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The moment the boys in blue showed up, the whole joint deflated. Flappers ran out the wrought iron doors. Under the neon lights, they looked like living gemstones. Broken glass sparkled on the pavement, still wet from some bootlegger’s gin. Or — as the Officer suspected given the haggard look of the dump — nothing more than kerosene and moonshine poured into a glass flute. The other members of the police force had let go of protocol. They snatched at the crowd, like birds of prey diving for glittering insects made of paste and rhinestones.
“Hey! Mind the bracelet, sweetheart,” slurred one woman to a police man.
The Officer hung back, waiting for the crowd to thin so he could investigate inside. There were bound to be stragglers. Some people who thought they could escape the law just by staying put instead of fleeing. He couldn’t wait to see the congratulatory smirks wiped off their faces when he caught them.
He slipped inside. No one had turned out the lights. But the bartenders had still had time to dump everything down a garbage chute that reeked of bad gin. The joint wasn’t nearly as shabby as it looked on the outside. But it was still unlike any place the Officer had ever seen.
First of all, it was entirely red.
Red mahogany bar stools and slick red walls. Cut-garnet glasses and tall ruby stems lay shattered across the floor from overturned red tables and red iron chairs. An ornate ruby chandelier twisted toward the parquet.
The Officer glanced at the empty stage. The props remained — a cottage surrounded by blood-red plastic poppies and a fake window where someone had painted a fanged grin against the black. Sprawled across the stage was a scarlet cloak that disappeared somewhere behind the stage. Without warning, it moved. Someone was pulling it.
Probably some drunk, cheeky girl, thought the Officer. He climbed onto the stage, pushed aside the decorations to find the closed door of a dressing room. Inside, faint whimpering. A woman’s voice. And a man’s angry growl.
“Don’t do it baby. You don’t mean it. C’mon,” said the woman.
“I can’t live like this,” said a man’s stricken voice.
Feeling gallant, the Officer removed his gun from its holster and threw open the door. His gut twisted. He wasn’t the only one with the gun. In the corner of the room stood a man whose lacquered hair had come undone around his face. He shook his gun in the direction of a beautiful woman at the opposite side.
She was so lovely the Officer almost forgot what he was doing there. Her hair was a corona of garnet flames, bobbed at her chin to expose her slender neck. She wore no pearls. She was entirely bare except for that red hair and flimsy glad rags glinting in the dressing room.
She cried, twisting her hands together. “Don’t let him, Officer. You gotta stop him. That Wolf is a mad man.”
Strange name, thought the Officer. He moved to step between them, his heart surging with impending bravery.
“No!” exclaimed the man, shaking the gun at the woman once more. He cut his eyes to the Officer. “How many rubes you want to look the other way? I got ‘em by the trucks, pal.”
The Officer tightened his grip. A flare of excitement went through him. Finally. A chance to prove himself. Be a hero. He could do something for justice, for once, instead of breaking up speakeasies and cleaning up some upchuck a flapper spewed on him right before he arrested her. Maybe after all this was over, the doll would faint. That’d look nice. Carrying her out under the lamplight, that glorious hair falling from her head.
“Easy does it, kiddo,” said the Officer.
“I’m warning you for your own sake, pal,” growled Wolf. Belatedly, the Officer thought it had been a foolish thing to call him kiddo. Wolf was twice his size. “You don’t want the kinda trouble this dame will bring.”
He needed to calm the man down. Steady.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on, alright? No need to turn all torpedo on me and fire that baby off.”
The girl gulped down air. Her lipstick had smudged onto her chin, a bright slash of red against the snow of her skin.
“I thought it was love, once,” she said. “But I was wrong. Officer, you should always be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.”
She tilted her face to the light. A word fluttered to the Officer’s mind. A word he hadn’t remembered since Sunday School. Seraph. It was an unwieldy word. But looking at this doll, he understood it now. There was something holy and hallowed in the curve of that white throat. He wanted to press his lips to her skin, cradle her wrists like they were living relics. Worship her.
“You see, my Wolf had the loveliest voice and the ritziest house you ever seen. And I went off the path. I was gonna be a movie star, but for him I’d be a wife.”
The man was crying now.
“They all said, ‘don’t trust the wolf.’ But he was no wolf to me. He was my candle in a window frame, all lit up on a silent night. He was the star at the top of the Christmas tree. The glitter of stars off the shoreline.”
“That’s not how it was,” said Wolf. “I loved you first. Thought you were a damn angel. God, I was a sap. But I’m stopping this now.”
“I just wanted to go to the pictures, but he couldn’t stand the thought of being away from me,” said the woman. She inhaled a shuddering breath. “He kept me too close. Said no one could have me. I’ve been all locked up. For ages. Can’t breathe without the wolf’s permission.”
“No one should have you. You’re my curse. I’m tired of you being so hungry.”
“See? He said I eat too much,” she sobbed. “Is it my figure, officer?”
“Not at all,” said the Officer hoarsely. She was glistening with sweat. And her glad rags clung to her slender waist and the tops of her thighs.
“You wanna know why everyone’s so scared of the Wolf?” asked Wolf. “It’s because it can wear so many things. It can wear your mother’s face, use your father’s voice. And if you’re zozzled on dreams and embalmed on want, it can sink its damn fangs into you and never let go. The Wolf loves this place. The lights. The music. The booze.”
The Officer’s brows crumpled. “Aren’t you Wolf?”
He was missing something. The dressing room felt like it was shrinking around him. His skin felt clammy. And yet he couldn’t stop his thoughts. He was thinking of the time he saved his brother from drowning. The way the whole neighborhood back in St. Louis threw him a party. The chocolate cake with strawberry icing. A precious cherry cordial pressed into his palm. They called him a hero. He wanted to get drunk on the glory.
“He is the Wolf!” shouted the woman. “All he ever did was take all that I could give. Isn’t that a wolf to you? Isn’t that what it means to be a beast? To forget how to say thanks?”
“It’s why you love this place,” said the man softly. The Officer stood forgotten. “It’s why you can’t let it go no matter how many times I try and bring you back. Am I not enough? My dreams of piano playing? Are they boring you, doll?”
“Listen to him!” she said, weeping. “He’s mad!”
And the Officer listened. He listened. He listened to his daydreams in the precinct, the fast car chases and zinging city lights, the thanks and praise. The purpose. He listened and then he saw them. Rising up out of his chest, unlocked and teased one by one into the air like so many champagne bubbles.
“You sap,” said the man. His eyes were ringed red. “You should always be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.”
The Officer’s gun clattered to the ground. The last thing he saw was a woman’s lips close to his face. Fangs unfurling from the black of her mouth. A wolf sucked his dreams from a wound in his heart — that cold gap where reality and dreams splinter — and drank him dry.
The Wolf stood over the broken man in the corner of the dressing room. She dragged her arm over her mouth and pouted.
“Baby, do you got my purse? I can’t go out with my lipstick like this.”
He threw it at her and she caught it.
“One day,” he whispered. “One day, I’ll win.”
She patted his cheek. “That’s the dream that keeps me going. Now c’mon. I wanted dinner and a show. And I hate being late to the pictures.”