It Didn't Happen That Way
The day that Billie Frechette was released from prison she went home to her Chicago apartment. The place looked pretty much the way as she remembered it; she was a bit surprised that was the case, because she had figured that the federal agents who had put her behind bars for harboring a fugitive would have gone through her apartment and taken whatever they wanted. Of course, maybe they didn't want anything that a coat-check girl could own.
Billie had decided to move to Wisconsin, and she got to packing right away, throwing into a suitcase the few things she really wanted to keep. Among them were the few things John Dillinger had given her as presents: the coat with the fur collar, a cameo necklace, and a small pocket mirror. It wasn't much to remember him by, and if that was all there was, it might have been easier for her to stay in Chicago.
But there was more than that. For one thing, there were the dreams, both good and bad, in which Johnnie was still alive. She never went a week without dreaming of him pulling up in one of his fast stolen cars, his eyes shining and one of those devious smiles on his lips. And she never went two weeks without one of the nightmares where she heard the gunshots and saw what she had never really seen, Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger lying in the alley by the Biograph Theater, his blood and brain matter spattered on the walls and pavement.
She knew it was mostly Johnnie's fault that things ended that way for him; he could have gone somewhere, hid out, lain low, and waited for things to cool off. But he wouldn't do that. So she blamed Hoover and Purvis for pursuing the wrong man and ending things in the wrong way. Johnnie was a criminal, but he wasn't the worst of his time, not by a long shot. The feds had simply taken the easy way out, choosing to go after Johnnie rather than the more dangerous and slippery mobsters who still roamed Chicago alive and free.
Billie sighed and stopped packing for a moment. It was warm and stuffy in the apartment, so she went to the windows and opened them enough to draw in whatever breeze might come that way. On an end table next to the window she spotted a half full bottle of whiskey. She could see Johnnie drinking out that bottle and setting it back down with a smile. She could still see him everywhere, and that was why she had leave Chicago and go somewhere in Wisconsin where she could lose herself and lose him, until it was like what she had with Johnnie never really happened at all.
The phone started ringing, and Billie looked away from the window. Dread formed in her quickly; her first thought was that it was the feds wanting something more from her. Wasn't the pound of flesh – and the life – they had taken from her already enough? The ringing persisted, and Billie walked over to the phone. "Hello," she said into the handset. There was a long moment of silence, and Billie's anger surged. "Whoever this is, you've gotten all you're going to get from me, you hear?" she spit out. "Don't call here again, understand?" She was taking the phone away from her ear to slam it down on the cradle when she heard the speaker's three words.
"It's me, babe."
Billie stopped breathing for a moment. That was Johnnie's voice, her Johnnie, and that meant that he was waiting for her somewhere. She almost ran to the window to look for his car… But then she remembered that John Dillinger was dead, dead forever, and there was no one waiting for her, not now, and not ever again. That bastard Hoover had seen to that.
She knew what this call was, some cruel hoax by some fed involved in the recording of her calls with Johnnie, someone who thought that playing something like that back to her was funny. "Go to hell," Billie said softly into the phone, and then she laid it down on its cradle. She jumped when the phone started ringing again almost immediately, but she didn't answer it. She wasn't going to play that game. The jerk could call her all night if he wanted to. She would be gone from there soon enough, and when she was, they would never find her again.
* * * * * * * * * *
The honking of a car horn woke Billie from a sound sleep. She sat bolt upright in bed, and when the fuzziness had quickly fled her brain it was replaced with an unmatched fury. She got out of bed and went to the windows; there was a car directly below with its headlights on. "Enough of this," Billie said. She had done the time they had forced her to do, and she had endured the loss of her beloved Johnnie. She was not going to be treated this way during the last few days she spent in their city.
Billie threw her coat over her nightgown and grabbed a baseball bat she kept by the door for protection. She ran down the stairs to the street and straight over to the car sitting there. "Get out of there, you SOB," she said. "What kind of a man does this? How small and pathetic you must be to have to get humor out of a dead man!" The man didn't get out of the car, and Billie couldn't see him through the windshield. "Show yourself!" she shouted. She raised the baseball bat and prepared to smash the car with it. Instead of opening the driver's side door, the man slid across the front seat and pushed open the passenger's side door.
Fiercely angry, Billie walked around the car and looked in the passenger's side. The man inside was wearing a hat and dark glasses, even though it was dark outside. "Who are you?" Billie asked. "What do you want?"
"Go on, get in," the man said.
The sound of his voice made Billie's nerves tingle. No, she thought. It's not him. Whatever this is, however he's doing this, he's not Johnnie. "Who are you?" Billie asked.
The man took off his glasses, and Billie saw those warm brown eyes from her dreams. "Don't you know me, Blackbird?" he asked.
"You're not him," Billie said, but her grasp on reality was slipping. Those eyes, they were her Johnnie's eyes. There was no way to fake that, was there?
His lips curled slightly. "Come in the car, Billie," he said. "I promise I'll be a gentleman."
Billie's eyes filled with tears. "Haven't I been through enough?" she asked. "Why would you do this to someone?"
"You know why, Billie," he said. "I love you. I always have. I said I would take care of you, and I will."
Billie shook her head, but she dropped the baseball bat and got into the car. "He died," she said, the tears streaming down her face. "They shot him in the back in some alley. They were always so afraid of him. They had to shoot him in the back, or they would never have gotten him."
"Close the door," the man said.
Billie pulled the car door closed. "Whatever you're going to do it to me doesn't matter," she said. "I've lost everything. There's nothing else you can take from me."
He put the car into drive and headed through the streets of Chicago. Billie looked out the window as the tears continued to flow. For a long time they were both silent, and Billie realized that she really didn't care what was going to happen next.
"There was a big train score a few months back," he said finally.
"I saw it in the paper," Billie said. She wiped her face with her hands and then wiped her wet hands on her coat. "They caught those guys," she said.
"They caught most of those guys," he said, and she could feel the playful sneer on his lips without looking at him. "Problem is, you can't catch a ghost."
Billie shook her head. "There aren't any ghosts," she said.
"There's me," he said.
Billie was silent for a moment, and then she said, "I don't know who you are or why you're doing this, but you aren't him. They killed him. He's gone."
"Say my name," he said.
"I don't know you," Billie said, and the tears started to well up again.
"Yeah, you do," he said. "Go on now. Say my name."
Billie looked at him. "OK, you want to hear it so badly?" she said. "Here it is then: John Dillinger. But you aren't him. You aren't my Johnnie because my Johnnie is dead. He's dead, and he will always be dead. They blew his brains out in an alley, and he is gone forever!"
He swerved the car to the side of the road and grabbed hold of her. Billie tried to push him off, but he was too strong. "No, I'm not," he whispered in her ear, and then he brought his lips to hers in a firm, forceful kiss. Billie continued to fight him for a moment, and then she finally gave up, not really responding to him but no longer resisting. He leaned back against the seat beside her, and she could see blond hair on his head in the glow of a streetlight. He had a mustache too and some rough stubble around his chin. He was nothing like what her Johnnie looked like, not at all the same, except for those smoldering coffee-colored eyes. She touched his cheek gently and watched as some of the rough edge of desperation in those eyes softened.
"They told me…"
"What they wanted to believe," he said. "You're right that they were afraid, so afraid they never really took a good look at that man on the ground bleeding. They saw what they wanted to see, John Dillinger blown apart with his gun still in his pocket, because in the end they were better, faster, and smarter than the man they called Public Enemy Number One."
"It isn't possible, someone had to know…"
"And if they did, what would they say?" he said. "Do you think Hoover would let their great success story be blown to bits? They knew. Purvis knew. But in the end it didn't matter, because the ghost caught a train out of town and disappeared." He snapped his fingers.
"Can it really be you, Johnnie?" Billie asked.
"What do you think, babe?" he asked.
Billie continued to look at him in the lights of that Chicago street, and slowly but steadily her lips curled into a smile.