RED AMPERSANDS • by Dale J Rappaneau, Jr

When the loan collectors started calling after dark, Janet received an involuntary promotion from local thief to celebrity criminal. The promotion landed in her lap one evening while she ran from a black-masked mugger, moments after Janet failed to pilfer a purse. Janet herself wore a black mask, too, which clashed with her crimson cocktail dress and matching pumps, though she appreciated the anonymity as she passed amateur photographers with their phones pointed at the spectacle of her sprinting.

She made a panicked wrong turn down the Blump Theatre alleyway, feet slipping on wet cobblestone, eyes wild as she realized that this dead end alley may soon live up to its label.

“Stay back!” she shouted, squaring off against the assailant. “I’ll kill you, I swear.”

To make good on the threat, she pulled what looked to be a piece of wood from the Theatre’s dumpster. It turned out to be a thin cardboard box full of marbles or maybe beads, Janet couldn’t tell, but she swung the thing like it was a baseball bat.

“I mean it,” she said.

When the assailant took another step, Janet let loose a fury of back-and-forth swings, doing her best to look the embodiment of bodily harm. But in between the sixth and seventh swings, the tip of the cardboard box exploded open with a spray of spoiled corn kernels. Little golden globes rained onto the assailant’s black mask.

Janet froze. She looked from the box to the assailant to the kernels of unborn popcorn rolling across the alleyway, and she laughed. The manic sort of laughter that builds from sorrow to sweet relief.

“Are you kidding me?” she said in her hysteria. “This can’t be happening.”

The assailant responded with a laugh of her own, which melted into a fit of gagging and coughing. She pulled off her black mask, revealing a bald head tattooed with red ampersands above each ear. Her nose had clearly seen the rough end of a fist too many times.

“Holy hell,” said the assailant, sucking deep the fresh air. “Popcorn, really? You could have killed me.”

“That’s the point,” said Janet.

The assailant frowned, more with her ocean blue eyes than with her lips. “But I’ve been following you.”

“Literally or figuratively?”

“You’ve been my mark, until you put on that mask.”

“I’m sorry, what?” asked Janet, still wielding the cardboard box like a weapon.

“My mark. You know, my target.” On tiptoes the bald woman stretched both arms above her head, clearing her throat with a guttural groan. “Imagine my surprise: you, a thief.”

“You must be mistaken.”

The assailant stepped forward and punched Janet on the lip, knocking her to the cobblestones. Blood trickled from the wound, filling Janet’s mouth with the taste of pennies. Before she could clear her head, the bald woman sat on her chest, hands holding her down.

“Don’t play ignorant, smallfry, you almost stole my attention,” said the assailant. “People love beauty, but cannot stand the beast.” She ripped off Janet’s mask, red curls tumbling from their confinement. “And clearly you’re the beauty, here.”

Janet glanced at the night sky, unable to tell real stars from flashes of white pain.

“Look at me,” said the bald woman.

She did.

“Do you know what the papers call me? Assault on Sixth, or Another Theft On Terrance, or some other generic nonsense that could categorize any criminal. But you, dressed like that, you’d be their obsession.” The bald woman stood, one foot on each side of Janet. “You’d earn a title.”

Janet felt at her lip, fingers coming away slick. “But this is my first week.”

“With many to come, Janet H. Redfall, of apartment F6, on the corner of Farmer and Congress, owner of a French Bulldog named Sisyphus.”

Something tightened within Janet. Like a noose finding its home around her throat. Or a private letter made public. She tried to speak, but words hid behind her tongue.

“Like I said, you were my mark,” continued the assailant. “And you’re going to join me to become something big enough to earn a title. To warrant attention with a warrant. To transcend from person to personality. We’ll name you something sexy, too, like the Cocktail Secretary. We’ll play on their fetishes.”

Janet glanced past the bald woman’s legs, to the alleyway mouth where a teenage couple had stopped to gawk. If either of them dared to step closer, to snap a photo of her face for some social website or another, Janet would no doubt see herself on the front page of every local newspaper.

“That’s an awful name,” she said.

“So we have a deal?”

“I don’t—I mean, this is insane.”

The bald woman followed Janet’s eyes to the crowd gathering around the couple. People pointed and whispered. A single flash lit up the alleyway, and then another and another.

“Yes, fine, okay,” said Janet. “Just give me my mask.”

The bald woman smiled, again more with her eyes, and tossed back Janet’s anonymity. She turned to walk toward the crowd. Slowly, step by step, she seemed to swell: her back straightened, chin tilted upward, steps echoed. This was a woman with the will for what she wanted.

“Crazy nut,” said Janet, slipping back into her mask.

At the end of the alleyway, the bald woman put her hands on her hips, blue eyes twinkling with each flash from the camera phones. “There she is, everyone,” said the assailant. “The one and only Cocktail Secretary, ain’t she a beaut. You don’t know her? Oh well, friend, she’s famous. Take a photo, sure.”

Janet got to her feet, shielding her eyes from the flashes. Some part of her wanted to run, to slide home, arms around Sisyphus, ignoring the loan collectors. She wanted to forget about this desperate life of crime. But she glanced over the crowd, at blue eyes, red ampersands, bald head — and felt a surge of warm adrenaline. Excitement.

Cocktail Secretary had a nice ring to it.

Dale J Rappaneau, Jr has appeared within Esquire, Every Day Fiction, The Poetry Loft, and numerous magazines across the North East. He is currently writing a debut novel.

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