Dying For a Cigarette, Part 1

(by msulliva@asacomp.com, 21 December 1996)


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    Notice: This story has been rated "NC17" for adult language, nudity,
strong sexual content, graphic violence, and explicit smoking. If you're not
sure you want to read it, think again. It's a corker.

    Copyright 1996 by G. M. Sullivan. All rights reserved. This story may be
copied and distributed for the uncompensated amusement of others only.


    "Dying For a Cigarette" Part 1 of 4

    "There are eight million smoking stories in the Big City, every one
unique. This is only one of them. I know. I carry a pack."


    Part One: A Shot of Kindness

    1. New York, New York, 21 December, East 75th street, 5:40 PM

    Jennifer O'Brien pushed open the large, wooden doors of the St. Jean
Baptiste High School and looked out onto the darkened street. Feeling the cold
wind, she regretted leaving her winter coat at home. Her uniform's skirts
would let that wind whip through her like an avenging angel.

    The Latin Club meeting had gone late, and night fell early this time of
year. She thought about calling her parents for a pick-up, then decided
against it. The upper east side of New York was one of the city's safest
neighborhoods. It was only an eight block walk home. Besides, she needed a
cigarette.

    Juggling purse and books, Jennifer walked down the dim, tree-lined street.
Early dinner hour. Not too many about, and none on her side of the street at
the moment. She managed to work out a Pall Mall Gold 100 and her lighter
without dropping anything. She had experience.

    Her best friend Kathleen had started her on these over summer vacation.
Between school and her smoke-free home she managed maybe six a day, sometimes
more on the weekends when she and Kathleen "did the town." Those six, though,
were very important to Jennifer. They were her life-line to sophistication, to
being grown-up.

    The lighter flicked to life and she brought it to the tip of her
cigarette. It was important not to look like a kid when you smoked. Kathleen
said it spoiled the whole effect. You had to "bring it off" properly, as
Kathleen had heard some actress say in a movie. Jennifer drew on the
cigarette, getting an even light. She let uninhaled smoke escape around the
cigarette in her mouth. Then she began dragging in earnest, her wind-chapped
cheeks hollowing.

    You had to look like you needed the smoke, Kathleen had told her. By now
it was no act. She removed the cigarette. She inhaled deeply, "down to her
toes" as her friend had once instructed. She always remembered to do that now
with no thought. It was second nature, or maybe first.

    She held the smoke deep inside for a full three beats. She still got a
little rush, even after all these months, especially when it had been awhile
since her last cigarette. She exhaled into the brisk air. Mouth and nose both,
Kathleen said, it looked cooler that way. She loved to smoke outdoors when it
was cold, it made it seem like she had all the smoke in the world inside her.
The exhale swirled all around her, disappearing in the brisk north wind, but
it just went on and on, gradually turning to water vapor.

    She was nearing the intersection of Madison and 75th, where she would turn
north toward home on East 83rd. This would be her only cigarette of the walk,
sadly, since the start of Christmas break tomorrow promised a long dry spell.
She needed time, however, to let the air clean her breath and deodorize her
clothes. It would be bad to get caught, oblivious though her parents seemed to
most things she did. They always came down hard on her mistakes. She would
need to make the most of this one smoke. She puffed frequently, pausing often
to admire how her exhaled smoke swirled and glowed when she stood beneath one
of the mercury vapor streetlights.

    The killer crouched between two parked cars, watching Jennifer. Soon, he
knew, she would turn on Madison to head home. It had to be now.

    Dressed in black, he was invisible in the deep shadows. He rubbed at his
cheek and felt flecks of dried greasepaint fall away. He'd have to find a
better brand.

    As he saw Jennifer's exhales he felt a stirring in his groin and cursed it
mentally. Down, damned snake! Betrayer! This happened to him often, ever since
his adolescence. Whenever he saw a pretty young girl or woman smoking, and
only then. It was a bane, a curse. And yet, it was this that had led him to
his answer, the way to cancel the deadly appeal, the insidious trap of
smoking.

    Cigarettes were a deadly poison. Smoking was a lure, a false-front of
glamorous promises hiding the leering skull. He knew. He had watched his
mother, a heavy smoker, die of lung cancer when he was 16. He had seen the
entire process; the pain, the burning radiation, the sickening chemotherapy,
the slow slide into death at Sloan-Kettering. He had dedicated his adult life
to halting the scourge, to saving all those other mothers and mothers-to-be.

    He, and others like him, had failed. All the warnings, all the television
ads, all the education programs, had come to nothing. The very ones he longed
to rescue, the young women, were smoking more now and at an earlier age. All
the while his own subconscious, his own glands and involuntary muscles, gave
the lie to his efforts. Somehow, the girls knew. Somehow, they could see to
the flesh beneath his empty words. They laughed at his impotence, his
hypocrisy! And they kept on smoking, tormenting him with their sex.

    Lesser measures had failed. This was the only way, the only answer to
these women's coming torment and his current one. A few would die so that many
would live. The dead would never know the fear, the agony, the humiliation of
a lingering death from disease. It was a kindness, a mercy, nothing less. They
would die quickly and painlessly. The others, the multitudes, would learn from
the martyrs' example. They would all quit smoking.

    He was, he thought, and always would be a loving public servant. He fitted
the custom silencer to the barrel of his Ruger 9mm automatic.

    Jennifer never felt the bullet strike the back of her skull. She was
oblivious when its exit carried away most of her face. By the time she
sprawled face-down on the sidewalk, books scattering, purse flying, cigarette
dropping, her skin had already taken on the flaccidity of death.

    The killer's gloved hand touched her back gently, almost tenderly. A sign
for the masses, he thought, and was quickly back in the shadows.


    2. 21 December, East 75th Street, 6:25 PM

    Homicide Detective-Lieutenant Jake Flinn pulled disgustedly on his
Marlboro as he looked down at the small, still form. Even in New York, he
though, who the fuck would shoot a kid like this?

    "Fill me in, Pete," Flinn said.

    Sergeant Mendoza replied, "we got the call around 5:50. A pedestrian found
the body. School ID reads Jennifer O'Brien, age 16. She was a student at St.
Jean's. Address on East 83rd. No witnesses, nobody we could find heard a shot.
Almost looks like a mob hit."

    "I doubt this poor kid pissed off anyone in the Mafia," Flinn said,
looking around. The scene had been taped off and the uniforms were swarming,
doing their forensic things, making like sidewalk artists. A red ambulance was
double-parked nearby as was his '89 Camaro. Red and blue lights whirled
silently, lending the scene a surreal look.

    "Find a slug yet?' Flinn asked.

    "Not yet," said Mendoza, "but it could have carried a long way. The
shooter was close."

    "So I see."

    "Want me to turn her over, Jake?"

    "Not particularly." Flinn had no desire to see what was beneath her bloody
thatch of brown hair. He'd had enough sights like this in 25 years on the
force, and they seldom helped find the bad guy. "What's that on her back?" A
white handkerchief was draped across her blazer.

    That's mine," said Mendoza. "The press was already here. I didn't want
them to see this." He lifted the hanky carefully by a corner.

    Stuck on the blazer was a square, white sticker. Printed on it was a
familiar red circle crossed by a diagonal slash. Beneath the slash was the
image of a burning cigarette.

    "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Flinn said. "You did good, Pete. That would
have started a real feeding frenzy. Was the victim smoking?"

    "We think so. We have a butt marked two paces east."

    "Be sure to have the ME run a nic trace," said Flinn, "and let everyone
else know to keep this under their hats. Jesus god, the smoking killer! Or
non, as the case may be." He tossed his Marlboro away.

    "Okay, let's get the scene wrapped up. Bag everything, and let the meat
wagon do its thing. I want some reports tonight, yet."

    "Jake..." Mendoza started.

    "Yeah, I know, the parents." He hated this duty, but it went with the
rank.

    Flinn walked between two cars to get to his Camaro. Something crunched
underfoot. Flinn pulled a penlight from his overcoat, bent down, and looked.
He saw a few flakes of what seemed to be brown pigment.

    "Mendoza! Over here!"

    "Yeah, boss." Mendoza appeared at his elbow.

    "See these flakes here? I want 'em marked and bagged. If Ballistics says
the shooter was near here when he fired, I want a full series run."

    "You got it, Jake."


    3. East 83rd Street, 21 December, 6:47 PM

    Flinn instinctively disliked the elder O'Briens. They were obviously quite
well off in their east side townhouse, and had that "lowly public servant"
attitude toward cops that set Flinn's teeth on edge. Their parlor even
featured a prominent "Thank You for Not Smoking" sign. Flinn had to repress
his feelings and remember he was here to deliver the worst news they would
ever get.

    Notification Duty was the one time he missed having a partner. He'd had
several in his career, but they always either got in his way, got on his case
about smoking, or, one time at least, got shot. That last had hurt. She had
been a heavy smoker, too, and his last romantic fling. That was eight years
ago, now.

    There followed the familiar ritual. Sitting, hat held in lap. First, the
shock and disbelief. Then the anger, mostly directed at him.

    "Lieutenant, aren't the police supposed to protect children like
Jennifer?" her mother had asked.

    There was no good answer to that one.

    Only then came the tears and anguish. The assurances, all too often false,
that the perp would be brought to justice. Then the usual nosy cop questions.
Is this a bad time? Of course it was, asshole, but the Book said ask them
anyway.

    Anyone have a grudge against Jennifer? Any problems at school, any odd
behaviors of late? Dancing around the more direct questions about drugs and
gangs. Did she seem to have a little more spending-money these days?

    Responses all negative, and offense taken, fuck you very much. The
O'Briens weren't dummies. Only one question from Flinn was out of the
ordinary.

    "Did your daughter smoke cigarettes, Mr. O'Brien?"

    "No, of course not!" was the reply. "My daughter never touched a cigarette
in her life!"

    Guess again, daddy dearest.

    On his way back downtown, Flinn called in on his cel-phone. He got
Mendoza.

    "Anything yet?" Flinn asked.

    "Not much. No prints." Damn! "The ME said the victim was definitely
smoking when she died. The brown shit is greasepaint, which you can buy at any
theatrical supply store. There's a lot of them in New York. And you did find
it at the shooter's probable location. The sticker had the letters 'ACS' at
the bottom. American Cancer Society, I'm guessing. We'll have to wait 'till
the AM to call."

    Mendoza was a treasure. Fast and concise, like having a partner on the
inside. "Thanks, Pete. And the slug?"

    "Never found it."

    It was going to be a long night.


    4. 22 December, West 57th Street, 9:12 AM

    Nattie Kelly walked quickly down the crowded street. She was late for
work.

    Mousy was the only word that described her. A slender, short figure, she
walked hunched over as though expecting a blow. Her medium-length hair was an
undistinguished shade of brown. Her liquid hazel eyes, which might otherwise
have attracted attention, were obscured behind thick glasses. What makeup she
wore was uneven and inexpertly applied. Her clothes were ill-matched and
shapeless.

    She worked in the clerical department at the newly-minted West Side Lung
Association (fondly known as WESLA), recently enfranchised by the national
organization. She had only been there six weeks. Her boss, Mr. Stephanson, was
a real hard case. He wouldn't let this mistake pass.

    Nattie was, she knew, a little low in the self-esteem department and
didn't take criticism well. She sped up.

    The WESLA offices were in an old building across from the Parker Meridien
Hotel. Nattie entered and made her way to her desk, hoping no one would notice
her. People seldom did. This morning, though, her luck was not in.

    "Miss Kelly!" A basso voice boomed across the room where Nattie and
several other girls sat. "In my office, please. Right away!"

    Nattie stood up, hating the stares she received from her coworkers. She
felt exposed, despised, like a heretic summoned before the Spanish
Inquisition. She moved as quickly as possible toward Mr. Stephanson's office.

    Bradley J. Stephanson, MPH, cut an imposing figure behind his army-surplus
Steelcase desk. He was a tall man, balding, but still trim and fit. His eyes
were hard and probing beneath heavy black brows. He gazed up at her above his
half glasses. His look was one of calculated contempt.

    He did not ask her to sit, and told her to stop when she moved to close
the door. Public humiliation was his forte.

    "What time is it, Miss Kelly?"

    "It's...9:20, Mr. Stephanson."

    "And what time are we expected at work?"

    "Nine o'clock, sir."

    "Nine o'clock, quite right. Sharp. Any why were we absent from our desk at
nine o'clock, Miss Kelly? Were we detained?"

    "I...I overslept. My sister and I were at our parents' house last
night..."

    "Oh, at your parents' house? A night on the town, was it? Bright lights,
and all that?" Nattie squirmed. She couldn't stand this. Stephanson wrinkled
his nose.

    "And do I detect a slight odor about your person, Miss Kelley? An odor
reminiscent of cigarette smoke?" The last two words were a curse on his lips.

    "N-no...I mean, maybe. My sister and parents all smoke..."

    "What is it that we do here at WESLA, Miss Kelly?"

    After six weeks in these offices Nattie was none too sure, but she knew
what Mr. Stephanson wanted. "We help people with lung disease."

    "And what, Miss Kelley, is the leading cause of lung disease?"

    "Cigarette smoking." She had never smoked, never really considered it. She
had enough trouble with makeup and clothes.

    "Quite so. And do you believe it enhances our credibility if our employees
smell of smoke?"

    "No, sir."

    "I seriously doubt, Miss Kelly, that any other employee of this
organization has any relatives or even friends who smoke. At least not those
with whom they choose to socialize. Am I clear on this?" he paused. "You
should really get out more, Miss Kelly. Find yourself a young man. A
non-smoking young man." He looked her over critically. "But I see that may
pose a problem for you. You need to take some minimal pride in your appearance
if you expect to attract the opposite sex."

    This was beyond endurance. She felt tears starting, despite her promise to
herself not to shed them. She loved her sister and parents! They were her only
lifeline in this hostile and loveless city. Who was this bastard to criticize
them? Or her, for that matter?

    "I believe you understand me, Miss Kelly. Understand this, at least. Any
further tardy or odiferous entrances on your part will be dealt with harshly.
You may go."

    Nattie went, avoiding the eyes of her coworkers who she was sure were all
staring at her. She knew they could hear every word from Stephanson's office.

    Getting little work accomplished, she endured a rising mix of humiliation,
anger, and self-loathing through the morning, lunch-time, and early afternoon.
These feelings were nothing new to Nattie. All through school, she had been
the victim of cruel children who sensed her uncertainty and fear. As an adult,
she had experienced the subtler but no less hurtful cruelty of former
children. Never before, however, had she been affected so badly. Never.

    Finally, she could stand it no longer. She left her desk and went to
Stephanson's office, fully intending to express her anger perhaps for the
first time in her life.

    However, she melted under his penetrating, contemptuous stare.

    "Yes, Miss Kelly?"

    "I...I'm sick." Her carefully planned words were all forgotten.

    "If you're sick, then leave. I don't need the whole office hacking and
sneezing." His eyes returned to the desk and he began writing. "I'm sure you
know that as a short-tenured employee, sick-time with pay is not available to
you."

    He did not look up as Nattie left.


    5. 22 December, West 101st Street, 2:45 PM

    "Hello?"

    "Sis? It's me."

    "Oh, hi kiddo! How's life?"

    "Not so good. I had some trouble at work..."

    "Kiddo, are you all right? You sound like you're crying."

    "It's okay. But I need to talk to someone and I thought..."

    "Say no more. How about Tavern on the Green in half an hour?"

    "I can't afford..."

    "It's my treat, and no arguments this time, okay?"

    "All right. I'll see you there."

    "Great. Bye."

    "Bye."


    6. 22 December, Third Avenue, 3:00 PM

    Flinn was driving uptown in his Camaro, listening to the police radio
chatter. His eyes were red from lack of sleep, his nerves twitching from the
ocean of coffee he had consumed. He was pretty sure this killer would
resurface. The papers had been full of the slaying, of course, but thank god
none of them had picked up on the "no smoking" sticker yet. The shooter might
well be pissed that his "message" hadn't gotten across.

    The American Cancer Society lead, to stretch a phrase, was looking more
and more like a non-starter. The ACS printed those stickers in bulk and
shipped them all over creation, to schools, hospitals, other non-profits, and
to just about anyone else who wanted them. That was fine with him, Flinn
thought, looking at the Camaro's choked ashtray. He sure as hell didn't want
them.

    Knowing nothing about the perp made it tough. Where might he show up? For
lack of better information, the best bet was the same neighborhood. Flinn had
decided to cruise the area, maybe find a couple of students to talk to.
Preferably female students who smoked. He had a feeling they might soon become
an endangered species.


    7. 22 December, Central Park West, 3:20 PM

    Tavern on the Green was an upscale restaurant actually built on Central
Park property, very popular for its fine food and scenic surroundings. It was
not crowded at this hour, however, and when Nattie arrived first she had no
trouble getting a table for two. In smoking, of course, for Marcia.

    Nattie ordered a Diet Coke and gazed at blinking Christmas lights. She
could not afford to eat in such a place, and was never comfortable accepting
what Nattie called "charity" from her sister. Marcia ran her own fashion
agency and was did quite well. This time, though, Nattie's pride came in
second. She needed to talk.

    "Hi, kiddo!" Marcia breezed (there was no other word for it) into the room
and sat at the table. A classic New York Irish beauty, Marcia was often taken
for the younger sister though she was five years older than Nattie's 23. Her
carefully arranged, lustrous brown hair fell just below the shoulders. Her
makeup appeared professionally-applied, which it often was. Her clothes were
cutting edge but comfortable, with a provocative allure even in the cold
weather. She was, in short, a real knockout.

    Marcia reached into her Coach bag and produced the inevitable pack of Kent
menthol 100s. "Okay, Nattie, tell me all about it." To Marcia, a cigarette was
no less a fashion accessory than purse, shoes, or hat, and she used them all
to good effect. She lit up with a gold Calibri, cheeks caving as she drew
hungrily. As usual, she French-inhaled the first puff, smoke slipping fluidly
over her upper lip. Her exhale, flowing generously from mouth and nostrils,
veiled her face in glamorous mystery. She gazed sympathetically at her sister.

    Nattie related the morning's events, reliving the pain and humiliation,
fighting back tears with only a little success.

    Marcia, shocked, exhaled a volume of smoke across the table at Nattie.
Nattie didn't notice. She had lived with smokers all her life. "Why, that
royal SOB..." said Marcia, speaking through her continuing exhale. "First,
let's get you something a little more fortifying than that Coke." Marcia
ordered two dry manhattans and an appetizer assortment.

    "Something broke inside me today, Sis," said Nattie. "I was really going
to tell him off. I mean really, this time. But when it came time to do it..."
Her voice trailed off, tears starting again. Marcia was drawing thoughtfully
on her Kent, saying nothing, waiting.

    "I just couldn't. I was too afraid. But I don't want it to end, Sis! I
want to hold on to my feelings, especially the anger. Somehow, I think they're
good for me! Does that make me a bad person?"

    "Kiddo, that's the sanest thing I ever heard you say, " Marcia stubbed the
Kent, lit another. "And don't hand me that "bad person" line again. You're
smarter than that." Marcia was speaking through bursts of smoke, using them
artfully for emphasis. "We need our anger, Nat. Especially living here.
Without it, we're nothing but victims. The only thing you need to do is love
yourself a little more. That, and..."

    "Sis, please don't start again with..."

    "It would wonders for your self-image! Look, kiddo, I do makeovers every
day, some on women so bitchy I can hardly stand to look at them! To do it for
my kid sister would be a pleasure and a privilege. Beth and the others at the
agency talk about you all the time, just planning for the day you finally give
in." Marcia was smoking furiously, excited by the prospect.

    "But the money..."

    "Forget the money! Think of it as my investment in my only sister. You'd
do the same for me in a minute."

    Marcia had offered her professional "image-shaping" services to Nattie
many times before. Intriguing though it was, Nattie was afraid. She didn't
like her appearance, but it was familiar, it was her. Who should she be after
Marcia and her friends were done with her?

    And the expense! Marcia's services to professional models cost tens of
thousands of dollars. This went beyond charity.

    "And," continued Marcia, "if the money really concerns you, how about
taking me up on my other offer? You don't really want to work for that SOB
anymore, do you? No one can organize an office like you, I know. My business
grew 50 percent this last year, and my on-the-fly method of bookkeeping is
dragging us under. You know me, no head for business!"

    Nattie did know Marcia, and didn't believe that last line at all. She also
knew, though, that she did outclass her sister in this one area. Nonetheless,
she had turned down Marcia's employment offers before too, and for similar
reasons. Pride. Fear. Mostly fear, really.

    Fear. It had determined her every decision, her very life for...how long,
now? Forever, that was how long. Fear of offending others. Fear of failure.
Fear of meeting strangers. Fear of attracting too much attention to herself.
Fears no one had a name for yet, she had.

    What had all this fear done for her? Had it made her happy? No. Had it
brought pain, uncertainty, sleepless nights, and constant embarrassment? Yes.
Had it made her a victim? Yes, certainly that.

    Maybe it was time to begin breaking the cycle. Her anger strengthened her
now. She might never find the courage again.

    "Okay, Sis, let's do it!" Nattie smiled slightly, for the first time
in...never mind. This was moment zero. "Let's talk more about the job offer,
though, I'm still not sure..."

    "Wonderful!" Marcia's pleasure was clear and genuine. She leaned over the
table and kissed Nattie's cheek, leaving a small blob of smoke there to mark
the spot. "And don't think I'm giving you a chance to change your mind. First
stop's the stores. Let's go!"

    Marcia grabbed Nattie's hand, lifting her from her seat. Nattie worked
hard to finish chewing a mouthful of eggroll as they fled to the street.



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