Another Friday Flashfic Challenge from Chuck Wendig: the who, the where the uh-oh.
I chose “detective,” “the Underworld,” and “Left for dead, out for revenge!” (With a side order of “trapped!” and “a conspiracy revealed!”)
The river sucks at the rotten pier supports; the greasy slap slurp noise makes my stomach roll. Another Friday night, another case that ends with a sock in the mouth. When they handed me the P.I. license they shoulda knocked my teeth out with a wrench at the same time and have done with it. My laugh sounds hollow as the darkness takes me.
I wake and it’s worse. The sound of the river isn’t so bad now but the stench. Did I wind up in the Meatpacking District? Something about this place gives it that rendered carcass ambiance. I heave myself to my knees and throw up. Great. Just the top note that this fine bouquet needs.
I shake my head to clear it. For a moment I can see the huge wooden pilings on the edge of the East River but the image is snowy, like the picture on a badly tuned television set. At the same time there’s another river, but it’s like I’m looking through a bottle of hooch. Everything’s amber, wavy, a little too shiny round the edges. I curl in on myself trying to slow the express elevator in my guts.
“She’s awake.” A deep voice splits my head like a meathook and a pack of dogs starts yapping.
“Hey, d’ya mind?” I croak. “Some of us are trying to sleep off a beatin’ over here.”
“Ma’am, let me use an idiom you might appreciate,” says the guy behind me. “This sleep? I think you’d call it the Big One.”
I crane my head to look at the man and pack of mutts. One dog, I see. Three heads.
“You have got to be kidding me.” And I go down into the darkness a second time.
I wake up on a boat which doesn’t do a thing for the roiling in my guts. It least my vision’s clearer now; the river is lazy with mud. The boatman’s dog has three heads. I remember the stories that my Yiayia used to tell me. Stories about the old country, the old beliefs. The dog’s name comes back to me.
The mutt whines and sniffs at my hand. I pull out a slice of beef jerky and offer it to the head on the left. It’s gone in an instant.
Well this is a turn up for the books. Scrolls. Myths. Whatever.
“Look,” I say, “if you’re who I think you are then my partner’s in deep trouble. Any chance we can turn this raft around?”
Ah, Mickey the Brain. He’s gonna figure out soon enough that he was right and Little Tony figured out what I’d been up to. If he rolls in there looking to pull me out of a tight spot he’s not going to stand a chance. His smarts and my capacity for taking a beating are what make us a great team.
Were what made us a great team, I guess.
I was gonna give Mickey his cards tomorrow anyway, what with him being six months married and waiting on a visit from the stork. This is no job for a family man. I’d have given him a golden goodbye to tide him over but Mickey needs to look for safer work. Like full-contact lion taming.
And here I am, on the slow boat to eternity. Please stay seated until your life has come to a complete stop.
Yeah, keep cracking wise, Lou. Fat lot of good that’s gonna do any of you now.
First time I met Mickey the Brain he was sozzled. Just lost his job at an electronics store in the Village. He knew his stuff alright but he had this habit of staying late and improving the merchandise. It’s all fun and games until until Mr Schmeckel starts picking up radio Nuremberg. He fingers Mickey for a Nazi spy so Mickey’s out on his ear and his missus-to-be is now a missus-not-to-be. You never saw a sorrier drunk.
I was still working divorces in those days. The phrase “I swear this isn’t how it looks” was the sound of cash registers to my ears. But my latest was a headscratcher. The devoted husband and his future co-respondent were careful. They’d never arrive together, never use the kind of joint that ran a register. I needed a way to follow them but pretending to be an elevator girl wasn’t going to cut it.
Long story short, as Mickey gave me the Yale freshman year on radio waves and I sank another whisky sour I realised that this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Over the months, Mickey changed my operation. I’d started out on the usual P.I. round: deadbeat dads, adulterers, runaway debutantes. You know, things that need a woman’s touch. But now we attracted a new kind of clientele. A more – how can I put this? – organised type of client.
Hey, the way I see it, everyone has a right to know if they’re being double-crossed. With Mickey’s gadgets and my willingness to waltz in where 250lb wrestlers fear to tread, we kept a list of clients who had deep pockets and an aversion to taking their problems to the law. I had only one code: if someone was ratting to the Feds I gave ‘em a clean bill of health.
Worst thing is, Mickey warned me this would happen. They’ll make it look like one of their boys is singing to the law’s tune, then see if I turn in an empty file. And I fell for it, hook, line and blunt instrument to the back of the head.
“The only logical conclusion to draw from a false negative is that there’s an untrustworthy sensor somewhere along the line,” is what Mickey’d actually said. “And the only solution is to eliminate that sensor.” That’s exactly how he speaks, I swear it. Did I mention he was smart?
But loyal, too. I lost count of the number of punches he took in the line of duty. “You’re chivalrous,” I told him, “but you lead with your chin.” He never could get the hang of keeping his guard up the way I did. Now he was going to figure out that I’d been too dumb to live.
Dumb as I was, I was sure of one thing: Mickey was too good to die.
I needed to get my host’s attention and fast. You don’t follow around those blondes with helium heels without learning some moves.
“Honey,” I make my voice warm and smoky like a hot toddy. “wouldya turn this crate around? Momma needs to fix up a few things. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.” I stick in an extra thrum like I’m on the verge of pretty tears, “Please?”
The boatman turns to look at me and I feel as welcome as a pig at a bar mitzvah. I spit over the side of the boat to show how much it doesn’t bother me.
“Worth a try, I guess.” I decide to try honest, mano a mano. Mytho a stiffo? I’m about to unwind the whole tale when he cuts me off.
“It is of no use, Ms Mier.” His voice still penetrates my skull like bradawl. “I know your entire life, every moment of it. What you wish is forbidden. The world of the living is no longer your concern.”
“Aww, nuts to you, Mister.” I leap overboard and start swimming for all I’m worth.
I’ve been swimming for maybe an hour when I realise that I’ve got no idea where I’m going, or even if it’s possible to get there. I tread water to catch my breath which gives the boatman time to pull alongside. I put my hands up in surrender and immediately get a faceful of silt. I spit again.
Wait. Something comes back to me. Yiayia spitting three times: ptoo, ptoo, ptoo. Spitting at death. I conjure up all the saliva I can muster in my gritty mouth and spit.
The world goes dark. This is becoming a habit.
When I wake I can hear a dog snuffling at my ear. Dogs, plural. I crack one eye open. Nope. Dog singular.
The head on the left whines, the middle one looks hopeful and the one on the right is slobbering.
“You want more jerky, boy?” I break off a piece of meat. It’s still dry. Something tells me the Styx wasn’t a real river. Then I look at the mutt eating my stakeout snack and wonder if I’m any judge of real or not.
“We need to find Mickey,” I say, and stagger to my feet.
I have no idea where I’m headed – I’m just following the hellhound. From what my Yiayia used to tell me, Kerberos is pretty adept at sniffing out the dead and dying. Which reassures me for bupkiss. I pick up my pace and Kerberos breaks into a trot.
I should be out of breath by the time we reach Little Tony’s warehouse but breathing seems to be somebody else’s problem now. I hear the crack of fist on jaw and sprint the last few yards.
Mickey’s voice. “Louie’s straight down the line, I tell you. Dat dumb broad don’t have der brainspace to double cross you.”
Oh Mikey, I think. Don’t try and do the patois. You’re not fooling anyone.
Another crack. This time Mikey’s voice comes thick and slurred and I know the concussion’s starting to take over.
“I done it all, I tells ya. I’m the stoolie what ratted you out to the G-Men.”
I roll my eyes. There’s no point trying to cover for me, Mickey darling. I’m already dead.
Beside me Kerberos whines again and I realise that I’d better get a move on. I step into the warehouse and position myself just outside a shaft of light.
“Tony,” I announce my presence then step into the light. “We need a little word.”
I hear a sigh from the chair and that’s it. Mickey’s out cold.
Discussions with my friend in the Italian business community are short and sweet. Little Tony backs away from me, wide eyed, making the sign of the horns.
“You’re dead! I smashed your double-crossing head in with a tire iron! You can’t be here!”
I touch the back of my head and realise that most of it is gone. I grin horribly.
“And I just spent five dollars on that Marcell wave. You mussed up my hair and now you’re mussing up my partner. This doesn’t stand. You leave Mickey and his family alone or I’ll be back from the gates of hell to drag you there myself.”
I rustle the jerky wrapper in my coat pocket and Kerberos obliges with a hungry growl.
“Go!” I boom, trying to put some of that head-splitting timbre in my voice. Tony pisses himself and scrambles away into the night. A moment like that is almost worth getting dead for.
Mickey doesn’t look good. Kerberos whines in rhythm with my ex-partner’s ragged breaths. This is my fault, and I’m damned if I’m going to let him book a place on the same cruise as me. I heave him over my shoulder in a fireman’s lift and start walking.
Little Italy’s medical fraternity is still awake to treat those late-night perforations. I find a quack who looks like he knows how to do more than drug horses and peel off enough notes to have Mickey treated for twenty concussions, surprised to find my billfold in my pocket. It turns out that you can take it with you.
I ask the doc for some paper. Sure, I’m dead when I write it, but the will’s got my signature so I reckon it’s legal enough. I slip it into Mickey’s breast pocket while he’s sleeping off the slugging. I squeeze his shoulder and leave without looking back.
Kerberos leads me back to the warehouse. I sit in the chair where Mickey was taking his beating. The darkness closes in one last time.
When I open my eyes, Kerberos is nosing at my coat pocket for the last of my jerky.
“The Hellhound likes you.” intones old bradawl-voice. “Fortunately for you. I react badly to mortals who make a fool of me. But I’m a softy when it comes to Kerberos. Perhaps this will prevent you from making any further dramatic gestures.” As he parts his hands I see a glowing image that I recognise. “This is a view from 1961”
Twenty years? It sounds like an impossible time in the future, but there’s the building I’d willed to Mickey and his family. The sign I’d had painted – “Mier and Gleason, Investigators, Est 1938” – is gone from. The one that stands in its place looks a little weather-worn but it’s the all sign I need.
“Mick Gleason and Daughters, Electrical Goods and Services, est 1942.”
I close my eyes . The afterimage is so bright and sharp that I can still read it. No wonder my eyes are watering.
I curl up in the stern of the boat and listen to the river.