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Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Eight)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 8: Mithras

 

            To call Armada the middle of nowhere would be to say that one would ever bother finding the middle of such a place. I have heard people call it the ass end of the universe, and while I can’t think of anything that disqualifies it, I can’t help but think there might be worse places to end up. However, when pressed, I’ve never come up with anywhere less interesting than Armada. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a whole lot of farm country, broken up by farm country, with more farm country just for good measure.

 

            The Old Gods Retirement Home was a large building that truly was in the middle of nowhere. A farmer must have sold one field, but kept the three surrounding it. Except for the grounds, which were mostly taken up with parking lot and a small amount of grass lawn, there were plowed fields on three sides. The earth had been turned and left to freeze in the fields. It looked at though someone had just dropped this place on the street, without worrying about what would be on any side of it. Across the narrow strip of road was more frozen field. There were trees for wind breaking, but that was about it, mostly all you could see was the frozen fields.

 

             I found myself again wishing it would snow. Snow would cover all of this up. It would blanket the bleakness and keep it from sight, making living in this state at least bearable. As it was, there was nothing but the depressing Michigan landscape around me. The land around me made me feel like even the ground itself was dying. The entire place made me feel like this. What made it worse of course was the cloudless sky, letting the pale winter sun smack the land and light it so perfectly you couldn’t see anything romantic about it. I’ve never understood why, but sunlight always seems brighter and more pale in the winter.

 

            I walked to the building, hoping that something in there might cause me not to want to kill myself. I wasn’t sure how much of this depression I could take before doing the sensible thing. The building was modern at least, built within the last five years if I was any judge, although it was one of those places that always looked newer than it really was.  I could tell that no one ever stayed here very long, no one ever got comfortable. There was a lack of use about this place, which didn’t help my mood any.

 

            It was clear to me as I crossed the threshold, that while this might be a pleasant enough place, it was a place where you went to be forgotten. Visitors didn’t come here often. In fact no one came here very often. This was a place where those who had once carried great importance now dwindled out their last days. It always made me a little mad, seeing these places and the people abandoned in them, but they also always made me feel a little helpless as well.

 

            “Mister Collier?” A young woman in a decent but not ostentatious business suit asked.

 

            “Yes.” I took her hand and shook it. “I’m here to see Mithras.”

 

            “Yes I know.” She said trying to smile. “We’ve put him in a room. I mean, he’s waiting in a rec room for you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to make it sound like…”

 

            “It’s okay.” I waved her excuses away. “Which way?”

 

            She led me to a dark room, where an old and withered man sat in a wheelchair. While there was a bright sunlight shinning through the windows, he was placed just beyond the beams of light. He was very close, but had put himself just beyond the kiss of the light. It was as if he had once been a close lover of the sun, but after some argument, he could no longer bear to even be within its direct sight.

 

            I found as I entered the room that I was alone, the young woman was gone before I could even ask her name or throw her in front of me if I had to make a break for it. I never even got to inquire as to the age of the building or any of the other little things I wanted to discuss with her in order to postpone this moment. Instead, I was being thrust right into what promised to be an unpleasant interview.

 

            “So, you’re him.” The old man said leaning his head back to look at me. “You’re the great detective.”

 

            “I’m not sure about great detective.” I said.

 

            “Oh, I’ve read all about you.” He said with a sickly grin. “You’re the one who saved her when that thug she married decided that he could just take her back. You’re the one who smacked him so hard he didn’t even try to smack back.”

 

            “I think you’ll find he did make an attempt.” I tried hard not to bristle. “His little friend Opus is missing an eye because of that attempt.”

 

            “Bah!” He actually said ‘bah’ and waved with his hand. “He was just trying to look good for his soldiers. If he’d really wanted to, he’d have splattered you.”

 

            “Or maybe I would have splattered him.” I suggested, and there must have been something in my tone because he stopped and examined me again.

 

            “Maybe.” He rubbed his smooth chin. “Maybe.”

 

            He looked at the floor, and his eye fell on the box of light that the window let in from the sun. It made the room hot, the direct light falling on the dark carpet like that. You couldn’t do anything about it beyond closing the curtains, but he clearly wanted to look at the light. He seemed to consider something for a moment and I thought that maybe I should begin when he clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously.

 

            “But that is not what you came to talk about is it?”

 

            “Sort of.” I said, trying not to just stand there with my hat in my hand, but helpless to find another position. “I came to talk about Christmas.”

 

            “Haven’t seen her for years.” He snapped and turned away for a moment. “Was that all?”

 

            “When did you meet her?” I asked, trying to keep my tone firm and not let the annoyance I was feeling creep in.

 

            “When she was just a kid,” He leaned back in his wheel chair, “Not really a kid you understand, she was fully grown when we met, but a kid nonetheless.”

 

            “I know what you mean.” I nodded.

 

            “She was so beautiful, so unspoiled, so malleable. You could do anything with her then, you could put her anywhere, because she could flex herself into any space.” He looked at me and a cloud covered his face. “I am not speaking in sexual terms young man. I am speaking in terms of raw talent.”

 

            “I said nothing.”

 

            “You thought it.” He said, and had he given me a word edgewise I would have admitted that he was right. And besides, I would have described her like that and I would have meant it in sexual terms. “She was the most talented person I’d ever met, she was smart and clever and people just wanted to be around her. I took her from that obscure little cultural desert I’d found her in, and I helped put her on the stage. She took my act, and did it better than I ever could. She mastered it in ways I never even knew existed. She found nuances in her first performance that I’d not seen in all the years I’d been doing it. She was beyond brilliant.”

 

            “And then she overshadowed you.” I said.

 

            “No.” He shook his head as vigorously as he could, which wasn’t much. “I got old and tired and I slowed down and had to retire. I did not get forced out, I was too old to go on is what happened.”

 

            “So you didn’t drop out because your star was declining.” I asked and then went further than I should have. “Because the impression I got from Miss Yule was…”

 

            “Solstice Yule?” He asked with a laugh. “That silly slut? If she ever told a story that was only half true it would be the truest thing she’d ever said.”

 

            I felt an urge to slap him one, but he was just a weak old man and the satisfaction I’d feel from belting him wouldn’t be worth the hassle. I then thought that he probably knew this and that renewed my wish to give him five across the eyes for hiding behind his frailty. Instead, I filled my chest with air and tried to strive on in as much of a non-violent way as possible. Sometimes in this business it’s like a puzzle game, you’ve got to come up with the right combination of words in an exact order to get the information you want.

 

            “So then you tell me.” I decided was the best way to get him to talk. “How did you meet her?”

 

            “Is that important now?” He asked looking up at me with surprisingly tired and sorrow-filled eyes. “I mean her story is almost over now.”

 

            “So tell me how it began.” I said, trying another cog in the configuration.

 

            “I was the biggest star in Rome you know, when she showed up. She was just a minor player of an obscure show that most people hadn’t heard of. I saw that she had something though, and I had her brought over to my show.” He raised his hand palm up and then let it drop so that his hand slapped his knee. “It didn’t take long before she had learned all my tricks, and then do you know what she did?”

 

            “She went north?” I asked.

 

            “Only after she destroyed me.” He said, resentment dripping off his tongue. “She left me, but she stayed in Rome. She ran a campaign against me, couldn’t have any competition you know. She ran everything against me, ran her show on the same day, with the same program. Only she was younger, sexier, and she had found a way to draw them in with something I just couldn’t give them anymore. My show was cancelled soon after she left.”

 

            I decided not to point out that he was directly contradicting himself, because it would have thrown off his stride and I very much wanted him to keep going. He was licking an old and abscessed wound now, and it would only get him to spray bile if I distracted him.

 

            “So she got your show canned and left for the north?”

 

            “That’s right.” He said curling his lip back to show yellow teeth. “She went north, deciding to do to Solstice what she did to me. Miss Yule however proved that she had a sort of popularity that can’t just be copied. Christmas couldn’t really compete with Solstice the way she did with me, so the little bitch just teamed up with her. After a while of that, she just wore Yule out, she couldn’t keep up with the pace. Yule could drink, but nobody drank like Christmas. That slut could drink and fuck and then drink some more.”

 

            “When did she start drinking?” I asked, trying not to show I was bristling.

 

            “Usually just as she was waking up.” He said with a laugh. “Shameless whore would either suck a dick or a bottle first thing.”

 

            I didn’t slap him. Let’s get that clear before we go much further. A slap requires a lot more power than I gave him, and it’s generally accepted that a slap is across the face. I stood and tapped the side of his head with the back of my hand. Just a quick sharp tap to inform him that I was in no mood. I then leaned forward and took a fist full of his jacket.

 

            “Would you like to try that again?” I growled the words.

 

            “She always drank, alright?” He said holding up his hands to defend himself from further blows. “Far as I knew she drank from day one.”

 

            “And her other addictions?” I asked as I released him

 

            “When she went north.” He said holding his hand to his head. “Despite what she might try to claim, Solstice was on a lot of that stuff in her day. She had to quit because she couldn’t get it anymore. It’s not easy to come by you know.”

 

            “Yeah.” I said. “I’ve noticed that.”

 

            “She got you hooked too?”

 

            “I got a taste of it you might say. Just a taste from her.”

 

            “Yeah.” He smiled a shade and nodded. “They say crack and smack are bad, but they are kiddie stuff to the attention aren’t they? That shit gets into you and just won’t let go, you’ve gotta have more and more.”

 

            “But I got over it.” I said. “I got over it and I moved on.”

 

            “Not everyone can.” His voice was sadder than Solstice’s sigh had been earlier that day. “After she went north though, there isn’t anything I can tell you that a trip to the library can’t. I never saw her again after she left Rome the first time. She had security after that. She always had security after that trip away from Rome. No one could ever get near her for all the security. Whoever did this would have to still be close.”

 

            “Yeah.” I said.

 

            “You will find out who did it, right?” He asked, looking away from me and at the door.

 

            “Yeah.” I said.

 

            “Good. When you find them, make sure everyone knows that they did it, make sure they get it good.” He turned his head to me and I could see there was something like a tear in his eye. “Just because I’m an angry and bitter old coot doesn’t mean I ever wanted anything to happen to her. All I wanted was for her to come back, but she never did.”

 

            He started to roll away and left me in the room alone, standing in the blistering hot sun. It was ice cold out there, but in this room and under the sun like this I felt like I was baking in my coat. I waited for him to go though, not wanting to watch his progress as he rolled away from me. After a length of time I felt was sufficient, I turned and left the Sternwoodianly heated room. I didn’t look at any of them as I left, opting instead to just look at the floor.

 

            I didn’t want to look at them, didn’t want to see them. If I even so much as glanced at any of these old-timers, anger would spring up in me and it would well over. It all seemed so terribly unfair. Each of them had been worshiped in their time, each of them had once been one of the brightest stars, but now they were stuck here, waiting for the end. What kind of way was that for them to end up? To be relegated to some small retirement home in the middle of a frozen field in Armada? Someplace where someone only visits when they need something.

 

            The cold air cut into me like daggers as I went out the doors, my overheated condition causing me to feel the cold more. I felt my arms tense for a moment but I forced them to swing as I walked towards the car. The sun shone down so brightly that I found I had to pull my sunglasses out and slip them on. I looked around for anyone who might be following me, but there was nothing. I might have been the only one who knew this place even existed. I felt like I’d been told something in there, but I couldn’t quite come to grips with what it might be.

 

            I looked at the building and then at the sun, which was coming close to the end of its pathetically short winterized journey. By the time I got back to the office it would be dark, and Debbie would probably have gone home. I counted that as both a blessing and a curse. I couldn’t go to the office and get sympathy for my worthless trip of a day, but I could sit around in the dark and sulk about it. Sulking sounded like a good idea and I’m not too proud to say I didn’t wait to get back to the office to start. In fact, I sulked all the way there.

 

This is part eight of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part nine and every day this month until we’re done to see what happens next. If you get lost, one of the tags here should help you. The HBC tag will take you to the story while the Jack Tag will take you to Part One of every story we post here.

 

December 8, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment