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Hard Boiled Christmas (Part Seventeen)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 17: Dinner and a Show

 

            I can never remember the name of any one Chinese restaurant, and I have no idea why. The names simply go through one ear and flutter out the other without ever so much as landing in my memory. I can tell them apart by seeing them, so it’s not like they all look alike to me, it’s just their names all sound alike to me. It is for this reason that I cannot tell you the name of the restaurant that I was in, besides the very basic fact that they serve Chinese cuisine, and do it more or less for the local Asian population. This being only the second restaurant I’ve seen in my life that actually serves frog, I must assume they do not have the pallets of the honkey population in mind. They are, however, wonderful cooks of magnificent food.

 

            Noonan sat across from me and we passed a few words of greeting before the waitress took our order. When she had gone we began to actually talk about things that mattered.

 

            “So what have you found?” He asked as he sipped his water.

 

            “Well, it’s only partially what I’ve found.” I said. “And partly it’s what I didn’t find.”

 

            “Okay.” He said shrugging his shoulders. “I’ll bite, what didn’t you find?”

            “I didn’t find Christmas’s ring.” I said.

 

            “Which ring?” He asked as the soup came.

 

            “The gold ring she wore on her right hand.” I said, watching his movements. “Gold, two emeralds and a ruby.”

 

            “I’m sure it was just left off a record or something.” He said taking a spoon full of the soup.

            “No.” I said shaking my head. “Smith said the ring wasn’t in property, and it wasn’t on her finger in the hospital.”

 

            “Someone stole it?”

 

            “Only if they could cut it off or manage to carry a lot of lubricant with them. That ring never came off. Maybe it got stuck one day, or she just never took it off and her skin grew around it, but that ring just wouldn’t come off that finger.” I leaned back in my chair and looked at the worried face he made for a slight moment.

 

            Maybe he didn’t know he’d made it, or maybe I extended a tiny micro-expression out several seconds, but something in him knew he was caught. I wasn’t sure of what he thought he’d been caught at, but he thought he’d been caught at something alright. I decided to see how much of it I could get him to admit to by just being quiet for a while.

 

            “You think Smith might be mistaken?” He asked.

 

            “Do you?”

 

            “No, probably not.” He just sat there and looked at his soup for a while, finishing it as the waitress brought our meals.

 

            I decided that if he was going to suddenly go nuts and shoot me, he probably would wait until I’d finished my meal. It is for this reason that I decided to spoon out some of the white rice and a healthy portion of the pepper steak over it. If I was going to be shot to death, let me at least waste a lot of food while dying. It might seem noble to let a man die on a full stomach, but I can’t help but feel that you’re just wasting good food.

 

            “So if the ring is missing.” I said, “Where is it?”

           

            That guilty look crossed Noonan’s face again, and I knew we were going to come to it pretty soon. He set his fork down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before taking a drink again.

 

            “I don’t suppose she took it off a day or two before, maybe to get it cleaned or something?” He asked.

 

            It was beyond pathetic. He wasn’t even really trying. He was just trying to stall me now. I let my face show my reaction to his suggestion. It was clear from his look that he had expected me to react in that way, if not more negatively than I actually had. I think he was relieved that I didn’t stab him in the hand with my fork or anything.

 

            “No.” I said shaking my head.

 

            “No,” He said with a smile. “I didn’t think you’d allow that.”

 

            “You were right.”

 

            “I don’t know.” He said.

 

            “Did you find the wallet on her?” I asked.

 

            “No.” He said, looking down at the plate of food. “One of the patrol guys who got there first found it.”

 

            “I see.” I said, training my gaze on him like a laser, or as close to one as I could come without actually shooting anything from my eyes, which gather light instead of transmitting it.

 

            “They must have made a mistake or something, maybe it was a card case or something.”

 

            “You sure it wasn’t a second wallet or anything?” I asked sliding my hand into my pocket.

 

            “Huh?” He asked too quickly.

 

            “Nothing, just trying to figure things out.” I said tossing the subject aside with my right hand while slipping an object up my sleeve with my left. “Do we have any leads at all? Even a single suspect worth talking about?”

 

            “Church.” He said with a shrug. “We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff we want to talk to him about.”

 

            “Yeah.” I nodded, realizing for the first time that there was a railroad with Church’s name on it. “I’ll bet.”

 

            “You done then?” He asked, and I knew he was talking about more than food.

 

            “Yeah.” I said, deciding that if I was going to go down I didn’t want to waste any more food than this.

 

            He pulled a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet and stuck it under the little soy sauce carafe that sat on the table. That was a nice little incentive for anyone to make sure that they didn’t see anything. I got up from the table slowly, and I knew that he wasn’t going to let me get behind him. We walked out of the restaurant nodding to the wait staff as we walked out into the newly snow covered parking lot. The tracks my car had made driving in here were gone, covered by the new fallen snow.

 

            Everything was so very quiet, as it always is during fresh snow fall. I’ve heard that new snow absorbs sound, and I wondered how much sound it could absorb. How far would the shot that Noonan was getting ready to put in my back travel. I heard the sound of a hammer being pulled back and I stopped in my tracks. I knew that it was just about time. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get to use the fancy trick up my sleeve or not.

 

            “Turn around.” Noonan’s voice was as cold as the snow that was currently building a tiny drift around my shoes. “C’mon. I don’t want to shoot you in the back.”

 

            “Should I put my hands above my head?” I asked as I turned slowly to face him. “Or would that make it look more like you’re shooting a man in the act of surrendering?”

 

            “I don’t want to shoot you at all.” His voice was nervous, which meant that he was terrified. “I just want you to lay off the ring. Just help me pin it on Church.”

 

            “Church didn’t do it though.” I said placing my hands on top of my head anyway and taking a few steps toward him.

 

            “Does that matter?” He shrugged as if to say that it would just be another naughty deed done to a naughty man in a naughty world. “He’s done plenty.”

 

            “How do you intend to make half of this stick in court?” I asked and then realized that was a very dumb question. “You’re not going to let him get that far.”

 

            “Come on Jack.” Noonan said looking slightly embarrassed. “Put your hands down.”

 

            My right hand took the end of the strap poking out of my left sleeve as left hand pulled away from my head. There is a way of looking like you’re not moving very fast while moving very fast indeed. Mostly it’s all about keeping your face completely calm and not looking at your target. I had to trust that his gun hand was where it was when I last glanced at it.

 

            Fortunately the gun was where I thought and as my left hand slapped it away my right hand swung down with all the speed I could muster to bring the sap across the side of Noonan’s head. The leather covered lead weight connected and Noonan spun in a circle as he fell to the snow covered ground. He collapsed flat out on his face, splayed in such a way as if he was expecting to make a snow angel face down. I grabbed his gun and slipped it into my coat pocket. I decided that any persuasion I was going to do would be done with the sap, which is of course part and partial to how the device got its street name.

 

            It only took him a moment to come back from the depths of unconsciousness, and he started to get up with a groan. I let him stand up, which he did by leaning against an old Chevy’s bumper and pushing himself up. He was standing after a moment and looked around for his gun, figuring out where it must be after he saw that I was still there. He looked confused for a long moment, trying to figure out why I didn’t just flee after assaulting a police officer. I must admit I wasn’t completely clear on this point myself, but I figured the best way to figure it out was to stick around a while.

 

            “What’d you hit me for?” He asked gingerly touching the growing bruise on the side of his head. “I wasn’t gonna hurt you.”

 

            “Yeah.” I said, trying not to swing the sap again. “I of course know that I am in no danger every time someone points a gun at me. Sure sign of a balanced mind, aiming firearms at people.”

 

            “I was just making sure that we understood each other.” He said swaying slightly.

 

            “I think we understand each other.” I told him, pulling his gun out of my pocket and wiping it off with my handkerchief. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but I didn’t want my prints on the gun. You can call it paranoia if you want, my sister does, but caution often brings its own rewards.

 

            “Yeah, well.” He said panting heavily as he tried to stand straight.

 

            “Yeah.” I tossed the gun back to him. “Now let’s talk about why rings and wallets get you to pull guns.”

 

            He looked at the gun in his hand and then the shots started to ring out. At first I thought it was Noonan shooting at me, which explains why I dove to one side and lay down between two cars. It wasn’t cowardice, just a mistake in who was shooting. Five shots cracked across the parking lot, proving that you could hear shots even in fresh snow. Noonan fell to his knees and then collapsed in a heap on the ground, face down on the ground again. I pulled the Marley out of its holster, but I when I tried to figure out where the shots came from I was sort of at a loss. I looked at Noonan, decided on a direction and then looked that way, but there was no one there.

 

            It’s fairly likely that whoever had shot Noonan had done what they’d come to do and faded away into the night. I got up and ran towards the back of the building, five small, spent shells sat in the snow near the curb and there was a smell of gunpowder, but no shooter. The snow showed some large boot tracks, but the prints looked like someone shuffling, as if they were wearing boots too large for them and were trying hard not to let them fall off.

 

            I looked around the ground, and saw the place where a car had driven away, but tire tracks are meaningless to me. All I saw was that a car had driven the shooter away while the cracks of the gunshots still hung in the air. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed a number, holding the phone up to my ear.

 

            “Smith?” I asked and waited for a confirming voice. “Noonan’s been shot, I think we need to talk. I do believe I have found a clue.”

 

This is part seventeen of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part eighteen 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.

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December 17, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Sixteen)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

  

Day 16: Where Do We Go Now?

 

            It was almost completely dark by five thirty, and the lights didn’t come on, but the snow had started to fall. It was heavy snow, and it looked like it really meant to keep it up as long as necessary. Of course this being the weather in Michigan, it could be over in half an hour and the cloud would be gone so fast you’d wonder where the hell all this snow suddenly came from. Sure, right now it looked like it was determined to cover the world in a blanket of white, but weather in Michigan either has attention deficit or is a common, garden variety, everyday, ordinary liar.  Either way though, there were flakes falling right now.

 

            Big fist-sized clumps of snow were sailing past my window, and I remembered reading somewhere that light travels in big clumps like that too. The snow wasn’t energy though, it was collections of ice crystals half-formed and clinging to each other in the moist air. I wished I was the sort of detective who kept a bottle in the bottom drawer and a glass on the desk. I could have used a drink of something, sipped through a highball glass as I watched the snow drift by in the gloom of a December night that looked like it might never end. I don’t though, because I made a deal with someone that if he didn’t drink ever again then I wouldn’t drink either to keep it even.

 

            Christmas was dead and the job was now to find a murderer instead of just an assailant. I looked to my left, where I’d be able to see the place with a hellish display of celebration had the lights been on. A bunch of lights and colorful banners to chase away the shadows in celebration of a vague early winter possibly religious festival that most people seemed to get into. Except now there were no lights. It hurt somehow, not having the display in view. It made me feel like I had won some kind of Pyrrhic victory over the obnoxious light pollution that the displays represented.

 

            She must really be dead, and the displays were off in order to respect that fact. I wasn’t as pleased as people might think I should be at this development. I hadn’t wanted anyone else to cancel their celebrations. I just wanted to be left alone for the month. Knowing the amount of pain that was out there made me feel angry again.

 

            I sat down in my chair and picked up one of the small red resin Buddha figures on my desk and began toss it from one hand to the other. There were things wrong with the case. There were many things that didn’t fit. There were too many wallets, not enough rings and a bunch of contradictory statements. What’s worse, the only person who would have been able to give me Christmas’s schedule for the last week or so was now in a morgue with a bunch of bullet holes in him.

 

            I had to get facts arranged in my mind, had to think things through, and then conduct a few experiments. What’s more, I had to do it fast, there wasn’t going to be time to try out this idea or that idea. If I didn’t come up with something soon there would be agents crawling all over this town and no amount of tough talk would be enough to scare all of them.

 

            The problem was, that I think I knew the answer before I started, but I wanted to delay the issue. So I kept tossing my little red Buddha from one hand to the other, watching him spin in midair as I did so. Someone was lying about something, someone was keeping something secret, and that damn ring was missing. If old Joe didn’t know anything about it, then it must have been on her finger when she got to the hospital, and someone got in and took off with it.

 

            Why someone would want a ring that only had value to the person who wore it everywhere was beyond me. Or rather it wasn’t beyond me, because she had a lot of obsessive fans, but how someone could get in and steal it without anyone else noticing was beyond me. She’d had two armed guards outside the doors and another two in the room with her at all times. Taking that ring would be a long and difficult process, not something you could just do while someone was looking the other way.

 

            Of course the obvious answer hadn’t occurred to me, though it probably has to you. As it hadn’t occurred to me at this point in the story, or perhaps you also hadn’t thought of it, I won’t mention it just yet. Besides, it might be that it only seems obvious to me now that I have the benefit of hindsight. It could be that without that benefit, you cannot see the obvious answer screaming and shouting and waving its arms.

 

            I looked at the little red Buddha in my hand and wondered if there was anyone watching my office right now. With Christmas and the Fat Man dead it might be supposed that I was off the case. Of course since I was still in my office, I was clearly still on the case. I looked at the rooftops, wondering if there were snipers watching for me, and if they had doughnuts.

 

            I had hardly started to investigate, and already most my clientele was either dead or wanted in connection with several murders. It was hard to hold one’s head up high with that sort of thing going on. You can’t put cases like this in the advertisements. No one would buy your services if you did. I wondered about the two wallets and then the ring. Two wallets, no ring.

 

            Perhaps it was that the ring, sensing danger, turned itself into a wallet while her hand was in her pocket which is why it was found in there. That was a silly idea though, and it proved how totally out of ideas I was. It might be supposed that I was a very bad detective, or that I was trying to string this tale out a few more days, but I think I was still in shock really.

 

            When Christmas had left Church, once and for all and forever, she had stayed with me for a while. Possibly it might be more accurate to say that I stayed with her, but it makes no difference because we never seemed to part in that time. She was always with me and I was always with her. She was so beautiful, so personal, so much a part of my life. We listened to music, drank wine, ate the best foods, made love in ways that could never be described in things so base as words. To even try to describe those days would take the skills of a thousand poets, working for a thousand years, and possibly with a thousand monkeys.

 

            Of course it all went wrong, when she started hanging around with that extreme right wing crowd of hypocrites, and began hitting the really hard stuff. It ended just before she and the Fat Man started that PR stunt about people trying to stop her from performing, which was never true. No one had tried to stop her, but she had claimed that there was a group trying to destroy her and her work. No one quite believed it, but then Patrick was killed just before his show last year. There were the attempts on Thanksgiving, and Easter had that accident this year as well. I could never quite help but point out to people that everyone but Christmas was being attacked.

 

            But then, this year, she was.

 

            I can’t help but think that I was affected by this more than I wanted to admit at the time. I wanted to pretend like it was over between her and I and that I cared no more for her than I did for Arbor or any other performer. The truth was of course that I still loved her, even if I had left her with anger in my heart. I leaned against the glass of the window and looked down at the dark town square, or as much of it as I could see through the snow.

 

            If I smoked, I would have lit up a Lucky. If I drank, I would have poured myself a few fingers of some amber fluid. If I had a bad habit I could indulge in, I would have indulged in it. I don’t have any bad habits though, or at least none that would have made the feeling in the pit of my stomach go away or even lessen for a moment. So instead I looked out the window at the street below.

 

            I turned around and picked up my phone, dialing a number by memory. When Noonan answered he sounded like he was just on his way out of the office.

 

            “It’s me.” I said. “I think we need to talk about some of the evidence I’ve found.”

 

            “Okay Jack.” He said. “You want me to come to your office?”

 

            “No.” I said. “Let’s meet someplace were we can have something to eat. How about that Chinese place up on Rochester and Long Lake? Next to the Boston Market?”

 

            “Yeah.” He said. “That’s fine.”

 

            “I’ll see you in a little bit.” I said, and hung up the phone.

 

            I can’t say why exactly I slipped the leather sap out of the desk drawer and into my back pocket, but I did. I suppose that was my subconscious mind looking out for the conscious mind, which is stupid and can’t see facts right in front of it. I did take it though, and I checked that the Marley was still in my holster, like always.

 

            Debbie poked her head into the office a moment after that, while I was sitting at my desk. I froze when she came in, and watched as she deviated around the small patch of blood I still hadn’t cleaned up. She looked at it and then at me as she came towards me, her heels clicking slightly as she walked.

 

            “I’m going home then.” She announced. “Will you be okay until tomorrow?”

 

            “I should be.” I told her. “You?”

 

            “I’ll probably need a drink when I get home.” She laughed a nervous laugh that I could have spotted as nerves even if I wasn’t a great detective.

 

            “You’ll be alright.” I told her. “You did just fine, nothing for you to be ashamed of.”

 

            “Thanks.” She smiled and blushed a little, more nerves. “Is that what it’s like everyday?”

 

            “Not everyday.” I told her. “Not every single day.”

 

            “But that’s what it’s like?” She asked.

 

            “Yes.” I nodded to her.

 

            “It was terrifying.”

 

            “Yeah.” I said.

 

            “I suppose you get used to it.” She said.

 

            “Sort of.” I told her. “If you’re a tough guy, it doesn’t affect you so much.”

 

            “Well, you are a tough guy.” She turned around and started towards the door. “You should probably get that blood cleaned up.”

 

            “I will.” I said.

 

            “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

            “Yeah, tomorrow.” I told her.

 

            I waited for her to go, and then waited another three minutes to make sure that she was really on the way home. Then I got up and started my way out of the office, locking things behind me as I went along. I didn’t want Debbie to know what I was up to. I didn’t want her to know I was going to work some more, it would only make her worry.

 

This is part sixteen of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part seventeen 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 16, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Fifteen)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 15: Church in the Office

 

            “Dead?” Church asked.

 

            “Well yeah, being shot in the chest a bunch of times usually does that to you.” I said, wanting to re-use Noonan’s Shiatsu joke but knowing better.

 

            “And they think Opus shot him?”

 

            “Exactly.” I nodded.

 

            I was keeping the Marley thirty-eight in my hand, and his automatic on the desk next to my left hand. If Church suddenly decided that playing nice wasn’t what he wanted to do today, I was perfectly prepared to shot him with as many bullets as each gun carried. He didn’t look like he was going to jump me though. In fact, he looked confused.

 

            “Opus was with me all day.” Church said after a moment’s thought. “We were collecting today, that was what we were doing in that store. He was collecting a debt from someone when the three helpers came out from the back and started shooting.”

 

            “Noonan says that Joe is down at the station giving a statement.” I tried to keep my voice steady and my finger actually off the trigger, hooking it around the trigger guard instead.

 

            “He might be now.” Church said. “But when you found me he had just pumped a lot of bullets into Opus’s chest. I got Cocoa and I winged Hardrock. They probably sent Joe because I missed him.”

 

            “So you didn’t have Opus kill the Fat Man earlier today?” I asked.

 

            “He was with me.” He leaned forward and hit the arm of the chair. “And I didn’t know he was dead until you told me. If you remember, I said I was going to kill him when I got in your car. Am I going to kill him in retaliation for his guys trying to kill me, which was in retaliation for my killing him? How many times am I supposed to kill him today? For that matter, how many times are we going to kill each other?”

 

            I leaned back in my chair and the springs sang out as they stretched to support me. I rubbed the stubble on my chin and looked at his face. He wasn’t thinking when he told me he was going to kill the Fat Man for this. He had just been talking. He was angry and out of sorts and if he had indeed killed the Fat Man, he wouldn’t have sworn to end the Fat Man’s life. I thought about it, but I considered that Church could be a far more clever player than I was giving him credit for. After all, the number of people who had underestimated him and lived was a very small one indeed. In fact, it might not really be a number after all, but merely a place holder that had been invented somewhere in the Middle East in some year I can’t really remember.

 

            “So the police are trying to frame you?” I asked leaning forward again. “They shot the Fat Man and they want to pin it on you?”


            “Someone is.” Church said leaning forward in his chair, crossing his arms and setting his elbows on the table. “It’s not like I haven’t got enemies. Ambitious people and little groups who would like to push me aside.”

 

            “But who would be able to get past the Fat Man’s people and shoot him?” I asked leaning forward.

 

            “I don’t know.” He said leaning forward a little more. “But I intend to find out.”

 

            Now if I were a smart guy, I wouldn’t have gotten into that position of leaning halfway across the desk while he was doing likewise. My desk isn’t really big enough to try and use as a fortification, otherwise IKEA would be selling a version of my desk as a combination desk and fortress. Of course, since my desk didn’t actually come from IKEA, I’ve only got my own thoughts on this project.

 

            The point here is that I am not a terrifically smart guy, and it is proved by the fact that I let myself get into a position where all Church would have to do is snap one of his arms up to hit me with his fist. It was actually his elbow that smacked into the side of my jaw and then his fist came down and smacked into my cheek. I’m not exactly sure what happened after that, but I didn’t pass out, it just all happened very quickly.

 

            I was knocked to the ground, and I began to get up I noticed something cold against the side of my head. The barrel of Church’s gun was about the size of a sewer tunnel and fired bullets approximately big enough to crack the world asunder. I put my hands flat on the floor, and it was then that I noticed I no longer had the Marley thirty-eight in my hand. I wondered where it was briefly, but then I heard the chamber open and the bullets fell and tapped out a short rhythm on the wood floor. I was fairly certain that I was in deeper trouble than before. Or at least I was in the same trouble but had gone down a few floors. I was only slightly gratified to find that I was right about the size of the trouble. This trouble had been big enough for the Fat Man to be swallowed up in.

 

            It wasn’t much of a comfort as my lifeless body was looking to be tossed in after him. I waited for Church to finish me, but I only heard the sound of the Marley clattering against the wall and then to the floor. I then felt the pistol pull away and wondered exactly how long that had really gone on for. I sat up and saw him walking towards the door of my office. I opened the middle drawer, yanked the Webley out and stood up aiming it at Church’s back. He opened the door when I decided to let him know how things stood.

 

            “Church!” I said, and he turned, pointing his gun at me.

 

            We stood looking at each other for a long time, neither wanting to fire incase the other one had better aim and got a chance to fire. He stood watching me and I watched him and eventually it became clear that neither of us was going to shoot the other. He took a few steps back and was probably as surprised as I was to have Debbie’s keyboard smash him across the back of the head. The keyboard broke and keys flew in every direction. Church turned suddenly and Debbie’s knee came up to meet the spot where his legs split. Unlike Opus though, he didn’t turn his hip away from her knee, which smashed into his pelvic bone. She then hit him with the edge of the keyboard which broke both his nose and itself. He dropped his gun and went to the ground after it, and she hopped around gripping her leg in pain.

 

            I ran around the desk and kicked Church’s automatic away from him as he rolled on the ground and moaned about the fact that his testicles were now somewhere in the region of his kidneys. I stood over him and this time put the barrel of my gun to his head and thumbed back the hammer. That didn’t actually seem to accomplish much so I let the hammer down slowly and moved away a bit. I looked at the keys to Debbie’s keyboard, scattered as they were around the front office like seed casings long after the seeds have been eat by birds or flow away on the wings of the wind.

 

            Debbie was sitting on one of the chairs, rubbing her knee with the heel of her palm and looking at me. She seemed amazed at the fact that he’d gone down so quickly, and that striking him had hurt so much. Church began to recover and got himself up onto his hands and knees. Blood was pouring from his nose and right onto my floor, which caused me a moment of worry, but I figured the janitors could clean it up if they tried hard enough.

 

            I walked out of his reach, leaned over to pick up the Marley from the floor and tossed it onto my desk. I then picked up Church’s automatic and placed it on my desk as well. I kept the big Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver trained on him and started trying to think about what I was actually going to do with him. I would have been happier, in the end, if he had just walked out of here and left me alone. However, I preferred the idea that if anyone tried to pull a gun on me they’d have to deal with my secretary. Being quick with your fists is one thing, having a secretary that could strike fear into the heart and the nose of the underworld was another.

 

            “You stupid son of a bitch.” I said as I walked towards him.

 

            “I didn’t kill the Fat Man.” Church muttered. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

 

            “That hardly matters now.” I said, “You tried to stick me up and you’ve faced the wrath of my secretary and her keyboard-fu. I hope this has taught you a lesson.”

 

            “Collier.” He said looking up at me. “I didn’t kill the Fat Man, I didn’t have it done. I told you, Opus wasn’t there.”

 

            The phone rang and I put the muzzle of my gun up against Church’s head, to inspire him to stay put and stay quiet. He seemed to understand the message because he froze when the barrel touched him. Debbie’s face seemed to fall as she listened and then pointed at my phone. I kept the gun trained on him as I walked to my desk and picked up the line.

 

            “Yeah?’ I asked.

 

            “Jack?” Noonan’s voice said. “It’s Tom.”

 

            “Hi Tom.” I said, “What’s up?”

 

            “The attack on Christmas is now being handled as a murder.” He said, and I thought I heard something that wasn’t quite a sob catch in his voice. “She died about five minutes ago. I thought you should know.”

 

            I felt as if I’d been shot and all my blood had drained away in a few seconds. My legs felt too weak to hold up my bulky frame, I had to put my hand on the desk to keep from falling over. My head started spinning and my heart began to pound something fierce. I don’t know how many days I stood there, but I would guess at least forty.

 

            “Thanks Tom.” I said. “I guess I’m going to have to… uh.”

 

            “I’ll work it out so you can get paid.” His voice was calmer than it should have been during a time of national tragedy. “I’ll see about getting you temporarily deputized too, we’ll keep you on this case.”

 

            “Thanks Tom.” I said, trying to think of something else lest I start to repeat myself. “I’ve got a few leads I’d like to chase down, let me get back to you.”

 

            “Sure Jack.” He said. “Sure.”

 

            I hung up and it suddenly occurred to me that I was training a gun on my only remaining paying client. Not only that, but my secretary had broken the nose of the only person left besides Solstice who had offered to keep our hand funded so it could remain in the game at all. The fact that they were going to try and tie him to the murder of the Fat Man, if he indeed had nothing to do with it, was a little troubling but there it was. I was going to have to make amends. If nothing else, I was going to have to find a way to explain the current developments.

 

            “She’s dead.” I decided that there was no use in beating around the bush. “So you’re the only one left that I can claim to be working for.”

 

            “What?” He asked looking up at me.

 

            “She’s gone.” I said taking his gun from my desk and sliding it across the floor. “The wounds proved to be too much. Christmas is dead and for what it’s worth I believe you when you say you didn’t do it.”

 

            “Dead?” He asked, and tears welled up in his eyes.

 

            “Yes.” I confirmed with a nod.

 

            He placed his hand over his eyes and I think he actually began to cry. Debbie walked over to him and placed a box of Kleenex in his hands. He took them and wiped his eyes with them. He then proceeded to stuff his nose with them to stem the bleeding. He looked up at me, and his eyes were still wet with tears. He got to his feet, the box of Kleenex still in his hand, and he reeled a little.

 

            “We’re going to find out who did this.” He managed to sound strong, even through the now stuffed nose. “Anything you need… anything.”

 

            “Yeah.” I said nodding.

 

            “Sorry for breaking your nose.” Debbie said.

 

            “It’s okay.” He managed as he opened the door. He then sounded sort of distracted and apologetic as he told her, “I should have been looking out for it.”

 

            He closed the door and walked down the hall, his steps sounded about six times as loud and deep as they should have as he made his way towards the elevator. I heard the door to the elevator open and close a few moments later. I then went out to check and see if he was still around, but he had left.

 

            I came back into the office and found Debbie on her hands and knees picking up the stray keys from the floor. I looked at the broken board in the garbage and I felt like I wanted to cry. That was the only thing she ever used and this case had destroyed it. Christmas had that way about her, and I suspected she was still going to, even dead.

 

            “I’ll get you a new keyboard.” I said following her into the outer office.

 

            “No need.” She said brightly while throwing the keys into the garbage behind her desk.

 

            “Oh, come on.” I pleaded. “Don’t tell me you’re going to quit.”

 

            “Of course not silly.” She said pulling a new keyboard from the box it came in. She blew off the top and plugged the keyboard into the side of the computer. “I wear these things out in about a month, I’ve always got at least one back-up.”

 

            The computer made that little sound that lets you know that the computer has recognized there is a new piece of equipment plugged into it. She then smiled up at me and went back to typing madly. I walked back into my office and closed the door behind me. I picked the bullets up off the floor and sat at my desk to reload the Marley.

 

            I can’t tell if it was resignation, confusion, or just some inner coldness, but I never did breakdown about it. I didn’t even feel particularly sad about Christmas’s passing. I just felt like I’d had a minor setback and now had to redouble my efforts to make up lost ground. I put the Marley back into the holster and slid the Webley back into the desk drawer. I leaned back and turned my chair around to look out the window. The glare of lights usually bounced off one of the buildings and I could see the glow on the side of the opposite building, but not today. It wasn’t quite dark enough for it yet, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be lit up tonight. Tonight they probably would be dark, dark and quiet.

 

            I looked at the gray sky and wondered if it was ever going to snow, snow would have been nice. I didn’t expect any snow though, just the cold and the dark that was coming.

 

This is part fifteen of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part sixteen 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 15, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Fourteen)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 14: Old Joe’s Pawn Shop

 

            Looking for a stolen ring, I can think of no better place to check first than Old Joe’s Pawn Shop. Old Joe is the kind of evil old bastard who’d buy up a dead man’s bedclothes and the shirt he was going to be buried in if someone stole it for him. In fact I’ve heard that he has been known to take the bed curtains, rings and all, when he has been given the chance. Old Joe wasn’t an actively bad person though. Really, he just encouraged naughty behavior in others. I can’t say why, but that always made him seem worse than all the muggers and thieves he hands money to.

 

            I pushed the door open, and heard it squeak loudly. There wasn’t a piece of metal in the whole place as rusty and loud as that door hinge. I went into his shop and saw the effluvia of a long time in the business of buying memories. There were Red Ryder BB guns, a sort of pink fur body suit with rabbits’ heads for feet, boxes of old decorations, a towel with the IBC logo on it, a squirt gun that fires jelly, and several other odds and ends that I won’t bother to mention lest this become nothing more than an extended list. The point was, Joe had bought these things and now they were priced to sell.

 

            “Hello Joe.” I said approaching him.

 

            “Hi Jack.” He said lifting a diamond studded wrist watch up to the light. “Some guy traded me this for a hand gun, can you imagine?”

 

            “If you told him that without a receipt it was only worth fifty or sixty bucks.” I said, and he grinned knowingly.

 

            “What can I do for you today?” He asked setting the watch down.

 

            “I’m looking for Christmas’s ring.” I said.

 

            “What do you mean?” He asked, looking confused.

 

            Old Joe is like an old friend, in that I’ve known him a long time, so there is no need to pull punches. My left fist struck his jaw and I grabbed a hold of him to prevent him from hitting the floor where he kept a shotgun. I yanked him close and resisted the urge to talk about a gold engagement ring, as that would have been the wrong holiday.

 

            “Why must we do this?” I asked yanking him close. “Christmas wasn’t wearing her ring when the cops found her, so it’s been on the market for nearly two full days. If you haven’t got it here, you know where it is.”

 

            “I swear to Steve I don’t know!” He shouted, which was good enough to strike like a blow because of his breath. I fell back and he rubbed his jaw a bit. “If somebody stoled it I don’t know where it is. I ain’t heard nothing about it, and I don’t know nothing about it.”

 

            “Tell me what you have heard then.” I said sliding aside a large and complex tree ornament that had probably gotten lost in the night. “Some guy that worked for the Fat Man was trying to put the finger on Church but good. Church didn’t like it and shot the guy. Last I heard they was putting his head in a box to send the Fat Man.”

 

            “How did you hear all that?” I asked.

 

            “Shit.” Joe nearly spat. “Where do you think they come for the box?”

 

            “You’re right.” I agreed. “That was a silly question.”

 

            “If I had her ring, you don’t think I’d keep hold of it do you?” He asked.

 

            “No.” I said, shaking my head. “I was hoping you’d know who was stupid enough to take it.”

 

            “Nobody took it.” He said. “I don’t see how they even could have gotten it off her finger. It was a bitch and a half the last time we helped her get it off, and she’s blown up since then.”

 

            “Why does everyone have to use these terms?” I asked and felt quite an understandable urge to hit him again. “She put on a little weight. You don’t have to keep using words like bloated and blown up.”

 

            “My point is that her ring finger had expanded.” He said, annunciating carefully. “You would have to cut the damn finger off.”

 

            “Hmm.” I held off slugging him as the idea hadn’t struck me before. “That’s a point.”

 

            “I mean someone really dedicated could have cut just the ring off I suppose, but why be delicate what with the rest of what they done to her?”

 

            “Yeah.” I said. “Why?”

 

            “Can’t say?” He said.

 

            “Okay.” I said smiling brightly again. “You hear anything call me first, okay?”

 

            “Hey!” He smiled and held up his hands in a friendly gesture. “We’re old friends aren’t we?”

 

            “We’ve at least known each other a long time and we know a few of the others foibles.” I agreed pushing the door open and listening to the hinge squeak. “That situation shares many things with the ‘old friends’ one. Oil this door.”

 

            I walked out into the cold air, and took in a deep lungful as I walked out into the world again. At least while it as bright out, there weren’t as many lights and colorful things to see. Really, it was the nights I couldn’t stand. You can’t go anywhere at night and not be blinded by a thousand showy lights, each year’s offering brighter than the last year’s. It was as if they had taken the idea of keeping away the shadows in the dark time of the year to mean they should shun the night and put up so many lights that night and day were the same. When there was snow, there was so much reflected light that they really were one and the same as far as brightness went. It was only that the light of day was gray and the light at night was a sort of mixed color with a reddish hue to it.

 

            I got back into my car and tried to decide where I should go next when I saw the most extraordinary sight. Church burst out of a store’s door with his gun drawn and blazing into the place. I watched as he fired three rounds into the store and then turned and ran towards me. For a moment I thought about running him down, but if I didn’t kill him, he’d remember it.

 

            Instead I leaned over and opened my door, yelling his name and drawing the Marley thirty-eight from the holster. He looked towards me and took the hint, jumping into the passenger seat. I slammed the car into gear and gunned the engine. The car took off like a shot and we were away and around a corner before I could see who had even been doing the shooting.

 

            “Thanks.” Church said, “I owe you one.”

 

            He leaned his head back and panted as I drove away as quickly as I could, both understanding that this could be aiding and abetting and also understanding that client service was a must if a small business owner wanted to stay in business. After all, I had to make sure that if nothing else my bill would reach someone willing to pay me. Of course I could just give that much more of a bill to the Fat Man, but as I was planning to soak them both with the understanding that I wasn’t taking the other guy’s money, it would have been pointless.

 

            “What the hell was that?” I asked.

 

            “Fucking fat bastard tried to hit me.” He said looking over his shoulder. “His three little helpers just showed up and shot at us. They got Opus with the first few shots, he never even got his gun out.”

 

            “So it was Hardrock, Cocoa and Joe?” I asked.

 

            “Yeah.” He said. “Just came out of nowhere, I can’t believe Opus was caught off guard like that.”

 

            He slid the clip from his gun, stuffed it into his suit jacket and pulled out a fresh clip. He out the loaded magazine in and shoved the gun away into its holster. He ran his fingers through his short graying hair and rubbed at his scalp. He then put his hands on his thighs and looked out the window for a long time. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with him, he was too dangerous to keep near, but I wasn’t sure of what he’d do next. Well I was pretty sure he’d start arranging to kill the Fat Man.

 

            “I’m going to kill that fat mother fucker.” He said, proving that maybe I did know what I was talking about. “Son of a bitch makes a run at me, after all this time, that fucker must be really desperate. He must have done it huh?”

 

            “Well, we can find out.” I said. “But I don’t want anyone killed, not one more person if we can manage it.”

 

            “You’d probably better let me out then.” He said pointing ahead. “That gas station will do.”

 

            I pulled into the gas station and stopped near a pay phone, knowing that he would want that first. He buttoned his suit coat, which was all the protection I had ever seen him wear against the cold. He wasn’t even wearing a tie today, just his shirt and suit. He didn’t look particularly cold, but I couldn’t help to think he must be. I got out and walked towards him.

 

            “I don’t like leaving you here.” I said shivering a little with the cold. “At least, not without a coat or anything.”

 

            “I don’t need a coat.” He said looking at the phone.

 

            “Oh come on.” I said looking around us at the bleak Michigan winter that we were both in. “In this weather?”

 

            “If you gave me a coat, I’d only go and give it to the poor.” He said, and began to walk towards the pay phone looking for change in his pockets. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a quarter.”

 

            “Let me take you back to my office at least.” I said and then my cell phone rang.

 

            “Answer it.” He folded his arms. “I’ll wait.”

 

            “Yeah?” I asked as I held the phone to my ear.

 

            “Jack?” Noonan’s voice came over the line. “Where are you at?”

 

            “I’m at a gas station, why?”

 

            “The Fat Man got hit.” He said panting.

 

            “He dead?” I asked.

 

            “Fourteen rounds to the chest ain’t exactly a Shiatsu massage.” He said coughing in to the phone. “I’d say the Fat Man lost about twenty pounds worth of blood, as most of it is on the floor around him.

 

            “When?” I asked.

 

            “About an hour ago.” He said. “They just picked up his body.”

 

            “He would have just gotten off the phone with me then.” I looked closely at Church’s face as I spoke.

 

            “That’s what I heard.” He said, still panting. “His assistant Joe said he’d just gotten done talking to you about this head in a box he’d got.”

 

            “Joe’s there?” I asked, and was glad that I still had the Marley thirty-eight in my hand, no matter how absent-mindedly it had been there before.

 

            “Well no, he’s going to the station for questioning, why?”

 

            “Who did it?”

 

            “They don’t know for sure, but the guy they described matches Opus’s description.”

 

            “Opus just walked up and shot the Fat Man?” I asked loud enough for Church to hear.

 

            “Seems that way.” Noonan said.

 

            “Where the hell was his security?”

 

            “No idea.” Noonan said, “They must have let their guard down for the one crucial second.”

 

            I watched Church who was looking at me with confusion and concern in his face. I didn’t do anything foolish like thumbing back the hammer of my gun, but I did watch him carefully. I thought about what he had said and what Noonan had said and tried to decide where my interests lay. I couldn’t decide just like that though, so I decided to stall.

 

            “Tom.” I said, trying to phrase it properly. “I’m going to have to make a couple of calls. If nothing else, this changes my client situation greatly. I’m going to have to secure some kind of funding or something. I’ll give you a call in a little while.”

 

            “Sure Jack.” He said. “I understand.”

 

            “Thanks.” I said and hung up. “Now you really can’t make that call and you really are coming back with me to my office.”

 

            “What’s going on?” He asked.

 

            “First, your gun.” I said pointing my gun sort of in the direction of his feet.

 

            “I can see this just isn’t going to be my day.” He said pulling the gun out and holding it towards me butt first.

 

            “Not going to be a lot of people’s day.” I said taking the gun from him. “Let’s go, I’ll tell you about it on the way to my office.”

           

This is part fourteen of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part fifteen 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 14, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Thirteen)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 13: Talk of Rings

 

 

            I sat down in my desk and wondered if I was ever going to get out of my office again. Maybe I would spend the rest of my days receiving calls from one important person after another. I must be moving up in the world, a federal agent was sitting in my client chair now, even if he looked like he’d rather bite my face off.

 

            I ran my fingers over the stubble on my chin and looked at him as he slipped off the large mirrored sunglasses that he always wore. He looked less thin and reptilian without them, which might have been why he wore them. I’m pretty sure that looking like a snake was exactly what he was going for, which is what he more or less managed. Without them he almost looked human, but I wasn’t going to start thinking of him as a mammal and rub his belly or anything.

 

            “Suppose you start to tell me why you’ve been watching me?” I asked.

 

            “We’ve been watching everyone.” He said, almost sounding like a mammal too. “Ever since this business started, we’ve been watching everyone.”

 

            “Legally, one hopes.”

 

            “Emergency situation.” He said shifting his shoulders and folding his hands in front of him. “But you don’t have to worry, you weren’t labeled as important enough until this morning.”

 

            “Why so late?”

 

            “Following Church, we found he’d come here last night. After that, you’re activities warranted further examination.”

 

            “So you’ve only been watching me a little while?”

 

            “Right.” Smith nodded.

 

            “And you’ve been here watching me especially?”

 

            “No.” Smith sneered. “I was doing real grown-up work while you were looking at crime scenes and letting important individuals slip through your fingers.”

 

            “And I visited with Mr. Frost, let’s not forget that.”

 

            “I haven’t.” Smith said, and I could tell that he was all too aware of Frost’s visit and what it could portend.

 

            “Look Smith, you don’t like me and it’s only sheer laziness that stops me from killing you, so why don’t we cut the shit?”

 

            “What do you mean?” he asked.

 

            “Why don’t you tell me what you know, and I’ll tell you what I know and we’ll try and work this out like real grown-up type people.”

 

            “I don’t know anything.” He said, unfolding his hands and gripping the arms of the chair.

 

            “And normally I would be all too glad to make a joke out of that statement.” I said smiling. “But today I need something more, because I don’t have much either.”

 

            “What do you have?” Smith asked.

 

            “A lot of history.” I said putting my elbow on my desk and propping my chin in my hand. “Mostly I know where she came from, but I don’t know who tipped her.”

 

            “And then we’ve got these other problems to worry about.” He said sighing in a way that was almost warm-blooded. “Two more go down, and one we thought was dead slips right past us.”

 

            “I think you’ll find the rest are on lock down if you go looking.”

 

            “We noticed that.” He said gritting his teeth in an unattractive manner. “There isn’t much we don’t notice.”

 

             “Except someone shooting people right under your nose.” I mentioned.

 

            “Yes.” He said, and it was almost a growl this time. “I had forgotten about that, how nice of you to remind me.”

 

            “I may end up reminding you of more than that.” I said leaning back in my chair and fixing eyes on his. Something then struck me, something strange. “Did you find her ring?”

 

            “What?” He asked as if I’d just asked him if he’d ever sodomized a donkey. Well, not really, because I imagine that he would respond to such a question with guilt in his eyes and probably would answer just a bit too late.

 

            “Her ring.” I said leaning forward, intent on his face. “A gold ring worn on the third finger of her right hand. There’s a ruby set in it and two emeralds each about half as big as the ruby. She wore it all the time.”

 

            “And you want to know if we found it?” He asked.

 

            “Yes.” I said nodding.

 

            “I haven’t the slightest idea.” He said. “I’d have to call and ask them.”

 

            “Do you want a phone?” I pointed at the instrument on my desk.

 

            “No.” He pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll call from my own.”

 

            I watched as he stood up and walked to a corner of the room, his back facing me to pretend that he had some level of privacy. He talked too quietly for me to hear, and halfway through he looked over his shoulder at me and then back at the corner of my office. Finally I heard something that sounded like a thank you and he closed the phone, slipping it into his coat as he turned to face me. It might not have been his intention to show me his concealed handgun, but he didn’t try to cover it up either. He probably felt no need to cover a weapon that was aimed at me a few moments ago, but I would have done better not to show it.

 

            “There were no rings on her fingers.”

 

            “What about the bells on her toes?” I asked, trying for another confused and annoyed look from him.

 

            I didn’t get the confused part, but I’ll take the fact that I got him halfway there. His glance of annoyance might have only been half for me anyway. The fact that I had something that I could legitimately use to needle him with and that was completely a failure on the part of his agents was probably biting him more than any words I could muster.

 

            “Yes.” He said, after a longer moment than I thought necessary for a comeback. “They were still on her shoes when we found her.”

 

            “Have you gone over both your own reports and the police reports?” I asked tapping my stubbly chin with my finger. “Found anything else that’s not there that should be?”

 

            “There are a couple of redundancies, but we’d figured that was just someone’s accounting error.” He had regained his snake like composure now and looked like if he could open his mouth wide enough he would swallow me whole.

 

            “What redundancies?” I asked, even though I suspected.

 

            “The wallets.” He said while trying not to leap out of his chair and bite my neck. “The police say they found it with her driver’s license in her pocket, we found it in her purse with the car. That gold charm she’s supposed to wear around her neck was also in both places.”

 

            “Have you checked all the property rooms?” I asked.

 

            “We’ve taken over the property rooms.” He said sliding his thin tongue across his bottom lip. “We’ve gathered it all up, put everything in one place. There is only one wallet and one charm.”

 

            “And no ring.” I added.

 

            “Yes.” He nodded. “No ring. No ring in any of the files, no ring in the property rooms and no ring on her finger now.”

 

            “Hmm.” I said to myself. “Where would that ring have gone?”

 

            “We can find out.” He said. “But it seems pretty farfetched that someone attacked her just for the ring.”

            “Yes it does.” I agreed. “Nevertheless the ring was of very fine workmanship. It was also quite important to her.”

 

            “I’ll see what I can find out.”

 

            The office phone then rang and after a moment my desk phone beeped. I looked at Smith and then picked up the phone. I held it to my ear and waited for the explosion that was going to come. In a moment, it did.

 

            “Corpulent Gentleman.” Debbie’s voice came, using big words that the Agents in the office wouldn’t know. “Should I put him through?”

 

            “Yeah.” I said, having had a premonition about what he was going to talk about. “Go ahead.”

 

            “Jack?” The Fat Man’s voice came over after a moment.

 

            “Yes, hello.” I said, trying to sound cheery. “How are you today?”

 

            “Something has happened.”

 

            “Yes,” I agreed, smiling at Smith, “Several things in fact.”

 

            “Someone has delivered the head of one of my former employees to me.” The Fat Man said, sounding like he was trying to keep panic out of his voice. “I have no idea where the rest of his body is, but his hands were in the box with his head.”

 

            “Well then you should be able to tell who he is then.” I kept trying to sound cheerful and made a rolling motion with my hand as if I wanted the conversation to be over faster and the person on the other end could get to the point faster. “Anything I can do about that?”

 

            “I think it was Church.” The Fat Man said.

 

            “Oh, how’s that?”

 

            “The last time Church and I had any dealings, this guy was with me. He must think that he was still working for me.” I thought I almost detected fear in the Fat Man’s voice. “He probably tried to get information about my movements from him. He’s going to try and get me.”

 

            “Oh I don’t think that’s it.” I said, wondering if I should tell him about my grasp of current events. “I’m sure it’s something else.”

 

            “I hope you’re right.” The Fat Man said. “Is there any progress?”

 

            “Um… possibly.” I said, trying to sound like I was considering an offer for dinner.

 

            “Possibly?” He asked. “What the hell does that mean?”

 

            I wanted to cry, I was going to have to spell things out to him. Clearly, his nerves were jangled or he wouldn’t have bothered with such a stupid question. I just hoped that telling him just a little would keep him from doing something ridiculously stupid.

 

            “It means that I’ve got a federal agent in my office and I can’t really talk to you about this right now. I’ve got this Christmas thing I’ve been asked to work on and it’s kind of a big deal, did you see the thing about it?” Is what I decided on telling him.

 

            “Ah.” He said. “I understand.”

 

            “Yeah.” I said nodding. “I’ll call you a little later about your case. I’m still working very hard at it. Don’t think I’ve forgotten you, but this is a big deal and I’ve got to put a few thinks to the side for it. Okay, bye bye.”

 

            I hung up and looked at Smith with an apologetic smile. I was about to tell him a tale of some client thinking that they were my only one, but then I was struck by an amusing idea. Why not tell him? Why not just lay out what I knew to him and warn him ahead of time? I decided that truth could be a novel concept and I would give it a try.

 

            “Another client?” He asked.

 

            “You know I have no other clients.” I said smiling. “No, that was the Fat Man. It seems Church cut the head off someone who was trying to break into his car last night and deposit a bloody baseball bat. Church’s boy Opus shot him and cut his head off in order to ship it and the man’s hands to that overripe berry just waiting to be squeezed. It seems that the man planting the evidence left the Fat Man’s employ some time ago though and now the Fat Man thinks Church is sending him a warning. At least this is what I’ve been told, there is no evidence for any of this so anything I’m telling you is hearsay.”

 

            “The Fat Man sent someone to put a baseball bat in Church’s car?” Smith asked, leaning forward in his chair.

 

            “Well, I guess it depends on who you believe. Church said the guy was breaking into his car with a bat covered in blood. Opus said he killed him and cut his head off. The Fat Man says he got the head and the guy hadn’t worked for him in sometime. Now there are a lot of things that could be lies there. There might be no baseball bat, the guy might have been working for the Fat Man, Church might have just thought the guy was working for the Fat Man and killed someone by mistake.”

 

            “But as far as you know there is a headless body floating around.”

 

            “Rather there is a bodyless head at the Fat Man’s place right now.” I smiled at him as if I were highly amused by the whole thing. “Unless none of this is true.”

 

            “Yeah.” Smith said, and I think he actually swallowed the bait. “You’d like me to go around bothering some prominent people like Church and… the Fat Man with nothing but your say so.”

 

            He stood up, adjusted his jacket and pulled out his sunglasses. He slipped them on and what little semblance of mammalian life he had was gone in an instant. He was once again a cold reptilian thing that couldn’t possibly have ever suckled at a breast. He shook his head as he looked at me and then started to walk towards the door. He turned around to send a parting shot at me.

 

            “You’d like me to waste our time chasing after some wild goose you just invented while you figure out who the mystery guest is. Well forget it! We’re not that dumb at the federal government. Stay out of my way or I’ll bust your ass.”

 

            “Well I did warn you.” I said quietly to myself as the door banged shut.

 

This is part thirteen of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part fourteen 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 13, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Twelve)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 12: The Man in the Brown Corduroy Suit

 

            We walked to a nice place across the street from the office, meaning we didn’t use the car. As we walked back to the office I saw the man in the brown corduroy suit again. I told Debbie that I had to take care of something and let her go back into the office on her own as I walked through the parking lot. I walked past my car and towards the drug store on the corner. Instead of going in, I decided to walk past the doors and after turning the corner I leaned against the wall and waited. After a moment the man in the brown corduroy suit came around the corner and I grabbed him by the lapels of his coat. I spun his around and smacked his back into the wall I had been leaning against a moment ago. I pulled back my fist when he squeaked and I realized who it was.

 

            “Wait Jack, it’s me!” He said in an alto voice that came close to a whine at times.

 

            “Thanksgiving?” I asked, finally getting a good look at him. I lowered my fist and let go of his jacket.

 

            “And it’s nice to see you too.” He brushed his white shirt and brown vest with shaking hands.

 

            “What the hell are you doing?” I demanded, “I might have beaten you to a pulp.”

 

            “I wanted to find out what you knew about this Christmas thing.” He tried to straighten his bow tie, but all he did was set it further askew.

 

            “So why not ask me?” I asked. “You could have called.”

 

            “I didn’t know who you were working for.” He squeaked again, “As a matter of fact I still don’t. I’ve seen everyone but Christmas herself going in and out of your office the last two days.”

 

            “Well let’s you and me go up there and you can actually fix your tie.” I said.

 

            “Will there be anyone watching?” He asked looking around. “I don’t want people to know where I am. They’ve already tried once you know.”

 

            “I’ll keep you safe.” I said as reassuringly as I could. “Let’s go up and have a talk.”

 

            Five minutes later we were sitting in my office, a couple of mugs of coffee between us. He had straightened himself up, combed his hair in the bathroom and looked much calmer now than he had before. He drank some coffee and sat back in the big red leather chair that so many had occupied recently. That chair was going to break pretty soon. It wasn’t used to the kind of vigorous wear and tear it was getting lately.

 

            “So why don’t you start by telling me where you’ve been the last few months?” I asked, trying to think of some way to start.

 

            “Around.” He said setting the mug down on my desk. “Hotels mostly. A few nights here, a few nights there and every once in a while I went to a relative’s house so they’d know I was okay. I had to keep myself hidden, but I didn’t want my family to worry, family is important you know.”

 

            “So I’ve heard.” I said, failing to believe it. “Why are you in hiding?”

            “Someone tired to kill me.” He squeaked. “Didn’t I say that?”

 

            “Yes.” I pressed my hand to my temple to try and hold off the headache. “I’m trying to get a picture of what happened.”

 

            “I was doing some pre-show planning in August, looking around turkey farms and things, you know?” he waved his hand to suggest that there was a great deal more to it than just that. “Stuff like that.”

 

            “Okay.” I nodded, pretending to understand what went into putting on a show like his. The closest I ever got was watching Christmas set up for her shows, which were a hundred times more elaborate than anyone else’s. I suppose that they must all think their show is very tough to put on.

 

            “I was getting back to my offices, when someone in a black car drove up and shot at me.” The look on his face said that he was having almost a complete and total replay of the events. “I don’t know how they missed me, but I got away. I just sort of fell into a ditch and just lay there waiting for them to come and really do the job. They must have thought they’d gotten me and drove off.”

 

            “And you slunk away after that?” I asked.

 

            “Right.” He said nodding urgently, as if he needed to use the bathroom. “And then when I saw what happened to Christmas, well you know.”

 

            “You thought they were after all of you.” I asked.

 

            “Exactly.” He pointed at me with his extended index finger, which was shaking slightly. “And I figured that if I followed you, maybe you’d be on the case and I could find something out.”

 

            “You could have just called.” I said.

 

            “I didn’t know who you might be working for.” He said again.

 

            “I’m working for me.” I said taking in a lot of air and letting it out. “Okay, first things first, let’s get you safe.”

 

            “How do we do that?”

 

            “We hide you someplace that I know about.” I said rubbing my forehead.

 

            “Where?” He asked.

 

            “I know a guy named Eddie, he lives out in the boonies and he has some people who watch over him.” I told him. “You’ll like Eddie, he gets the munchies a lot.”

 

            I picked up my phone and dialed Eddie the Bear’s number. I only hoped he was sober enough to talk. There were three rings, as there always are, before he picked up. There was then another moment’s wait while he languidly brought the phone to the side of his head. He had all these little habits and you just had to wait until he spoke or you’d look like a fool. Most days I was dangerously close to looking like a fool anyway, and I didn’t want to press my luck there.

 

            “Hello?” Eddie asked.

 

            “Hey Eddie, Jack. Listen, I need a favor.” I said. “Can you let a pal of mine stay with you in one of your more secure rooms for a couple of days?”

 

            “Sure man.” Eddie said. “He need anything special?”

 

            “Just keep him safe.” I said.

 

            “Where is this guy?”

 

            “He’s in my office now.”

 

            “You want me to come pick him up?”

 

            “Yeah.” I told him, wondering why he was being so accommodating.

 

            “Okay man, I’ll be there in a little while.” Eddie said. “You’re gonna owe me later though.”

 

            “Okay. Bye, bye.” I said and we both hung up. “We’ve got a few minutes.”

 

            “Have we?”

 

            “Yes.” I confirmed. “So you might as well speculate on who tried to bump you off.”

 

            “Well, the Fat Man, clearly.” He said, shrugging. “Who else?”

 

            “Why him?” I asked.

 

            “Because he’s been trying to run me out of town for years.” He said as if I had spent the last few years hidden away in my office away from humanity.

 

            “Why?” I asked.

 

            “He wants to have the extra time for Christmas.” He rubbed his hands over his hair. “He’s wanted to be able to extend her season out for years, because he can sell more stuff then. If he could start selling in November, without complaints, then he’d have two full months to make even more money than he does now.”

 

            “Why not extend into October to then?” I asked.

 

            “Because he’s scared of Sam.” Thanksgiving said smiling. “Everyone’s scared of Sam, ‘cept me I expect. And it’s only because we’ve been neighbors so long.”

 

            That was very likely true, most people were afraid of Sam Hain, but that was because he was a scary guy. Of course what most people failed to notice, when being so scared of him, was how much the kids loved him. To some, he was a better guy to have around than Christmas, or at least a good runner-up. No one would have been scared of a little guy like Thanksgiving though, and his natural timidity had allowed him to be rolled over for years. The fact that someone had tried to get rid of him made this whole thing seem like something someone had been planning, rather than something that was just happening.

 

            “So what do you think?” He asked.

 

            “I think it’s a good thing for you I think highly enough of you to send for my favorite pot head.” I said leaning back in my chair and looking up at the ceiling.

 

            After a few more minutes of us sitting together in silence the door opened and Eddie the Bear came in. If you want to imagine Eddie, you need to think of a large, fattish man, mostly unkempt but not actually dirty. He had short blond hair and a small beard that gave him a look that can only be described as fuzzy. Eddie was big, and cheerful and just smart enough to keep himself and his friends out of jail. He was still wearing the same red shirt that he’d owned since high school. I actually know that it was not the same t-shirt every day, but he did have a thing for red shirts. Today in fact it was a red sweater, the v neck of which hung low enough to show one of his red t-shirts under it.

 

            “Hey Jack.” He said smiling. “This my guy?”

 

            “Yup.” I nodded. “Thanksgiving meet Eddie the Bear.”

 

            “Big fan of your work.” Eddie smiled broadly.

 

            “Thank you.” Thanksgiving looked a bit bewildered, which might have just been a contact high from Eddie’s fumes.

 

            “You two should probably go now.” I said standing. “Eddie, keep him very safe. If anything happens to him, I will have to kill you.”

 

            “No problem bro.” I had long since stopped trying to make him not call me bro.

 

            They were out of my office a moment later and I saw the brown Buick drive off followed by Eddie’s old gray Cadillac, which pulled out in front of it. I was sure that Thanksgiving would have no problem following Eddie. After all, he’d had some practice lately. They’d be safe enough until I could sort this out.

 

            I got to my seat before I heard the front door bang open and feet running into the office. I got up and started around my desk when the shouting started.

 

            “Where is he?” I heard a voice shout from the front of the office.

 

            I walked out to the waiting room and saw Smith with half a dozen agents and possibly another dozen in the hall. They were all carrying small machine guns on straps that went around their shoulders. As I swung the door open six gun barrels also swung and aimed at me. For a moment I considered diving and drawing my Marley, but it only had six shots and I didn’t really have anything like cover. I raised my hands and hoped they wouldn’t take that as a signal to start shooting.

 

            “Aren’t you supposed to be eighteen before you can play with those?” I asked and pointed with my finger.

 

            “Where is he Collier?” Smith yelled at me.

 

            “He who?” I asked.

 

            “Thanksgiving!” He demanded. “We saw him here a moment ago, where is he?”

 

            “Now that is interesting.” I let my hand drop and place them on my hips. “Have you been looking through my windows? Bugging my office? Do you have a shorter than normal agent in my coffee maker?”

 

            “We saw him come in here.” Smith hissed. “Where do you have him?”

 

            “Tell your child prodigies to lower the pea shooters or I will take them away and you’ll have to ask your parents to come and get them back from me.” I told him sternly.

 

            A couple of agents, cowed by the threat of having their weapons taken away, lowered their guns lest they have to explain to their moms and dads why they lost them. Smith looked over his shoulder, sighed and made as close to a growl as a snake-like creature such as him can.

 

            “Lower your weapons.” He commanded.

 

            “Good.” I told him and made a gesture towards Debbie. “Now, if you wish to make an appointment.”

 

            “Cut that out.” Smith said and I swear one agent reached for his boot knife before he realized it was a metaphor.

 

            “You want to talk?” I asked him. “Like civilized beings?”

 

            “Collier.” He hissed again, even though my name really should be growled and not hissed. You need certain letters to hiss, and my name doesn’t have them. Perhaps if my first name were John or even Jonathan you could hiss it, but it says Jack on my certificate of birth.

 

            “I realize I’m asking a lot of you, but I think given practice you can be a civilized being. This will be good practice.”

 

            “Wait here.” Smith said shoving his pistol under his coat. “Collier and I have something to discuss.”

 

            “Wait outside.” I suggested and pointed towards the hall. “I don’t like leaving the door open and you can only lust over my secretary if you’re a paying customer.”

 

            “Go on.” Smith hissed at his group.

 

            They departed, leaving Smith and I to enter my office.

 

This is part twelve of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part thirteen 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 12, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Eleven)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 11: Mr. Frost

 

            I don’t regularly go to crime scenes unless they’re fresh, because the police are pretty good at picking over the area where a crime was committed. Of course the crime wasn’t committed here, just discovered here, but that only made my trip all the more pointless. It had taken more than half an hour to drive to the place on Romeo Plank, between 21 Mile and 22 Mile. It might help if I told you that we have mile roads that start somewhere in Detroit, you might as well learn something since when I got there I didn’t learn much.

 

            In a complete contrast to the day before, that day was over cast with a thick blanket of gray clouds that stretched from one end of the sky to the other in all directions. There wasn’t a single opening in that cloak that allowed the sun from assaulting the land, not a single chink in the armor of gray. The light was diffuse and had about it the feeling that if one could see the sun we’d notice that it wasn’t really trying anyways. After all, this wasn’t called the dark time of the year because of the bills that would soon be coming.

 

            There was enough light that morning to see the spot where Christmas had been found though. Enough light to make out the patch that had been blood and was now just a dull stain on the black top. Someone had already made a half-hearted effort to clean it, but no one wanted to risk spraying down the parking lot and risking a large patch of ice. There hadn’t been that much blood anyway. There was just what had leaked out in the little time she had been laying here.

 

            While the spot where she had been left was fairly visible from the road, it wasn’t overly visible from the place where the main building of the nursery was. Why leave her in the parking lot of a nursery in Macomb County anyway? I looked at one of the strings of lights on the tree and while they weren’t lit I could tell there was something wrong. The lights on this tree were indeed ordinary white string lights as Noonan had said, but he didn’t point out how they’d been put on the tree.

 

            In the last few years, the style has been to mummify a tree in lights, Wrapping the trunk with several strands and then wrapping a few of the large branches so that the looked like some sort of bio-luminescent coral that has come ashore and grown to enormous size. That is what had been done here and someone had gone to the effort of adding zip ties every foot or so to make sure no one was able to make off with the lights in the middle of the night, as can happen sometimes.

 

            They couldn’t have had the lights at hand. They couldn’t have just yanked them off the tree and decided to use them. Even without the zip ties, they were wrapped around too tightly to make them any kind of convenient tool. No, the lights wrapped around her neck had been brought, which meant they must have been some kind of sign to someone. I wondered for a moment why that hadn’t been in the report, why they’d missed that little detail.

 

            I looked around, having a sudden sense of paranoia, and saw the brown Buick. I then spotted the man in the brown corduroy suit going into the building. I wondered for a moment why he wore the same suit two days in a row. I looked down at the concrete, where a patch of her blood still stained the ground. I thought about following him into the building, but then what? I might have to bust him in the head or something to make him talk and it seemed a bit public for that. I leaned against my blue car, looking at the Buick, and then at the doors where he was no doubt pretending to shop while keeping me in sight.

 

            I thought about jumping in my car and driving north as fast as I could, just to see how long it would take him to catch up to me. That might attract unwanted attention though, and I guessed that it wouldn’t be for our mutual benefit. I looked at the car and after that, looked into the building. While I looked, I pursed my lips. It would be accurate to say I was thinking about the whole thing. I was just about to go into the nursery and ask him why he was interested in my movements when my phone rang. I pulled it from my pocket and saw that it was Debbie at the office. I hit the answer button and held it up to my ear.

 

            “Yeah?” I asked.

 

            “Mr. Frost called for an appointment.” She said. “He says he has something very important to talk to you about right now.”

 

            “What did you tell him?” I asked looking up at the over cast sky.

 

            “It doesn’t matter, he said he would come and wait.”

 

            “Ah.” I looked at the brown Buick again, “Okay, I’ll be back as soon as I can. It’ll be a little while.”

 

            I looked at the Buick, and then at the store and decided that there would have to be another time. It wouldn’t be too hard to arrange another time anyway, all I’d have to do is leave my office and not travel more than forty miles away from it. If I stopped and walked around roughly the same area I would no doubt see him. If I saw him I could ask him what exactly it was he wanted. Until that point I had to get back to my office and talk to a person who I really didn’t want to talk to.

 

            I got back to my office in a little under half an hour, and it was only my skills of observation combined with great luck that allowed me to see the police cruisers before they saw me in my rush. When I came in I barely gave Debbie a look before getting into my office and starting to try to decide if I was going to strip off my coat or not. I heard the door open and rushed to my desk, my coat still on. I saw the cashier’s check that the Fat Man had sent me for fifty thousand still sitting on my desk where any idiot might see it. I snatched it up and stuck it in a drawer before the door came fully open.

 

            The temperature of the office seemed to drop about twenty degrees in about three seconds when Mr. Frost entered. He looked thin, pale, and remarkably well preserved for a man as old as he was supposed to be. As he approached, I could swear that I could begin to see my breath and I noticed Debbie grabbing her coat as the door closed behind him. Small tendrils of ice certainly must have formed as Frost touched the client chair and it seemed to solidify completely as he sat in it.

 

            “Hello Mister Frost.” I said, trying not to shiver.

 

            There aren’t many people that I worry about having in the office. Even the Fat Man and Church don’t worry me that much, they can only do so much after all. Frost though, Frost worries me. It isn’t so much that Frost makes Church and The Fat Man look small by comparison, it’s that he makes the Federal Government look small. He also makes the Federal Government look rather even-handed and honest in its dealings.

 

            My breath wanted to come out in plumes, and I felt as embarrassed about it as ever. I know the temperature didn’t really go down, but it felt like it did. He didn’t try to smile or have any kind of expression. He simply raised his hands up and tented them in front of his face while fixing his icy eyes on me. When he spoke, his voice was the sharp crack of a January wind when you’re naked and covered with cherry soda in a field. If you have no idea what that feels like, count yourself lucky. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s no picnic.

 

            “I rarely have any interests in your kind of business.” He said in a voice that sounded like it was trying not to be a rebuke, which was as close as he ever got to warmth. “However there has been a development in the job that you have undertaken which affects me in some ways.”

 

            I didn’t ask him how he knew what job I was on, he just knew. If he announced that he knew the location of the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail, I wouldn’t even bother asking where he got his information, I would simply go and get them because that would be why he had told me. He knew most things, and he only told you things when he expected you to do something about them.

 

            “There has been a shooting this morning, at the Starbucks in Bloomfield Hills. Chanukah and Kwanzaa were having breakfast together, discussing the current situation with Christmas. Chanukah had a cappuccino while Kwanzaa had one of those lattes with more prefixes and suffixes than I care to remember or try to define. When they emerged from the establishment they were both killed by someone firing a small twenty-five caliber hand gun into the back of each of their heads. It was an automatic, unless the shooter likes leaving brass on the ground for fun.”

 

            “What did the shooter have to drink?” I asked, trying to see if it would stump him.

 

            “That information is hardly cogent, but it was a cup of hazel nut roast, with two sugars.” He smiled slightly, and I was surprised to see that his face didn’t crack from the effort. “And yet the identity of this person eludes me.”

 

            “When did this happen?”

 

            “One minute before I called you.” He said not moving his half dead eyes one tiny flicker. “It wouldn’t pay to make the call before it happened.”

 

            “No.” I decided that if he could have a joke then so could I. “You might prevent something that way.”

 

            “We have discussed that sort of comment before Mr. Collier.” He said coldly, which is the only way he ever said anything.

 

            “Yes, we have.” I replied.

 

            “So under these current circumstances, I cannot dismiss what happened to Patrick or Easter as accidents. Likewise I suspect the sudden disappearance of Thanksgiving was not based on a sudden wish to go to Israel.”

 

            “Why would he go to Israel?” I asked. “As opposed to anywhere else, I mean.”

            “The Israeli’s eat more turkey per capita than any other nation.” He said, opening his tented hands as if he wanted to look at his palms.

 

            “Oh?” I asked.

 

            “Yes.” He said. Having examined his palms he then re-tented his fingers, although he might not have been looking at his palms as his eyes never left me.

 

            “Someone is trying to take out your group of entertainers?” I asked.

 

            “It might seem that way.” He suggested and then his tone actually changed to something with feeling in it. “I do not require this show or that show, but I do require shows. Do you understand this?”

 

            “Yes.” I said nodding and wondering if my nervous sweat was going to form icicles on my forehead.

 

            “I’ve dispatched mercenaries to protect Miss Yule, as well as other notable figures in the business. I suspect that even the government agents cannot be trusted, as they were supposed to be guarding the two who were shot down today as well. You are at the center of this situation, and you have proved to be resourceful in past instances where my direct intervention would have been considered unfortunate. I trust you to understand the gravity of the situation and to find the person causing all this row.” He set his hands down on the chair arms and pushed himself up to his full height. He then reached his hand into his coat and produced a slim envelope. “I cannot have my shows interrupted. I want this situation ended as quickly as possible. I hope you understand this.”

 

            “I do.” I said nodding.

 

             “Good.” He set the envelope down on my desk and then he turned and left without another word.

 

            I sat back in my chair, rubbing my hands together to get the feeling to come back. Even if the cold was only in my mind, my mind had extended it to my hands. I reached for the envelope, opened it up and found another cashier’s check for another fifty thousand dollars. I tapped the check against the desk for a few moments before letting it fall and turning my chair around to look out the window. I never really understood why Mr. Frost decided that he needed to involve himself in the situation, just to tell me to do what I was already doing. The Fat Man had paid me, Solstice had paid me, the investigation was only a day and a half old, why jump the gun on this? Of course, it might be that he was in as close to a panic as someone who had ice water in their veins can manage. Maybe he had an account ready to have a check drawn because he knew this was coming. Being the kind of person he was, he probably knew this was going to happen some day and he wanted someone he could say was in his pay neck deep in it.

 

            I sat forward and decided that I needed to get out of the office, if for no other reason then to let the furnace run for a while and melt the frost from the windows. I got out of the chair and started across my office before stopping. I stood in my apparently freezing cold office and then walked back to my desk and gathered up the checks. I then looked at the corner, where the safe sat, and thought for a moment before moving again.

 

            I opened the big old-fashioned safe and pulled the modern fire safe out of it. I got my keys from my ring and opened the fire safe. Inside were my Marley thirty-eight and the Webley automatic revolver. I took the Marley and its shoulder holster from the fire safe and put it on. I took the gun from the holster and checked to make sure it was loaded. I know I shouldn’t store it like that, but I’d forgotten to take the bullets out and I was tired the last time I took the shoulder rig off.

 

            I slipped the gun back into its holster and looked at the Webley, trying to decide what to do with it. I took that from the safe and slid it into the second drawer on the right hand side of my desk. I wasn’t positive that I wasn’t leaving the wrong gun behind, but I didn’t have anything besides the two revolvers and I had no holster for the Webley. I put the fire safe back and closed the big safe door before twirling the knob. I got up and went into the waiting room where Debbie was still huddled in her parka, trying to type as best she could. I’m always glad to see that the feeling of cold isn’t just a product of my imagination, and other people feel it as well.

 

            “Come on.” I said. “I’ll buy you lunch.”

 

            “Where?” She asked.

 

            “Someplace warmer than this.” I said turning up the thermostat a bit.

 

            “Good enough.” She said, and we went.

 

This is part eleven of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part twelve 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 10, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Ten)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

Day 10: Cliffhanging

 

 

            My head was spinning, my ears buzzing, and all I could be sure of was that I didn’t actually pass out or anything like that. My vision started to clear after a moment and the pain in my head started to thud heavy and deeply. He had hit me above my hairline, which meant that I wouldn’t have a visible bruise. I would therefore not get any of the sympathy from beautiful women that so often comes from having a big bruise on the side of your head. I would just have the pain and irritation that comes from having a big bruise on the side of your head. All of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. That’s my life.

 

            If nothing else this was indeed shaping up like every other time I’ve had to deal with Christmas. She’s lovely, and she can make you feel grand during the good times, but she can be such a headache when times aren’t good. The headache was already here, and I hadn’t even been on the job a full twelve hours yet. Of course that wasn’t actually a record, but it did mean that things were going to be interesting.

 

            “I should probably apologize for that.” Church said as he leaned back again. “Bad phrasing, I can see that now. Never mind, no real harm, right Opus.”

 

            “No harm.” He said as he began to stand up, gasping for air. Clearly I was either a bad shot or he had been wearing protection.

 

            He looked as if someone had smacked him in the chest with a hammer, which was probably how he felt. He walked to the blue brocade chair and sat down, trying to breath. There wasn’t any blood though, which probably meant that he was indeed wearing some sort of preventative.  Debbie opened the door, her disconnected keyboard raised over her head to be used as a blunt object at any moment. The spring shaped wire bounced around behind her as she raised it up. She looked at me and then at the other two and back at me with a look of concern.

 

            “Jack?” She asked.

 

            “It’s okay Debbie.” I said holding up my hand. “Nothing to worry about.”

 

            I worried that she might come rushing into my office and strike Church about the head with her keyboard. She would then most likely finish Opus off as he stood dazzled by her savage beauty. The problem there was two-fold. One is that I’m the heroic one around here and two, if she broke the keyboard then what would she tap at like a coked up rooster looking for the last piece of grain on earth?

 

            “We’re fine.” I said. “Just a slight misunderstanding.”

 

            “Okay.” She said and closed the door behind her as she went.

 

            “You are trying to figure out who did this?” Church asked, even though he didn’t really mean it as a question.

 

            “That’s right.” I said nodding.

 

            “Then you can do it for me.” He said reaching into his inside jacket pocket with his let hand. I noticed as he did that he was gripping the handgun by the barrel.

 

            He tossed a white envelope onto the desk between us. It didn’t look to be overstuffed, or full of used bills. I picked it up and opened it to check the contents. There were some new hundreds in there. I touched the edges of the envelope and without touching the money spilled it out onto my desk. I then began to crumple up the envelope and watched carefully as Church shifted in his chair, as he always did, but never once let his grip on the barrel of the gun shift even a little. I took a pen from my pen cup and pushed the bills around the table, counting out all ten of them.

 

            “Retainer?” I asked.

 

            “Right.”

 

            “You know the Fat Man sat in that chair earlier today and made a similar offer.” I said placing the envelope onto a small metal tray I keep on my desk for my keys and wallet.

 

            “I’d heard that.” He watched me take a book of matches from my desk. “But I’m willing to bet he didn’t offer anything in the way of money. He promised you a check, and I have cash in hand.”

 

            “That’s true.” I said striking one of the matches and touching it to the crumpled envelope. “So what exactly do you want?”

 

            “I want you to find out why and how that fat bastard did this to her.”

 

            “What if it wasn’t him?”

 

            “It was.” Church said as the envelope caught fully and burned on the desk between us. “He tried to frame me.”

 

            “But what if it wasn’t?” I asked. “Can you be sure that’s even her blood on the baseball bat?”

 

            “I’m finding out now.” He assured me. “I’ll know by morning.”

 

            “But you don’t know.” I told him. “And it might have been someone else, that guy could have been moonlighting. Or the Fat Man might have had a supply of her blood on hand and smeared it all over to see that you got caught because he can’t have the culprit running the streets this close to the show. Even if they can’t have the show, they can have the candlelight vigil. But they can’t even really have that if the attacker is still out there.”

 

            Church nodded slowly, his fist pressed against his cheek to help support his head. Clearly some of my words were hitting the mark, if not all of them. He seemed to understand that the investigation would take longer than he had thought. He looked like he was considering something for a moment and then finally nodded again.

 

            “Very well.” He said starting to get up. “Investigate until you find whoever did it.”

 

            “Hang on.” I pointed at the chair. “Sit back down.”

 

            “What?” Church asked, sitting back in the chair.

 

            “First things first.” I held out my hand. “The gun.”

 

            “What?” He asked.

 

            “How far do you think you’ll get with that ruse?” I asked still holding my hand out. “Opus shoots someone, you make sure I get the gun from him, then I shoot him and then you have not only the powder burns on my hands, but my prints on the gun that shot the person Opus shot. You then put a whole bunch of money in front of me, but I’ve caught on to that situation already.”

 

            “To what end?’ Church asked.

 

            “I don’t care.” I said, leaning forward with my hand out. “Give me that gun.”

 

            For a long moment, I think we were both wondering if I could make him give it to me. Could I take the gun away from him? Church is not a punk, and while Opus is, he had Church with him. I could have possibly taken the gun, but it would have cost both of us.

 

            Church looked at me and then slid the magazine from the gun and ejected the round from the chamber before handing it over. I took a handkerchief from my drawer and wiped the gun clean of prints. I made sure to rub it all over, breathing on it to get a nice shine and then set it down in front of Church on the cloth. He looked at the pistol and then at me.

 

            “It was an insurance anyway.” He shrugged and picked the gun back up, handing it over to Opus and then giving him the expelled round and clip. “Just to make sure.”

 

            “Yeah, great.” I sassed. “Now we talk about this.”

 

            “I promise the gun was just to make sure.” He began.

 

            “Not that.” I shook my head. “When did you first meet Christmas?”

 

            “You start with me?”

 

            “No.” I said shaking my head. “I started this morning, and I haven’t taken your money yet.”

 

            “So who are you working for?”

 

            “Christmas.” I once again told someone. “The Fat Man might be paying the bills, and he might be splitting with you, but I’m working towards her interests as I understand them.”

 

            “As always.” He said darkly.

 

            “When did you meet her?”

 

            “When I was just getting started.” He said rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “I ran some of the joints where she first got started. In fact, much as that silly old fart would like to think otherwise, I got her started. I’m the one who got her the money to buy the costumes, told her which groups to steal her act from, I helped her every step of the way.”

 

            “When you were small time?” I asked.

 

            “Yeah.” He said nodding, almost proud of the fact. “I had nothing, she had nothing, but we had each other and we built each other up strong.”

 

            “So why did she leave?” I needled him. “If you were building each other up?”

 

            “Because I was in those days and sometimes am still a violent individual who cannot control his impulses.” He admitted as if he were reading it off a card a therapist had given him. “I never hit her, I was never mean to her, but she didn’t like the way I ran things in those days.”

 

            “Lots of broken bodies in the streets do tend to put a lady off.” I agreed.

 

            “I was fine with it though.” He shrugged. “I gave her the money to go north, let her do her wandering thing with her little friend, and then she came back and we got married. We were quite happy for sometime after that. She tempered me to a great degree I think.”

 

            “And then later things went wrong again.” I said, also not a question.

 

            “Well, you know all about that.” He said.

 

            “Yes.” I agreed. “I do.”

 

            “But I would never hurt her.” He said. “You understand that don’t you?”

 

            “You weren’t quite giving me that impression last time.” I said.

 

            “But you also know that I haven’t even tried to see her since then.”

 

            “That’s true,” I admitted, even if I only sort of knew this.

 

            “We have been talking though.” He said. “After the divorce, we started talking.

 

            “I didn’t know that.” I said.

 

            “We’ve been sort of friendly.” He said swallowing. “Just a bit.”

 

             “So who would want to smack her like that?” I asked, trying to see what he’d think.

 

            “Fat Man.” He said. “If she was talking about coming back to me, and telling him she was done with his garbage, he might have.”

 

            “Done?” I asked, shaking my head.

 

            “Oh, he didn’t mention that, did he?”

 

            “Mention what?”

 

            “She was tired of it.” He said shifting in his chair again. “She wanted to quit. She wanted to slow things down, go back to doing a smaller show. You know, the same thing she’d been talking about for years?”

 

            “Yeah.” I nodded, “I knew about that part.”

 

            “She sounded like she was really ready to do it though.” He held his hands out as if supporting a silver platter. “If she told him that she was done with his child molesting ways and that she wasn’t going to let him treat her like a whore any more, who knows what that fat pimp might do?”

 

            “Well that’s a point.” I said.

 

            “She’s wanted out for years.” He said. “She was starting to sound desperate about it lately. I told her that she had nothing to worry about. I thought that having me around would keep the Fat Man in check. I guess I was wrong.”

 

            “So why not just go shoot up the Fat Man?” I asked. “His distribution system is powerful enough that it can do without him, and the next guy might not have a thing for kids.”

 

            “Can’t kill a man unless you know you should.” He said standing up. “You find out who it was, and we’ll make sure it’s taken care of.”

 

            “And my fee?” I asked as he walked to the door.

 

            “You tell me what it cost and I’ll make sure you get it.” He said over his shoulder as Opus opened the door for him.

 

            I watched the door close and looked at the money on my desk, still untouched by my hands. I looked at the ten bills on my desk and then at the door as Debbie came in. She looked over her shoulder as she sat down in the blue chair next to the one Church had occupied. It was as if she was afraid even to sit in the same chair his warmth still resided in.

 

            “Are we in trouble?” She looked beautiful and sultry and scared. However, she also looked like she was prepared to keep going if I would but say the word.

 

            “Are we ever in anything but?” I asked leaning back in my chair and looking at the patterns of light on the ceiling.  “Just keep the place open. Just keep accepting the odd job if it comes.”

 

            “Pardon?’ She asked.

 

            “Nothing.” I said still looking at the ceiling. “There’s a thousand dollars on the desk, it’s your bonus.”

 

            “I thought my bonus was going to come with my next check.” She sounded a bit puzzled.

 

            “It will.” I said, twitching my feet as they dangled. “This is extra special money for you to spend on presents for your parents and your sister’s kids or something. Maybe you could buy yourself a new vintage dress, or a pair of old shoes, or something else like that.”

 

            “This is what Church paid you, isn’t it?”

 

            “Yes.” I looked at her, I wished for a moment I could just kiss her and tell her it would all be all right.

 

            “And you don’t want to touch it and you don’t want it found anywhere near you.” She was not asking now.

 

            “That’s right.” I confirmed, “So now it’s something for you. Extra special bonus money for you to get outfits that I like looking at you in.”

 

            There was a sound of her hand whooshing through the air. When I didn’t get the slap I was expecting I heard her feet in her old shoes walking towards the door. Interesting fact, shoes from the forties sound different than shoes made later do. These are the sorts of things you find out when your secretary has a thing for vintage clothing.

 

            “See you in the morning.” She said as she closed my office door behind her.

 

            I sat up, and was glad to find that the money was indeed gone. I shook the burned envelope out into the garbage can and wiped the ashes away with a tissue. When I set it back down, then nothing might have ever happened. Besides my nerves, the tiny powder burns on my hands, the pain on the side of my head, and the feeling that I was in deeper trouble than ever, I might have just come back to the office and found it empty.

 

            But as I said, I would have to account for the pain at the side of my head, and the jangled nerves, and the high rate of my heart beat. With those items needing to be explained, I had to admit that Church had indeed been here, and I had indeed been hired by him to some extent. Or at least I’d taken his money, and that was the same thing in many important respects and I wasn’t sure he knew that there was a difference.

 

This is part one of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part two 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 10, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled Christmas (Day Nine)

Hard Boiled Christmas

A Jack Collier Mystery

By Brett N. Lashuay

 

 

 

Day 9: Church

 

            I didn’t spot the headlights of any old Buicks in my rearview mirror as I drove back, but my corduroy-wearing friend might have kept his lights off. Just because you can’t see anyone, doesn’t mean they’re not around. This is what the paranoid have to tell themselves all the time. You always know there might be someone around if you’re crazy. I however, am fine. I am not insane, because usually there really are people following me.

 

            When I got into the parking lot I slammed the door good and hard, just to make sure my annoyance with how the day had gone was properly registered with all members of the team. If Debbie wasn’t going to be there, I at least wanted the motor department of my business to know that I wasn’t happy with the way things had gone. I had nothing so far, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to get anything anytime soon. As I came up the stairs I noticed that the light in the waiting room was still on. I checked my watch and noticed that Debbie should have gone home some time ago.

 

            Debbie almost never works late, save for a very rare occasion when we’ve got something really hot and I can’t be both at the office and elsewhere. We didn’t have anything hot though we had something cold. We had something as cold and lifeless as the remains of a turkey dinner left out in the December snow. Of course the fact that there was no snow, and there was no turkey, and the light was on did indicate that perhaps things weren’t quite that cold.

 

            “Hi Jack.” Debbie said as I opened the door and looked at her behind the little curved reception desk we had built for her so she could hide behind it if she needed to.

 

            The dark wood was all that stood between her and Opus in the waiting room. Opus’s attention was singularly fixed on Debbie as she leaned back in the chair and smiled at me, stretching her arms back to allow the fabric of her blouse to strain against her ample breasts. The singularity of Opus’s vision was my fault on two parts. First, I’d hired Debbie and taught her the best way to distract an opponent. Second, I’d taken his right eye a few years ago when his boss was bothering Christmas again. I often though I should have kept it, got it put in a solid glass cube or something, so I could pull it out and wave it at him at times like this. Instead I’d thrown it into the St. Claire River to be eaten by maggots and fish. I stand by my choice.

 

            While Opus was looking at Debbie with his one eye, I kneed him in the groin. The movement distracted him and he turned his leg to block my knee, which is when I hit him in the neck with my left fist. On his way down he met with my right fist and spun before hitting the ground. I put my knee into his back and patted his sides, feeling the gun under his left arm. I took his gun away from him and stood up quickly placing my back against the door.

 

            “Stand up nice and slow.” I instructed him.

           

            “You didn’t need to do it like that Collier.” Opus said rubbing his neck as he stood. “I was just going to tell you the boss wants to talk to you.”

 

            “That’s nice.” I said thumbing back the hammer and hoping that he hadn’t put the safety on because I’d totally forgotten about it. “You could call and set up an appointment like anyone else, we have business hours posted.”

 

            “Yeah.” Opus nodded, “But he’s here now.”

 

            “Where?” I asked looking around quickly. “I don’t see him. Has he learned the hypnotic power to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him?”

 

            “He doesn’t wait in here like I do.” Opus grumbled as he rubbed his neck.

 

            “Well you go into the office like I do.” I said hefting up the gun. “Or I’ll plug you and risk the damage to the carpet.”

 

            I wasn’t about to have him sitting here ogling my secretary as I talked to his boss. Who knows what someone like Opus might get up to while we talked anyway? He might debauch her and make an assault on her questionable virtue. If anyone was going to ogle Debbie, it was going to be me. If anyone was going to assail her and attempt to partake of her charms I certainly wasn’t going to let it be that creep.

 

            “Take the safety off first.” He said turning around and opening the door to my office.

 

            The office was dark, and as I walked in I saw the silhouette of Church standing behind my desk, looking out the window at the street below. I noticed, or at least I surmised by the tilt of his head, that he was looking at the street in the same way that I do. He was looking away from the gaudy displays down to the part of the street that didn’t show itself with a flourish of trumpets.

 

            I could make out his tense shoulders, hunched up higher than he normally kept them. He was wearing a suit, as he always did, but it was easy to tell that he was tense in it today. Church might look like a street thug that’s been stuffed into a suit and had economic theory explained to him, but it would be folly to dismiss him like that. There are a lot of plots in the cemeteries filled with people who decided that Church was just some dumb thug, and he was still here.

 

            The fact that Church still existed in a world where life expectancy for new recruits was twenty minutes said something. The fact that he rarely ever dealt with anything that actually happened on the street anymore said quite another. If one saw him without the suit jacket or shirt, they would notice that his torso and arms were littered with tattoos bespeaking of his former thughood. With the coat though, he was almost a respectable citizen, one who had even been married to Christmas for a while.

 

            It was the divorce of Church and Christmas that had first brought he and I into conflict. He thought she should stay with him forever and ever, and I thought otherwise. In the end he had sent Opus to convince her that she should come back home. After explaining things to Opus, I went to his home and delivered the message that she wouldn’t be coming home. I’ll give Church’s doctors this much, they certainly made his nose look more or less like it did before. You’d hardly know his nose had been broken with what remained of the chair that I’d split his scalp open with.

 

            Opus switched on the lights to announce our entry and began to walk towards the back of the client chair. Church turned and looked at Opus and then at me and seemed to smile for a moment before walking around my desk and sitting down in my red leather chair. Opus switched on more lights as he walked to stand behind Church and I sat down behind my desk.

 

            “I suppose the Fat Man has been to see you?” Church started.

 

            “Yes.” I said setting the gun down on my desk but keeping it close to me if I needed to make a grab for it.

 

            “He’s hired you?”

 

            “No.” I said shaking my head.

 

            “But you’re investigating what happened?”

 

            “Yes.” I nodded.

 

            “There has been a development.” Church said after rubbing his chin for a moment. “A person known to be in the employ of the Fat Man was found trying to break into my car.”

 

            “Odd that someone would try such I thing.” I said to him, just to be saying something.

 

            “Yes.” Church nodded. “Doubly odd because he had a blood covered baseball bat wrapped up in a garbage bag with him. I suspect that he was planning on placing it in my car and having me arrested for the crime.”

 

            “Suspect?”

 

            “Yes.” Church said. “Opus shot him before he could explain why he was trying to break into my car while carrying a blood covered baseball bat.”

 

            “I’m surprised he could get anyone with his total lack of depth perception.”

 

            “You don’t need depth perception to shoot.” Opus said.

 

            “Yeah, but you do need a gun.” I said placing my hand on the pilfered pistol.

 

            “Yes.” Opus agreed nodding carefully.

 

            “Have you given the Fat Man notice that you have the remains of his employee?” I asked.

 

            “I am sending him the relevant pieces needed for identification.” Church said as he shifted a little in his chair. “That should be enough of a message for him, don’t you think? Just leave the head and hands in a nicely wrapped parcel on his doorstep. Very festive, don’t you think?”

 

            “Yeah.” I said. “Festive. No note about who it came from?”

 

            “Since he sent his little monkey to frame me, I’m pretty sure he’ll know what happened without the addition of a guess who card.”

 

            “So why come tell me all of this?” I asked.

 

            “Because I need something that only you can deliver.”

 

            “What’s that?”

 

            “A certainty.”

 

            What with him mentioning being certain about things in the way he had a moment ago I decided not to risk any possible mincing of words. Opus jumped to my left, meaning to come around my desk on the shortest route possible. My hand snapped to the gun and lifted it up. It all happened so quickly, since I had been waiting for it, that to an observer it would seem like it all happened at once.

 

            I turned and fired a single round at his chest, and then I remembered all about distraction. Church’s fist struck the side of my head, and then something smashed my hand and something else hit the side of my head again. I think I might have been dazed for a few moments, but I certainly wasn’t knocked out. I didn’t blackout, there was just a buzz in my head for a moment.

 

            As the universe swung around me from the blows, I was at least pleased in the knowledge that I had been right. This was trouble, wide and deep, and I was stuck down at the bottom of it.

 

            And it was dark down there, I must say.

 

This is part nine of twenty-five, come back tomorrow for part ten 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 9, 2008 Posted by | Fiction | | Leave a comment

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