Two Cursed Names…

hard-boiled mystery

Vice Report is a hard-boiled mystery. But, like most detective novels, there is a romance at the heart of it.

Even the hardest boiled of them all — Sam Spade — was as motivated by love as he was by money, mysteries, or Maltese Falcons.

Spade combed her red hair back from her face with his fingers and said:
“I’m sorry, angel. I thought you’d sleep through it. Did you have that
gun under your pillow all night?”

“No. You know I didn’t. I jumped up and got it when I was frightened.”

He cooked breakfast—and slipped the flat brass key into her coat-pocket
again—while she bathed and dressed.

She came out of the bathroom whistling En Cuba. “Shall I make the
bed?” she asked.

“That’d be swell. The eggs need a couple of minutes more.”

Their breakfast was on the table when she returned to the kitchen. They
sat where they had sat the night before and ate heartily.

“Now about the bird?” Spade suggested presently as they ate.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammet

A tragedy by any other name

In Vice Report, the detective is a female reporter, working for a true-crime site that turns clicks into cash.

It is more in the style of Roderick Thorpe’s The Detective than Hammet’s Maltese Falcon, since we learn as much about the sleuth — and her romance — as we do about the mystery she’s trying to solve.

In Mona Breen’s case, the romance is steeped in a tragic backstory. It also foreshadows the tragedy that is yet to come.

In a flashback, Mona tells us how this romance started.

Tragedy in Five Acts

from Chapter 2 of Vice Report

Changing my name from Desdemona to Mona had been easy. In fact, my mother started it. She regretted the long moniker when she had to write it on every item I took to preschool. She shortened me to Des. I changed that, in middle school, to Mona. And early in life, someone else shortened that to Mo.

Otto was not amused, not participating. 

I ventured in.

“I have wondered at the sanity of my parents,” I said. Though, at that moment, I was mostly wondering at the sanity of his. Calling their son Othello seemed downright cruel.

“Why would anyone name their daughter after the most famous domestic abuse victim in literature?” (I was reprising an argument I’d had with my mother. I did not expect this professor to have answers as intelligent as Mom’s.)

“Ha-ha!” the professor laughed, pleased. “A modern interpretation. Is that all it is? Domestic abuse?”

The rest of the class looked lost. Clearly, no one knew the play. Or maybe they weren’t paying attention. This was turning into a private joke between the professor and two victims of parallel pretentious parenting.

“All?” I asked with a youthful passion I wasn’t feeling, even then. “Isn’t that tragic enough?

Don’t you think every abuser has someone like Iago whispering to him, convincing him she deserves to be abused—or killed?

Why say, ‘Is that all?’ about a tragedy Shakespeare detailed clearly and that plays out every day somewhere still?”

I was pandering to this annoying professor. If I was going to sit through this shit, I wanted an A for it. Maybe my schedule—otherwise full of graduate seminars—could use a break.

“Delightful!” exclaimed McQuade. She flung her long hair over her shoulder as she turned to the blackboard to write something, for no reason other than the drama of writing on the board. 

Othello,” she wrote in big letters. Some of the lost students who hoped to catch up wrote it down.

“Let’s go right ahead and have this discussion. A modern interpretation of this famous study of race, jealousy, envy, and violence. But let’s give the rest of the class a chance to purchase and read it first, shall we?”

The class started to gather their things, thinking this strange professor was letting them go early. There was a murmur of small conversations.

“Not so fast!” she shouted into the murmur, picking on a student seated so close to the door he had been unable to resist attempting a quick exit during the confusion. He skulked back to his seat. She looked at him crossly.

“This only works, of course, if Othello here is as versed in this tragedy as the lovely Desdemona.”

I should have corrected her about my name right then. Instead, I watched the drama unfold. She was waiting, expectantly, for Otto to do something other than stare sullenly back at her.

“I can’t help imagining that there is some force at work here to give me a class—where I am tasked with teaching Shakespeare—that contains two students named for two of my favorite Shakespearean characters,” she announced. 

“These two characters hold up to the test of time like not many others in the Bard’s work. Desdemona herself points that out.” 

She waved an ornately ringed hand in my direction.

Otto continued to glare at her, refusing to join in.

I’d missed another chance to correct her. It seemed too late now, like grabbing the limelight. If she said it again, this group of just-met students would remember my name as Desdemona.

“We don’t often murder our kings these days,” she continued, preaching her predictable monologue. 

“And it’s the rare mother that offs her husband and takes up with his brother. You don’t see a lot of witches gathering around cauldrons while people are being murdered in castles. But a black man murdering his white wife? That story isn’t old at all yet, is it?”

Otto laughed. She was in dangerous territory here.

Race relations being what they are in California, most professors would have stayed on safe ground, too politically correct even to use the words “black man.” Yet here it was. She had the Bard’s work to back her up. She wasn’t talking about race. Shakespeare was.

Otto took a deep breath, stood up, and spoke—giving the stage to the Bard.

“Rude I am in speech and little blessed with the soft phrases of peace.” His voice was rich and dark. He spoke the words conversationally, with no drama, as if he had been asked a question and was answering it. 

He schooled the professor not only on the text but on drama itself. 

He owned the dialogue so completely that there were those in the class who thought, probably, that he was foreign or this was slang.

“Little of this world can I speak that does not pertain to feats of battle. Therefore, little will I speak of myself.

Yet, by your gracious patience, I will deliver an unvarnished tale of my course of love. What drugs, charms, conjuration, and magic, I used….”

The professor clapped, interrupting him. She was an idiot, I decided. Why not let him say the passage? This was a Shakespeare class, wasn’t it? Not a stage for an idiot and her hair.

I didn’t consult the text either when I answered.

“My noble father,” I turned to the professor as if she were the father. 

“I perceive a divided duty: To you I am bound for life and education; I am your daughter. But here is my husband….”

I waved a hand at Otto and wanted to pull it back because of the word “husband.” 

I hesitated and blushed. I found him attractive. Using that word felt too intimate.

“So much duty as my mother showed to you,” I whispered—a stage whisper—shy, as I imagined Desdemona would say this line, “preferring you before her father, that I profess is due to the Moor.”

I wanted to give the look of devotion I knew Desdemona felt for the Moor. But I am shy, in fact, and held it back.

Otto told me later it was better that way. Too bold a look of passion from Desdemona in front of all those lords would have been a mistake. He said it was that look, wanting to express complete devotion but hiding it from those strangers who might see it, was brilliant, how the moment should be played. And it was the moment he fell in love.

“Wonderful!” squealed the professor, interrupting me as well. 

“You both know your namesakes! That settles it. I had planned to read Macbeth. But it’s difficult to get through life without learning that story anymore. While Othello, though it is so relevant, is easy to miss. If anyone has already bought Macbeth and does not want to read it, just return it to the bookstore for a full refund.”

She jotted a note into a hardcover planner on her desk. And I wondered how a college professor thought any of us had gotten out of high school without having already read, written about, and memorized portions of Macbeth. She was ridiculous.

This time the class was free to go. I gathered my things. I was shaking, embarrassed, nerves wreaking havoc. My cheeks were red. I was breaking out in a mild sweat. I looked down at my things to avoid everyone’s stares, if they were staring. 

I jumped, startled, when Otto said, “Otto Devlin. I’m going to guess you do not go by Desdemona.”

He was standing, his backpack slung over one shoulder, a hand out to shake mine, a look of man-smitten on his face. 

I knew that look. It frequently led to trouble, sometimes got me exactly what I wanted, and inevitably involved negotiation. I tried to decide quickly how to handle this one. 

I had already decided he was attractive. He was the wrong age, though. At that point in my life, I preferred older men. He was waiting to shake my hand, holding his hand out steady, ignoring my hesitation. I ignored the smitten look, the easiest way out.

I smiled, wishing my face didn’t feel so hot.

Vice Report, by C.X. Wood

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