliff, the small fence before it and the forms of three people at the fence. Billy and Julie sat transfixed by what they saw.

Ed Carlson's limp body was lying halfway over the fence. Peggy was pushing on his shoulders and Tom was bent over and trying to lift Ed's feet and legs. It looked like Ed was caught between two of the pickets and stuck fast.

"Well, I'll be a son of a bitch!" Billy complained. "God damn it all to hell. There goes the drive-in." He reached down and handed the radio microphone to Julie. "Here, see if you can raise the sheriff. " He flipped a knob on the dashboard. The red, rotating light on top of the car began flashing as he opened his door and got out with one hand on his service revolver.

Andrew MacRae writes short stories and poetry. In March, 2012, omdb! online published his short story "Aunt Mary."

The author's first novel, MURDER MISDIRECTED (Mainly Murder Press), is available in paperback and e-book formats. The sequel, MURDER MISCALCULATED will be released by Mainly Murder Press in June, 2014.

Copyright 2013 Andrew MacRae. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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