“The Thirteenth Bride of Charlie Barnet” by David Corbett

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She says the worst's already happened, but she wants to tell the female police officer in private. About the guy they're looking for, the one who took her to a basement and wrapped her in cellophane. About how he changed his mind about her being the thirteenth bride.

About the Author
David Corbett, a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest, is the author of five novels (including 2015’s The Mercy of the Night), the story collection Thirteen Confessions, and the writing guide The Art of Character. Patrick Anderson (Washington Post) described Done for a Dime as “one of the three or four best American crime novels I’ve ever read.” George Pelecanos remarked, “Corbett, like Robert Stone and Graham Greene before him, is crafting important, immensely thrilling books.”
The Thirteenth Bride of Charlie Barnet

Yes, ma’am. There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you, and now that we’re alone in here I think I can. Just didn’t know if I could get it out with a man in the room, let alone a pair of ’em. Not even sure what good it’ll do regardless. Maybe it don’t matter none either way. But I just got this feeling, like, I gotta say this, I gotta get it outta my head, because if I don’t…

And there’s the thing. I don’t know how to finish that. I don’t know what the end result of nothing is no more. Because the worst thing’s already happened, right? If not, please, take that gun out of your holster and shoot me dead now, I’m begging you.

I’m sorry. I know. Last thing you need to hear right now is poor, poor me.

Let me back up a bit and go over some things I already mentioned, so I can work myself up to the rest.

Like I said, he came in around twenty minutes past three. We get maybe twenty customers tops ’tween midnight and sunup, long-haulers mostly, the occasional airman or socket jockey heading back to the air base in Cannon after furlough. Nobody stops in Muleshoe, kind of a slogan round here. Like I need to tell you that.

Just me and Raymundo, the cook, that time of night, so I got the counter and the floor to myself. Place is empty, he walks in. The man you’re after. Told you already what he looks like, what he ordered and his small talk and all. Stayed maybe half an hour, paid cash. No red flags, that point. Looked normal, talked normal, by local standards anyway, not that I’d seen him before. Paid no particular attention to me, not that I noticed. And look at me. You can imagine, man pays me any mind at all? I’m gonna notice. Cuz it happens, like, never.

Get off end of shift and I’m dead on my feet like always, mostly from boredom and carrying around all this weight. Never been like you. Slim, I mean. Been a big girl all my life, meaning it’s been non-stop since I can’t remember, “But you got such a pretty face, hon.” Like if I could just take off the pounds…

But I never believed it. Never. Boys used to tease me, call me Butter Body. As in: Everything’s pretty but her body.

Anyways, back to what I was saying, I’m heading out to my car—lost in my own wool, way my momma used to put it—thinking should I stop off at the store, grab some milk, box of Bisquick, pack of Pall Malls. Shoulda paid more attention, shoulda noticed the van, yeah, yeah.

Time I came to, I’m already, like, naked, cocooned in cellophane and duct tape, ’nother spool of tape wrapped tight around my jaw and neck, sealing my mouth shut.

Anyway, that’s when he starts to talk. I told you about him showing me the horrible burns all along the insides of his arms, on his legs, skin all tough and scaly and red like blistered paint. Told me that’s what his daddy did, teach him what it’d be like, forever and ever, if he didn’t get right with God.

But this next part, this is where I couldn’t have the men in here, the other deputies. You wanna pass along what I’m about to tell you, fine. But I can’t watch their faces as I tell it.

He tells me we’re gonna get married. I’m gonna be his bride.

Not just any bride. I’m Number Thirteen.

Lucky thirteen. That’s me.

He starts jawing on and on about this musician, man named Charlie Barnet, led a band back in the forties and fifties, one of the only mixed bands at the time, whites and niggers both—I don’t mean no offense, them’s his words, I’m just telling it.

Anyways, this Charlie Barnet, he was rich, didn’t need to worry ’bout what people think, didn’t need to play in the south where it’s segregated and him and his whole damn band could wind up lynched. No, he’s rich, and he can do what he pleases.

One night, he goes to see Billie Holiday singing in some joint in Manhattan. She ain’t allowed to patronize with the white customers. But this Charlie Barnet, he just keeps yelling from his table, “Come on down and ball with me.” That’s how they put it back then, I guess. Ball meant to party, not, you know. So I’m told by the man who’s saying all this, man who took me.

Anyways, Charlie Barnet finally wears Billie Holiday down. She comes to his table, he pours her a drink, they have themselves a time. End of shift, boom, she’s fired. Her and her piano player, too, cuz he’s black like her.

She starts in to go off on Charlie Barnet and he says, never you mind, get in my car, the both of you. Takes them out to Long Island, some nightclub. Billie Holiday said his sports car was the loudest damn thing she ever rode in.

They get to the club, Charlie Barnet arranges for Billie Holliday and her piano player to work there from now on, better gig, better pay, no hassles. Billie Holiday never forgot. That’s what a rich white man can get away with.

That’s not all he gets away with. Goes to bed with damn near any woman he wants. A hitchhiker gives him the worst case of clap he ever had, but he just calls this doctor he knows, gets a shot, waits till he pisses clean again, goes back to dogging around.

Has a fling with Dorothy Lamour, the movie star. Has a bunch of hookups in Mexico his lawyer gets annulled, though apparently they ain’t so legal anyways.

He marries for real eleven times. Some kinda competition with Artie Shaw, I guess, who was married eight times, once to Ava Gardner, once to Lana Turner, who he abused so bad she went kinda crazy.

Anyway, same lawyer gets Charlie Barnet out of his Mexican marriages gets him out of most of the American ones, too, except for the last. Number eleven. Betty Barnet. Thirty-three years they stay married, till he wastes away in some hospital.

Now I’m hearing all this, wrapped tight like a mummy, my skin slick with sweat underneath, can’t talk back, can’t even move, smelling the mildew in that basement, wondering what I smell like, too, cuz by then I’d lost hold on my bladder.

He leans in closer then, so he don’t need to do no more than whisper. And he says, “Well, I decided, what’s good for some rich asshole from fucking New York is plenty good for me.”

That’s when he starts in telling about the others.

First bride—that’s what he called them, every single one—first bride’s just some girl he meets in Abilene. Snaps her neck, which he says is a lot harder and trickier than you see in the movies. Took him a while, she fought. Sloppy, he called it. Realized he needed to put more thought into preparation.

Next bride, he buys chloroform, but ends up using too much and kills the girl right then and there. Before, you know, the ceremony. That’s what he calls it.

Well, killing her quick don’t work for him, so he starts studying up. He reads how Michael Jackson died and decides to try out propofol. There’s still a risk of OD with that, so he experiments with it on himself. He’s read how hospital staff use it, like, as a recreational thing, and he learns how to inject it, gets good at the dosage level and all. That’s what he used on me, he said.

No, ma’am. He did not say where he got it. Can’t help you there. Sorry.

Anyways, he runs through how he’s killed all the others, ice pick in the ear for one, sawing off another girl’s feet—“Nobody walks away from me”—straight up old-fashioned pillow job for another, wraps the girl up like did me, watches her thrash inside the cellophane till she suffocates.

He tells me, like, when he married Bride Number Twelve, he felt so proud. Fuck the rich. Fuck everybody thinks they can get anything they want, never pay, never worry. He’s as good as any of them. Better. Hell, he’s got himself more brides than Charlie Barnet.

Except the pride don’t last. Day or two later, he’s just the same old stupid shit-kicker from nowhere.

And he realizes he had it all wrong. He needed to count the Mexican marriages, too. Twelve brides wasn’t enough, cuz eleven was just the “official” number. He needed to keep going. And right then and there, he felt alive again.

So he went on the hunt. Sooner or later, there I was.

He begins wondering out loud which way he’s gonna do it this time. He’s holding an acetylene torch as he’s talking, picking through a tool box with his free hand, and I’m shaking and crying and wishing I could beg.

Stares down at me, feels like forever, not exactly smiling.

Then something goes wrong, in his head, I mean. I guess that’s what happened. Cuz his face shrivels up like a rotten apple. Eyes was already empty, now they turn hard. And he sure as hell ain’t smiling.

“No,” he says finally. “Not you. I can do better than you.”

And he kills the flame on the torch, slams shut the toolbox, and thumps on up the stairs. Like he’s so revolted it wears him out. I’m so damn repulsive, such a grotesque blubber-ball slob that not even a head-case like him can look past it.

Pretty face? Sorry, Butter Body. Not half pretty enough.

So he leaves me there, in that basement, where them workers finally found me.

Now here’s where I gotta ask you a question. When them other deputies was in here, somebody knocked on the door, passed along a message. And I could tell, from the looks on your faces and the way you all acted as you whispered to each other, and then the two men was in here went out—I could tell what was up.

There’s been another girl. He went right out and cruised around and latched onto her to take my place. Took him no time at all. Had to find himself a bride worthy of him, worthy of the others. Had to flush the disgust out of his system.

I can tell, way you’re looking back at me, I’m right.

And we both know what that means. That girl died because I just wasn’t, you know, up to snuff, excuse the goddamn motherfucking pun—I know, I know, I’m sorry, but I gotta live with that. I gotta live with that girl on my conscience and I know, almost as soon as I walk outta here, I’m gonna see her face on TV. And she’s gonna have a great family and lots of friends, everybody’s gonna say what a sweet, smart, lovely girl she was. Gonna have a knockout figure and a sweetheart smile, and that big old happy smile’s gonna burn a hole in my brain as word leaks out what he did to her, what sick sadistic twist he thought up this time. And I’m gonna think, “Congratulations, Number Thirteen. Don’t you dare blame me. Don’t you goddamn dare.”

But she will. She should. He let me live. And I get to spend the rest of my life, every day, every goddamn sleepless night, wondering what it felt like, what a relief it must’ve been, when he finally let her die.

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