Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Shambling Detective 3: Tu Fui, Ego Eris

Mahoney woke with a headache and a stinging numbness in the shoulder and knee. He winced as he folded the Murphy bed back into the wall. He fetched a chunk of ice for the pain in his body, and a slug of gin for the pain in his head. It was a long minute before he felt strong enough for his morning ablutions.

In pulling the tooth powder from the medicine cabinet, something fluttered to the floor.. He stepped on it and slid it over. The yellow sign stared innocuously up from the edge of his slipper toe.

Mahoney regarded it for a moment, then picked it up and placed it in the toilet. He pulled the chain and closed the lid. Then he went back to brushing his teeth.

Breakfast was english muffins and jam, two cups of irish coffee, and three cigarettes. His third cigarette was oddly bulky and the smoke tasted wrong. Coughing, Mahoney pulled it from his mouth and tore the paper. Partially burned, the yellow sign leered back at him. Mahoney ripped it into bits and then washed it down the sink.

Dressing for the day, he stepped into his shoe. Something stopped him short of the toe. Mahoney knew, before he retrieved it, that the yellow sign would be that crumpled obstruction.

He looked at it front and back. It looked identical to the bit he’d ripped from the contract: same jagged edges, same thick ink lines.

“No,” he said firmly. The balled-up paper bounced soundlessly down the incinerator chute.

It was on the stairs when he left the apartment. His heel slid out from under him and he went down four steps before he caught himself. He looked at the paper, like a ink tick crawling along the floor. This time he didn’t bother ripping it up, just left it where it was and vacated the building.

 

“—Jeremy’s my brother, you see.” the elderly prospective client pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “He does get off on these benders two, perhaps three times a week. But he’s never gone more than a week without calling me up and asking for money. I’m worried something might be really wrong this time.”

Mahoney nodded, shifting elbows on the desk as he wrote down a series of figures. Perhaps he could sell a full tail for $50, but judging by the state of the old man’s clothes he was unlikely to part with that much without a hefty reassurance.

“I do feel I’m being a worrywart, but—” the old man squinted. “You’ve got—there’s something—”

Mahoney lifted his arm. Like a bad magic trick, there was the yellow sign stuck to his elbow.

Mahoney put his pencil down and sighed.

“Would you excuse me?” he said, “I’m unable to retain you as a client at this time.”

The old man left without much protest, or perhaps he did and Mahoney didn’t hear. He was fixated on the symbol in his hand.

A lady vanishes from an office. Jamie Gillman vanishes in broad daylight. Robin Rousseau entombs himself with his own canvas. The yellow sign acted as his own personal chain letter.

Mahoney retrieved his office bottle and administered a medicinal slug. Either the world was crackers, or he was.

Damn it all.

 

There was a greasy spoon on 5th and Grace where the reporters drank their breakfast while waiting for the evening edition. He’d been there once before, on business with Dooley. Now, walking in, it could very well have been the same day. The same reporters crouched in their same corners, spitting rapidfire dialog even Louie Mayer would pooh-pooh for being too cliche. There was Dooley, stirring a cup of coffee, palming a cigarette, and eyeing the morning’s paper.

Mahoney sat down. “What do they have in poultry today? I feel like stool pigeon.”

Dooley took a sip from one corner of his mouth and blew smoke out the other. “Not my fault if you don’t know when to cut and run, Mahoney.”

“You could’ve waited more than a hot minute.”

Dooley gave him an odd look. “You were in there for over an hour.”

Mahoney swallowed. “Pull the other one.”

Dooley’s look gained a tinge of concern. “I’m serious. You want a picture of my watch?”

Mahoney poached Dooley’s toast and chewed his panic down. How long had he been in Rousseau’s house? Surely no more than ten minutes. So why had it seemed so—

Mahoney looked down and realized his watch had stopped.

Dooley took the other half of the toast and spread it with marmalade. “What’d you see in there anyway? Drugs? Dirty pictures? You know these artist types, they usually have the really kinky vices.”

Mahoney stole a sip of coffee. Cold, with a layer of dishwater grease on the top. Lovely. He grimaced.

“That depends. I might be willing to share information if you are.”

Dooley sighed. “You’re not going to make this easy, are you?” Straightening up, he bellowed “Chick!” over his shoulder. The man who’d been waiting outside Rousseau’s place with him sidled over, manila envelope in hand.

“Chick, this is Mahoney, I don’t believe you were properly introduced. Mahoney, this is Chick Henshaw.”

Chick did a stage curtsey. “Pleasure.”

“And a half.” Mahoney lit a stick of his own and blew a ring at the envelope. “So what’s that, your divorce papers?”

“If you’re done being funny, I’m trying to help you out,” Dooley said drily. “Show’m what you’ve got, Chick.”

Chick fanned the papers out on the table. It was five photographs of an apartment, or what was left of one. The kitchen was a mess of splintered wood. The bathroom looked like a sledgehammer had been taken to the tile. In the bedroom a coverlet had been clumsily knotted into a noose. The den had unidentifiable smears on the flocked wallpaper, and in the same substance someone had written a screed of gibberish words. Mahoney could pick out one phrase, fhtagn.

A young man lay against a wall mirror spiderwebbed with cracks in the last photo. His neck was a gaping smile of gore, and he sat in an almost ritualistic pose. Crossed legs, arms bent at the crook in an odd manner. No sign of struggle. His face held no fear but a terrible sadness. In the mirror above him, presumably written in blood, were the words “tu fui ego eris.”

Mahoney squinted. “‘Two fooey ego ear-is.’ The heck is that?”

“A phrase. It’s latin.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Something in latin.” Dooley gestured carelessly. “The unfortunate chap there is Milosz Sikorski, architect. You know that art deco palace up on the hill, where the opera singer lives? He designed that. We got the call to look into his death six months ago. Our boy Milosz here was suffering from fatigue of the nerves, checked into a seaside sanitarium some months before he died. Churned out some crazy pieces while he was in there, stuff he was adamant he needed to build. Said it was crucial to prevent the world from collapsing.”

Mahoney shuffled the papers around. Several architecture drafts, drawn on a variety of scrap paper and one napkin, depicted buildings that followed the geometric laws of the Devil’s Pitchfork optical illusion. Pillars turned to pathways, windows became walls. Mahoney put the papers down.

“So he cracked?”

Dooley nodded sagely. “Came out worse than he went in. He was working on this civic project, that went kaputski. All he cared about was these damn crazy buildings. Here’s the really crazy part: who do you think he ran into at the rich, sick people’s club?”

It was almost too cliche to say. “Gillman.”

Dooley shot him a finger-gun. “The man knows! Gillman, no pun intended, drank like a fish. He was there to dry out. I figure while he was there, he introduced Sikorski to his boy’s club.”

“And why were you at Rousseau’s place?”

“Chasing a connection.” Dooley stubbed out a cigarette. “Now it’s your turn to spill a little. Word’s come down the pipe our boy Rousseau had a little ol’ coronary thrombosis.”

“Last I heard it was insulin shock. These valley policemen sure do like their premature diagnoses.” Mahoney put his hand to an ache.

Dooley squinted at him. “You got picked up? By who? Mack? Tereo? Frank? Frank’s the big one, with the carroty hair.”

“No one I recognized. As far as I can figure, the rich folks are employing their own security to throw the scare into hooligans. I guess the regular cops don’t agree with the climate,” Mahoney said.

Dooley was still looking at him oddly. “All right, if you say so.” He lit a fresh cigarette. “Anyway, if you’re still aching to sink your teeth into this case, I’d try Nathan Briggs at the university. Literature department. Old-money chums with Gillman, you see.”

“That was suspiciously helpful.”

Dooley shrugged loosely. “Hey, you’re a magnet for trouble. As long as I let you go in first, I’m in good.”

Mahoney got up. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“You didn’t order any.”

“That’s what I meant.”

 

The university’s brick edifice recalled the bricklike tendencies of the Jackson memorial hall. Mahoney had to wonder if they were the same architect.

At the door marked “English Department” an owlish young man with platinum blond hair and rounded octagon spectacles struggled with a stack of papers and a doorknob. Mahoney watched for an entertaining minute, then reached over and freed him of his torment.

“Thanks!” the young man blurted out.

“Welcome. You a student?”

The young man looked ruffled. “I’m a professor.”

“Ah.” Mahoney had nothing polite to say to that. “Well, could you point me to one of your colleagues? Professor Briggs?”

“You’re currently looking at him.”

“Of course I am.” Mahoney cleared his throat. “Mind answering some questions about James Gillman?”

Briggs stuttered, paling. “Oh my, am I being detained?”

“What? No, I’m inquiring for an interested party. I’m not on the force.”

Color leached back into Briggs’ baby face. “I guess that’s fine then, follow me to my office.”

Briggs had a marbled glass door that bore the legend “Briggs—Bloom.”

“Bloom is on sabbatical,” Briggs said, closing the door as if it were made of paper. “So it’s just the two of us. I’m sorry, I haven’t asked your name.”

“Name’s not real important, but I’m Mahoney. I’m a private investigator.”

Mahoney waited patiently while Briggs jotted that information down, tongue tucked in the corner of his mouth.

“What can you tell me about James Gillman?”

“Oh, the university attracts all the bohemian types,” Briggs gushed, holstering his fountain pen. “But Jamie was something entirely different. He was from old east coast stock, had more money than Solomon. He really wanted to write. He had come to the university to view some of our more, erm, restricted texts. In the months it took to approve his status, he became an installation in the offices.” Briggs propped his chin on a hand, dreamy smile spreading over his face. “I remember one discussion on the fluid nature of taboo and validity of—”

“Fascinating, I’m sure,” Mahoney cut in, “but is there anything that might have led him down a dangerous path?”

Briggs chuckled. “You should have seen the texts he was interested in. We have a nearly-intact Austrian reprinting of De Vermis Mysteriis, with the full plate illustrations.”

“So…occult, then.”

“Oh yes. Jamie loved to dig deep into the strata surrounding mystery. It fueled his works, you see. He’d submitted quite a few short stories to the school magazine, under pseudonym of course. I’ve got a list somewhere—” Briggs rummaged in his desk and came up with a much-creased leaflet. Printed on it were several titles attributed to a Ben Zoma. The Doomed Detective. Architect of Madness. The Labyrinth of Leaves. Mahoney reached the end of the list and stopped cold.

“He really was such a character,” Briggs burbled on, “really breathed life into this old office. We’re lesser for lack of him, I know that much.”

Mahoney’s thumb sat on the title The Lady in the Yellow Veil.

Slowly and carefully, he asked, “do you have any copies of the magazine these were printed in?”

Briggs’ face fell. “No, I’m sorry. I can give you a reference number for the library shelf they’re on. Hang on—” he grabbed another piece of paper.

Mahoney stood on numb legs. The Lady in the Yellow Veil. Had to be coincidence. Based on real life. Something like that. He turned to the door and received another jolt.

Briggs looked up from his desk. “Oh, that. You like it? Jamie got it for me. It’s that new artist, whatshisname, lives up in the canyon.”

The canvas bled with color. The painting consisted of sharp jagged brush strokes as if the artist had been trying to hurt the canvas and the viewer’s eye in turn. It was a portrait of a short, dark-haired little man. His hair was pomaded into little wings on either side of his head, a sharp little batwing mustache stabbed downwards. The subject of the portrait had a look of manic evil that extended beyond the painted surface, as if he ached to break from the picture. The brass plate beneath it read Portrait of A. Vladimirovitch.

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The Shambling Detective 2: The Art of Dying

Jamie Gillman’s last known address was a motel out by the highway, bare of all personal effects besides an empty bottle. The reference address for that room was a bungalow up in the heights, a forest-green box with a violet roof and an overgrown yard full of odd sculpture. Mahoney was not alone when he got out of the car. Across the street was a newsman’s outfit, with one man standing hip cocked against the rear passenger door.

Mahoney lifted his hat. “Howdy.”

The wordnik looked up from his pad and pencil and sniffed. “Blow.”

A second figure came creeping through the ivy and meadowsweet on the side of the house, holding his camera above it all. It was Dooley, someone Mahoney had put in footwork for once or twice. Dooley spotted Mahoney and frowned.

“Blow.”

“Now aren’t you fellows nice? I come all the way out here because I’ve got a lead in something I know my friend Dooley will love, and this is the thanks I get?”

“You’ve got nothing peeper, we both know that.” Dooley made it to the safety of the sidewalk and picked burrs from his socks.

“Well, let’s trade then. I’ve got a couple hundred in retainer and a mid-day disappearance. What’ve you got?”

The newsmen exchanged looks. “You’re not here for Robin Rousseau?”

Mahoney crossed his arms and tried to look sphinxlike. “Maybe. I’m pursuing someone who gave this as their address. Jamie Gillman.”

Dooley’s face fell. “I told you we’d get bottom-feeders,” he muttered to his companion.

To Mahoney he said only, “we don’t care about your dime-a-day winos, we’re on a serious story here.”

“Why don’t you share, then? Might link up.”

Dooley sighed. “Well…you did come through on the McCormack case. Rousseau’s a lauded painter around these parts.”

“Any good?”

“Like Kandinsky at a slaughterhouse. I look at one of his pictures and get woozy. Anyway, Rousseau’s latest client commissioned a painting from him months ago, but Rousseau hasn’t sent word one back. The dopers and drunks that call themselves an entourage say Rousseau went hermit a few weeks ago, hasn’t seen daylight since getting a distressing telegram he wouldn’t show anyone else. He was working on a big canvas before he vanished, friends say he wanted to call it ‘a mirror to the world’ or something like that. My consensus? Took too much of the good stuff, now he’s lying in a ditch somewhere.”

Mahoney frowned. He took the bit of paper he’d torn from the contract and showed them. “See anything like this?”

Dooley’s pal whistled. “You a leafer too?”

“That’s the society isn’t it? Their little secret club.” Mahoney handed the paper to Dooley, who studied it. “My man has some of the same stretch marks on his case: mysterious disappearance, secret club, concerned citizens coming after his last effects.”

The other newsman growled “watch it,” as Dooley handed the scrap back.

“Yeah, except this isn’t your daddy’s masonic order. This is the Brotherhood of Leaves, my friend, and if your guy was involved he was in something deep.”

“Hey.” The other newsman snapped his fingers. “Wasn’t whatshisname part too? The conductor, gave himself a Chicago necktie.”

“Vladimirovitch.” Mahoney felt cold again. “You boys mind if I stretch my legs around the back? I’ve just sat in that car so long, see, and I’d like to do it in privacy.”

Dooley took out a battered cigarette from his hat band. “Gee, Mahoney, wish we could but we have to stand out here on public property, see, so we won’t be able to inform you if some ruffian decides to break in.”

Mahoney smiled. “You’re solid boys.”

Behind the bungalow was a gardener’s nightmare. Thorny bushes and more modern sculpture that looked to be pieced together from other sculptures. A Grecian leg found new life as an antennae. Half an anchor was now a smile. Even more unnerving, they seemed to change shape more than strictly necessary as he walked past. Mahoney tried the knob with a handkerchief over his hand and found it unlocked. The bungalow reeked like death, and Mahoney had to douse his hankerchief in cologne and use it like a mask to press further.

The walls had been painted with slashes of paint that formed things that almost made sense with their jagged edges. Something like a lopsided lion glowered from the den wall, two lime droplets formed eyes that peered from the murk. The paint made judging distance a chore; Mahoney scraped a few elbows before he figured out how to navigate the place.

The bungalow was effectively one long hall that took a few twists and turns before opening up into a big room with a skylight. The wall was taken up by a large canvas covered in black gesso. The half-formed image in the center was a screaming face made piecemeal out of indecipherable text. The death-stench was strongest here, tempered only slightly with the reek of linseed oil and turpentine. Mahoney nudged a few of the things littering the floor. Brushes, bits of wood, objects he could only assume were still life fodder. No dramatic note that trailed off at the end, no bloody dagger, not even a glass that smelled of bitter almonds.

Mahoney looked up at the canvas.

He sighed.

Moving the thing was difficult, because it was as big as the room itself, so even a slight angle would jam it against the ceiling. How had Rousseau gotten it in here in the first place? Better yet, how had he planned to get it out the door?

Mahoney got enough of a gap to pop his head in behind it. Ah. Perhaps he hadn’t.

Robin Rousseau had been a thin man in life, in death he was nearly a matchstick. He looked out on the world with death-greyed eyes and a yellowed grimace. His hair was so blond it was almost invisible against his scalp. He had a strange, ruddy flush to the right side of his neck, but whatever that had been hadn’t killed him.

Multiple tubes of cadmium yellow littered the ground behind the canvas. His yellow grin was not down to coffee and cigarettes, but paint ingestion. Grim way to die. But then how had he pushed the canvas back on himself?

A door slamming made Mahoney jump out of his thoughts. The house was a hallway, so he had nowhere to hide, really, he could only arrange himself so that the intruder stomping down the hall couldn’t get the jump on him.

Mahoney was only just moving to act when a cop, pointing a gun and a skull-smashing flashlight, appeared in the doorway.

“Howdy, cousin,” he crowed.

 

Dooley and the other newsie had fled, probably after asking the nice policeman for directions back to town, Mahoney thought bitterly. The squad car that sat outside Rousseau’s place was unmarked. The backseat had several bloodstains.

“I’d like to let it be known that I’m cooperating with the law,” Mahoney said.

“Great,” the cop said, and threw Mahoney in the back seat with a hand on his spine.

Once Mahoney regained his equilibrium, he found a black cloth sack being drawn over his head.

“Hey, hey, hey, I didn’t realize the Stasi were in charge of the PD.”

“New policy. Want to give you a measure of privacy on the way to the station. No point in letting your neighbors see you in a squad car.” The cop chuckled as he cranked the motor.

The cop took the twists and and turns of the canyon road at a breakneck pace, like he was personally trying to eject the contents oF Mahoney’s stomach. A sudden stop imprinted the dividing screen on his face. Mahoney was pulled, colt-legged, from the car and gulped all the fresh air he could. After a long journey of being propelled by shoves Mahoney’s backside found a chair and the bag was yanked off his head.

The room he found himself in was dark except for the thousand-watt lamp directly in his face. If Mahoney squinted, he could just make out a mirror dominating the wall, and a man seated just behind the lamp.

“Mahoney,” the man said in an almost-gentle voice. “Operating out of a room at 312 Topeka drive. Four years in business.”

“I’m all paid up on my license, you can check it.” Mahoney’s neck weaved as he tried to get some details out of his interrogator. He could just barely see a glint of light on a bald head, and perhaps the twinkle of glasses.

The man didn’t respond to that. There was the quiet rustle as they went through his personal effects.

“I would like to know if I’m being charged, sir.”

“Sir, how respectful,” the interrogator said drily, “you a military man?”

“I was in the war.”

“And this is how you make your living now, spying on nice respectable folks?”

“I wanted to be a florist, but I didn’t have the constitution for it.” Mahoney squinted harder tilting his head back and forth. He hadn’t been fingerprinted, mirandized, anything he’d been through in his other misunderstandings with the force.

Was he in police custody?

Mahoney tried to take in more details of the room. It had a big two-way mirror and sheer white walls, all the hallmarks of a PD interrogation room, but enough money could buy that. Maybe it was some security company maintained by the rich canyon-dwellers, something to throw a good scare into the townie.

“Do you recognize this?” The man’s hand encroached on the lamplight, holding the scrap of paper with the yellow sign. Mahoney frowned.

“A little scrap paper, in case I need to jot down a license plate.”

The hand remained in place, paper hanging like the cast-off skin of some reptile. “We know things, Mahoney. About you. About your friend. About the thing you’re after. I don’t think your britches are big enough for the job.”

“That’s why I got suspenders,” Mahoney said. A few steps tapped up behind him, and suddenly a cosh hit him just above the right ear. Mahoney gasped, reeling, as stars burst in his vision.

“That’s enough,” he could hear his interrogator say, “his head’s probably clear now.”

Mahoney clamped a hand in front of his mouth and took deep breaths.

“What do you know about Robin Rousseau?”

“He likes the taste of his paints, I know that much.”

“Mr. Rousseau died of insulin shock,” the man said evenly, “now, what else do you know about him?”

“Paints carry insulin now?” That remark earned him another cosh, and he fell to his knees on the concrete floor. The light became elliptical as his vision wobbled. A pair of arms around his midsection righted him and threw him back into the chair.

“Who hired you?”

Mahoney spat a little. “A woman, I don’t know. She declined to give me details.”

The cosh hit him on the shoulder, which thankfully only threw him forward in the chair.

“Who hired you?”

“I just told you.” The cosh fell on his knee, sending pain needling all the way up his body. Mahoney yelped.

“One final time: who hired you?”

Mahoney braced himself for the inevitable meeting with the floor. It never came.

Instead the lamp snapped off, leaving a violet afterimage that would not go away no matter how he blinked.

“Get Mr. Mahoney back to his offices, he has some paperwork to do.” The interrogator stood with a creak. “And in the future, Mahoney, you might want to appraise yourself a little higher. A couple hundred is a bit lean, wouldn’t you say?”

Mahoney said, “what—” as the black cloth sack was thrown over his head again.

The roads in town were mercifully square, but the driver made up for it by taking steep corners and sudden stops. When the bag was yanked from Mahoney’s head, he found the building where he kept office and fell to the sidewalk, kissing it.

“By the way, I figured you might be hungry after that long talk, so I saved you some leftovers.”

A greasy bag of fish and chips was shoved beneath his nose, and Mahoney finally did vomit.

The cop chuckled at his retching frame. “See you on some sunny afternoon, brother Mahoney.”

The car screeched away. Mahoney hadn’t recovered enough to catch the plates in-between heaves. Somehow he managed to crawl his way up to the third floor and let himself in his office.

Someone had been in. He could smell it somehow, the air was just different. Things were awry, just enough that he couldn’t quite be sure what had been moved. The bag with everything taken from his pockets was in the middle of the desk, paper with the yellow sign placed on top.

Mahoney crinkled the paper and used it as a taper to light a cigarette. He dropped it into the ashtray and watched it curl as the fire ate it alive.

His britches weren’t big enough? Fine. No job was worth getting killed over. Let them take their secret societies and yellow signs back to the funny papers, where they belonged.

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The Shambling Detective 1: The Yellow Veil

It started with a woman. It always did, didn’t it? Some skirt throwing herself on your mercies, begging you to find her husband or father, pulling the puppy dog eyes on you as she pushed the family’s last dubloon into your hot little hands.

Only the puppy dog eyes didn’t figure in with this one. This one wore a veil. Not the lacy kind favored by pillbox-wearers these days but a bolt of saffron-colored silk as opaque as a lead sheet. The rest of her ensemble was nothing far off what you’d see in Sears catalogues: eggplant-colored coat dress with airplane shoulders, kitten heels, hair hot-combed into a Barbara Stanwyck wig. A pigeon’s blood ruby winked from the fingers of one hand, a black opal the other. She even smelled rich, a scent like old paper layered over the decades just barely covered by a wisp of something floral.

“James,” she said, “his name is James Gillman. Jamie.”

She had the crisp diction and the slight English affect of finishing school. Mahoney jotted her words down on a sheet of newsprint, eyes dancing from her to the paper. Could she see out of that thing? She had to, or else how could she get around? He decided to put off the nasal itch until decorum allowed.

“Eight and some months old, red-haired, birthmark here.” she tapped the back of a slender wrist. “Disappeared from the steps of the Jackson Memorial Hall. He was wearing a seersucker suit when I last saw him, brown leather shoes. He might have been carrying a book.”

“I see. Was he in anyone else’s company, Miss—”

“Gillman.” Was it imagination, or did her voice flutter along with the yellow veil? “I don’t know. He had a habit of wandering off, forming friends with the riff raff around town. Many times I’ve tried to warn him away from it, but…”

Mahoney jotted more words down. “Have you tried the police, Miss Gillman?”

“No. I suspect this is a ransom situation. Your discretion is heavily encouraged, in this case.”

Mahoney sighed. He scratched under the headband of his hat. “I understand your hesitation, ma’am, but the bay city coppers don’t look to kindly on interference with the law. If this turned into a shoot-out—”

“It won’t.” She leaned forward, breath stirring the yellow cloth excitedly. “Please say you will. I have great faith in you, as if—as if you were meant for this.”

Mahoney frowned. “To be honest, ma’am, I’m not the best detective around. Have you tried a Pinkerton—”

“No!” For a moment, the fancy wrapping fell away from the woman’s voice, rendering it guttural. “It must be you. I have your retainer.” She fanned out a sheath of bills, crisp as if hot off the mint.

Mahoney frowned. He felt a little more than the normal level of trepidation that came with accepting a new client. Each new job, he had to look in the mirror and wonder if this wasn’t it, if this was the one that would leave him shot and floating face down in the bay. Unlike the other low-rent shamuses in town, he’d never been on the force. He had no die-hard buddy on the DA to pull strings when he got in a pinch. As a rule, he only accepted things that would just barely cover the bills. Philandering husbands. Adopted children. The odd peeping job for a reporter.

He slid a contract across the table to her. “Standard fees apply. Daily expenses will come as an itemized list. I can’t promise I’ll do anything better than find him.”

The cloth on the woman’s face went perfectly still. She laid the money out on the visitor’s table, ruby catching the light and winking evilly back at him.

“You have no idea how much this means,” she said.

Mahoney grabbed the money from the table, turning to shove it inside an envelope.

“Trust me,” he said, turning back around, “I haven’t—”

The office was empty. Mahoney blinked, rubbed one eye and then the other, but she never reappeared. His door, heavy on the pneumatic hinge, was shut and still. On the table, the contract lay pristine except for a crooked “X” on the signature line. Funny, a girl of her monied appearance should do better than a whaleman’s signature.

“Miss Gillman?” he called. The acoustics of the office gave a little reverb to his voice. “Miss Gillman?” What had her first name been?

He poked his head out into the hall. The optometrist two doors down was herding a short elderly woman with bandaged eyes to the stairwell.

“You haven’t seen a woman come by, have you?”

The optometrist (Thurgood? Thurmond? Thur-something) shook his head, guiding his elderly patient’s steps.

“Heard someone come down the hall? Catch a whiff of eau de toilette?”

The doctor looked up, irritable. “No, I haven’t seen your latest companion. Do the rest of the building a favor and keep your affairs more discreet, I’m trying to run a business.”

The woman spoke with a voice like cracked leather. “Good heavens, is that the Amway man whose door I saw on the way in? Tell him that men like him should be shot.”

Mahoney shot their backs the one-finger salute and went back inside.

The contract lay innocuously flat on the table; that strange, crooked, 3-armed X staring back at him.

 

The memorial hall was a brick made up of many smaller bricks, with windows small enough not to detract from the brick-ness of it all. It was a wonder of modern architecture. Mahoney paced the steps, noting down dimensions. There were few places an interloper could wait unseen by the general public, even fewer where they could depart with a strange child in tow un-remarked.

A fellow bearing a stack of books stopped on the steps and eyed Mahoney curiously.

“Fine day to play invisible hopscotch,” he said.

Mahoney straightened with a start. “Mahoney,” he grunted. “I had some questions about Jamie Gillman?”

The fellow snorted and shook his head. “Better let alone. Wherever James is, he’s done it to himself.”

This struck Mahoney as callous, even by midtown standards. “What can you tell me about him, Mr.…?”

“Duvall. Charles. If you want, we can talk in my office.” He went up a step. “But if you want my opinion, I’ll lay it out here: Jamie stuck his nose in the wrong place. That he vanished wasn’t a surprise to anyone, not even him.”

Mahoney frowned. “What could he have possibly gotten into at his age?”

“Oh, plenty.” Duvall eyed him up and down. “Say, what business of yours is it if Jamie Gillman drops off the face of the earth?”

“Well, maybe it’s just my soft heart,” Mahoney said, “but when an eight-year-old boy gets snatched in broad daylight, I tend to be a little worried.”

Duvall snorted back a chuckle. “Eight? Try thirty-eight.” He glanced charitably at Mahoney’s confused squint. “Follow me to my office. I’ll put the percolator on.”

 

The office was a glorified closet decorated with stacks of paper, machinery gears, and one plane propeller that had been mounted to the wall next to the single window. Duvall set a percolator down on a hotplate and produced a bottle of amber liquid from a hidden drawer.

“Nip?”

Mahoney shook his head. Duvall doused a single mug with alcohol and then sat on a chair that was propped up by the stacks of machine parts behind it.

“Jamie was down from the university,” Duvall said, “wanted to pull some old city papers. Then he started hanging around to talk about the old families in the area. Some of us have memories that date back into the ice age, and those are the youngsters. Was doing research for a book. Said he wanted to write the great meta-novel.”

“Met what?” Mahoney asked dryly.

Duvall chuckled and shook his head. “That’s what we said. As far as I can gather, he wanted to write a book that changed from the act of someone reading it. Don’t ask me how, he talked a big game but never showed a stitch of paper. Of course, as he got deeper and deeper into it, he started getting a little funny in the head. If you ask me, people who get too passionate about a thing are already toes-to-the-cliff at the start. Like that Vladimirovitch fellow.”

“Who?”

“Composer, avant-garde. He was writing some ultimate concerto that sounded like rocks in a wash-mangle. He opened his throat with a razor when the first reviews came in.” Duvall took a break to serve coffee. “Anyway, I think Gillman got in touch with one of those hush-hush clubs downtown. A bring-your-own-cloak-and-dagger kind of deal. Found that getting out was much harder than getting in, fell into drink. The last time I laid eyes on him, the man smelled like a gin still and was raving about leaves.” Duvall paused a moment. “If you don’t mind my asking, for whom are you asking these questions?”

“A goddamn liar.” Mahoney tasted the coffee and suppressed a grimace. Maybe he should have accepted the sterilizing shot of rotgut. “A woman came in, implied she was his mother. I don’t know what her agenda was, or what her relation to Gillman even is. To tell you the truth I’m about ready to deposit the retainer and forget about this whole mess.”

“Well, if you continue to pull at it, it’s an interesting knot to be sure.” Duvall sipped from his mug. “The bit about disappearing in broad daylight? That’s all true.”

Mahoney stopped, mug halfway to his mouth “Really?”

“Yup. Clarence, he’s down in records, he was there the day Gillman vanished. Said he didn’t see a soul besides Jamie and some bum way far off…” Duvall furrowed his brows. “Hang on, he did say he heard something funny.”

“Funny, like something muffled? Perhaps a gunshot?”

Duvall shook his head. “Fluttering. As if from a massive pair of stiff wings. Crackled, almost.”

Mahoney felt a sense of lingering dread descend like an inky hangover. Duvall looked at him with some concern.

“Might not be too late to give the retainer back, old chap.”

“Wouldn’t know where. She didn’t give me a first name, just signed an X to the contract. Strange one, too, only three legs.”

Duvall got a gleam in his eye. “Show me.”

Handed a pencil and a legal pad, Mahoney attempted to recreate the symbol. Duvall’s eyes grew wide.

“That’s the yellow sign you’ve got, my man. And if you ask me, you’re in for bigger troubles than a delinquent client.”

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The Day It Rained Rats

Joseph lived on a farm. His eyes were the same faded denim blue as the sky, his skin was the white of the weathered silo wood, and his hair was the dark gold of wheat stubble left in a field. He had lived on the farm all thirteen years of his life and knew all the moods of it. Often, he could tell by the color of the sky at dawn how the day was going to go; If it would rain, if something had got into the chicken coop, how many visitors they would have. It seemed no significant trick to him, so he never devised a language with which to discuss it. He felt this deficit sorely the day he woke up and the sky was crystal.

What did that mean? Even in his own head, he struggled to define it. The sky had a peculiar crackling quality to it almost like a lightning storm, but not quite. The air tasted like a tornado, yet none of the animals in their pens had the telltale restlessness that preceded such storms. The sky simply wasn’t right, and he couldn’t explain how or why.

So he didn’t.

The day was unremarkable from sunup to about two-thirty. Ma and Pa and baby Sadie went to town to see about some business. Uncles Carl and Curt, identical save for Curt’s bristled-straw mustache, were left on hand to mind everything. Joseph did what he normally did: weave in and out of chores to grab the odd lonely moment where he could be by himself. Instead of whittling or playing marbles, he put his ear to the sky. The atmosphere had turned an innocuous blue, but the air still tasted wrong. Earthy. Like the ground after a lightning snap.

Uncle Curt was on the roof chasing one of the chickens back to ground-level. Carl had availed himself to replace the rope-winch to the well and had Joseph on standby to hand him tools. It was all so shockingly normal so when the change came it was as sudden and terrible as a thunderclap.

Carl tied a quick blood knot as a stay and grunted as he got up from a sitting position.

“Awl’s in the house,” he said, ambling across the yard, “lent it to your daddy for his leather.”

Joseph followed not out of duty, but simple inertia. He floated like a fishing bob behind his uncle as they met Curt, walking perpendicular with a chicken under one arm.

“‘Bout to get the mallet,” Curt said. Carl grunted.

The brothers parted, Carl to the house, Curt to the coop.

“S’funny,” Carl began, “I ever tell you—”

Whatever anecdote he began was lost, never to be found again. A meaty thud of impact reverberated across the farm yard. As one, uncle and nephew turned.

Curt stood angled oddly, as if frozen in the middle of a dance. He held his arm in one hand, face ashen grey.

“Okay,” he said, spitting. “Oookay.”

His right shoulder was oddly lumpy and grey. No. As it began to move, Joseph realized the impact had been the sound of a rat hitting his shoulder. The rodent lay draped over the dislocated joint, no bigger than a loaf of banana bread. Whatever height it had fallen from had stunned it momentarily. The moment was over almost as quickly as it began, when the rat righted itself and screeched. Joseph got a flashbulb impression of mad black eyes and yellow teeth before it buried itself in Curt’s shoulder, screaming.

Carl unfroze. He drove the boy before him with a firm hand, saying, “go on, get,” as he shoved Joseph towards the house. They reached the safety of the porch as another rat screeched from the sky to wind up denting the hood of the old Ford truck. They gaped as the rodent shook off the fall and scampered away.

From the safety of the front steps they watched Curt make it halfway across the yard until another rat beaned him on the head. He’d been tearing at the rat who’d been tearing at his shoulder, now his hands fell away and he dropped to one knee. The rat that bounced off his head scampered to his ankle, followed by three new arrivals.

Curt looked up just once, making eye contact with Carl. Carl nodded grimly and shoved Joseph inside the house.

Curt only screamed towards the end. Carl wouldn’t let him look outside, but Joseph still heard the battered sound of Curt’s throat trying to make words, along with the desperate slaps as he tried to beat them away.

Carl was breathing heavy. Perspiration formed a mustache on his clean-shaven face.

“They just bounced,” he said, not to Joseph or anyone alive. “They fell outta the damn sky and ain’t even dead!”

The tin roof of the farmhouse became a deafening drum, continuous gong sounds echoing through the house as rats hit the metal. Carl went to great aunt Sadie’s sewing desk and got some cotton wool for their ears and then put Joseph to work barricading doors. The icebox went in front of the back door. The china cabinet before the front. One window was broken by a sideways-sleeting rat that Carl threw out by the tail, he nailed the tea-tray over the hole.

Joseph stood at the second-story window in his parent’s room. The rain had been going on for an hour, now the fall of bodies was cushioned by the other bodies. A fat carpet of rats swarmed the chicken coop. He could hear the cows in the pasture, bellowing as they swatted fruitlessly with their tails. The barn cat was nowhere in sight, but more than likely a loss.

Carl came into the room panting and perspiring. “Damn fine thing it isn’t raining cats and dogs right now,” he joked thinly. He noticed Joseph and waved. “Come away from the winder. Nothing worth seeing out there, anyway.”

The daylight turned black as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Storm clouds deposited rat after rat on the dusty ruin of the farm. The air smelled thick and sharp, the earthiness turned to the smell of a rat’s den. Joseph imagined the clouds roiling with all the debris that comes with rodents; perhaps a musky rain of rat’s piss would fall on them next.

Carl deposited Joseph on the settee and looked at him hard. “I don’t like your eyes, boy.”

Joseph turned robotically to look at him. “Ma and pa. Baby Sadie.”

Carl failed to hide his dismay quickly enough. “I’m sure they’re fine. Lots of buildings downtown, good hard brick.”

They both knew it was a lie.

The rats knocked out the single line that ran to the farmhouse, so they had supper by candlelight. Leftover beef, new potatoes that grit in their teeth, and stale biscuits. Joseph saw an upside-down cake his mother left in the icebox and said nothing. Carl kept up a regimen of bright, brittle conversation that did not succeed in drowning out the screech of rats.

“I’ve heard of fish rain afore,” he said, cotton wool all but muffling his voice, “frogs one time, too. Up in Heckville. That was in your great-grandad’s time.” His hands shook as he sawed the meat. He cut the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and swore through a gritted smile.

“You’ll see, Joseph,” he said as he swaddled the cut with a cloth napkin. “A little rain like this is nothin’. Not at all. Probably just some tornader pick them up from elsewhere. Nothin’ at all.”

Joseph sat and watched his uncle with dry eyes. Part of him had cracked and fallen away when the first rat fell. His uncle’s desperate babble washed over him like a weak tide. He smelled the crackling odor of the sky and heard the rats and felt nothing.

Joseph would have liked to sleep in his own bed, but Carl dragged him into the cellar. There amidst the damp and the jars of preserves, Carl spread a single quilt over the both of them.

“You’ll see, bluebird,” he kept repeating. Bluebird had been his nickname for Joseph a long time ago. “You’ll just see.” What Joseph would see and what it would do, Carl did not say. He only repeated the phrase over and over.

The cellar floor was hard under his spine and Carl had only thought to bring one pillow. Somehow sleep found Joseph. He cracked an eye open at dawn.

The air smelled…normal. He could smell the color of the sky as clearly as he could see from the kitchen window that it would be the same flat blue as any other day.

The farm was in tatters. The dirt of the coop was churned up, not even a feather left. The rats had gnawed a hole in the silo and gorged themselves. In the pasture, only the metal tags from the heifer’s ears remained. Of the rats there was no sign.

Carl woke with a start when Joseph touched his arm.

“It’s clear. We can go now,” Joseph said.

Carl dithered an hour before he could even bring himself to look out the window, but once he did he fell into a manic frenzy of packing supplies. Though he swore they would return, Joseph watched him pack the government bonds and great-grandma’s golden brooch, along with every stitch of cash they had in the house.

The yard was empty of birdsong. The click of the front door closing echoed against the outbuildings. Carl gripped Joseph’s arm tightly as if he were blind and the boy was guiding him and set off down the long dirt lane up to the county road, a sad concrete tongue more full of potholes than cement.

Long hours they walked in the blistering sun. They passed other farms, other empty houses. Carl jumped every time something shifted. Joseph’s eyes were dry as he tracked the sun. The sky was bruise-purple before they came upon another sign of life: an old Chevy sputtering down the track. Carl dropped their burden and waved, screaming and yelling. The car kept on coming right toward them. A sharp smell hit Joseph’s nose.

“Y’see bluebird? It all works out.” Carl was chanting. He waved.

The impact of a fallen object shattered the windshield, sending the car drifting into the wrong lane before it collided with a fence pole and stopped. Both uncle and nephew held their breaths. There was a long, still moment before they saw movement from the car’s cab; but it wasn’t the injured driver or even a sky-born rat. It was a thin tabby cat that extracted itself from the crater before neatly grooming its tail.

“Bluebird,” Carl said meaninglessly as impact thuds started up all around them. “Oh, bluebird.”

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