Unfinished Alpha; Mills City

This is segment from my new Mills story. It’s an Alpha, so usual stuff applies. All C&C welcome.

 

New office. Bigger than the old one. Cleaner too, although it’s too empty to really have any mess yet. Just a few newspapers, my old coffee cup and a pawn shop kettle on little stove in the corner.

The big window behind my desk drips condensation across the lintel and little patches of black mould are already settling in. Better than my apartment. Bigger than my apartment too. Bigger and cleaner and warmer – when I get that stove going at least.

It’s been a good couple of months. I got out of hospital quicker than expected. I got a bit of money from the press and a guy who wrote a book about the death of the Clays’.

I was still fired. The PD wouldn’t take me back and my savings didn’t carry me very far. I worked a construction job for a short time, but I ended up here, at Gus Hawkins’ old office above the Lemonade factory.

I got a loan and set myself up as a PI. I took the test and got full marks – even though I guessed most of the answers. I got my first case two days after I set up shop. An old lady wanting her son found. Apparently she saw my picture in the paper. I found the kid sleeping rough a county over. I brought him home and got paid. I felt good.

Since then I’ve been making ends meat. I find people. I’m pretty good at it I think. I’ve been averaging one case every few weeks. It pays the bills.

I wipe a peephole in the slanted glass and look out over the roof of the old lemonade factory my office rides over. Mills city hunkers in the dark below, old and hollow and half human.

It’s dark out. Not the usual dull gloom of pollution but the sharp darkness of winter. It’s an ordered sort of darkness, dark enough to call itself night, but bright enough to see the frosted edge of things. I love nights like this, watching my breath crystal in the air around me and the way the cold cleans out my mind and body. I haven’t touched a drop for over a year and a half now but it still takes the cold to make me feel really free of the stuff.

Part of me wants to be outside, letting the chill take hold in my limbs and freeze all the foulness out of me. Another part wants to head down to the river and allow the freezing water to keep me clean forever.

I overrule them, of course. I’m not ready for that yet.

I should go home. It’s past ten already. Yeah, I should go home. Back to an apartment that’s smaller, dirtier and colder than my new office.

Fuck that.

There’s a pull out bed tucked away in one corner, a relic from the previous owner. Gus Hawkins himself was a bit of a relic himself, fighting old wars on new soil. Still, his little bed is comfortable.

If I really mean to sleep here tonight I’ll need the stove lit. That means fuel. I ran out the day before, burning the last few bits of old lemonade crates I had left. The loading yard below me is always full of them, so it’s no great hardship.

I turn from the window just as someone knocks at the cheap wood of my door.

“Hello?”

“Sam Noble there?” Who could want me at this hour? Hell, who’s out in this cold?

“Yeah, come in,” I say, my hand reaching into my desk draw and taking out the revolver I keep stashed there. No point in taking too many chances.

A sharp dressed man opens the door. He’s short, no more than five and a half feet tall, with a thick face and razor burn on his cheeks. He’s got slick looking shoes, soft drops of melting frost on the heels. He takes off his hat and tosses it onto my desk, seating himself in the chair opposite me.

“Cold out,” he says, smiling with short white teeth and gums the colour of raw steak. I realise then he doesn’t have a coat, just a well-tailored suit jacket. Must have a car waiting for him outside.

“Yeah,” I said, still standing. “Who are you?”

He looks around, not answering at first. He keeps up his smile and his eyes move around my room, all innocent curiosity.

“I knew the old guy who worked here,” he says eventually. “Big guy. Ex-cop.”

“Yeah, Gus.” I’d inherited the place and the business from the old man after his death. Well, after I finished off his last case. His wife passed away a few years before he did and they never had kids so I got left with an established business. “Who are you?”

“You an ex-cop?” He says the word cop like a Northerner; c-yeah-p. Maybe from Chicago?

“Yeah.” I don’t like how this is going. He’s still looking around and smiling that half sick smile like a friendly razorblade.

“You got the look. All you cops got it – like you’re lazy, good fer nothing smucks and you know it.”

“What do you want, sir?”

“You Sam Noble?”

“Yeah.”

“Got a job for you.” Gert a jerb fa ya, squeezed out like he’s a taking a shit. Chicago. Maybe Michigan. Fucked if I know, really. Everything sounds the same when you go past Tennessee.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He leans back in the cheap chair, crossing his legs, his foot tapping on the edge of my desk.

“So what is it?”

“Rent in places like this,” he said, “goes up and down don’t it? Be a real shame if you came to work one day to find your rent had doubled. Maybe even tripled.”

“Yeah, that would be bad.”

He keeps on grinning, his white little teeth looking like cold tombstones in his mouth.

“I own this building, you know.”

“That so?”

“Nah, but I know the guy that does.” He fiddles with something in his pocket.

“I knew your man, Gus.”

“Yeah.”

“I had a lot of respect for that man.”

“You were friends?”

“No, I just knew him. I respected him. He was a tough guy.”

“He was.”

“Are you a tough guy?”

I don’t really have an answer for that. He jumps in before I can answer.

“You were the last man standing at Old Clays’ place, right?”

“Something like that.”

“You also ended up alive after that big fire a few years ago?”

“You know a lot about me.”

“I’m right thought, right?”

“I guess.”

He looks at me for a while, his small sharp eyes picking at me like a birds beak pecking up crumbs.

“I have to say that you’re not filling me with confidence.”

“You haven’t told me what the job is yet. Come back tomorrow when you want to skip the bullshit or go get me a cup of coffee.”

The teeth and the hard pink gums disappear.

“Maybe I don’t think you’re up to it.”

“There’s the door,” I sit down and gesture towards the exit.

He looks like he’s about to leave. His hands move, the knuckles whitening.

“You are not a normal man, Mr Noble.”

“Thanks.”

“You remind me of a kicked dog.” Dawg. He says it dawg. “All shitty flea bitten fur and broken teeth, but gets mad and desperate enough to eat off man’s face.”

I shrug. “So what’s the job?”

The smile comes back, but it brings a sneer along with it.

“I want you to find a package.”

He tosses an envelope onto my desk. It contains a picture of a man and a woman. He’s a big guy, thick neck and scarred. She looks like a cold beer on a hot day; all soft skin and smooth lines.

“Damn.”

“You recognise them?”

“He’s Claude Dougher. I don’t know who she is.” I lean back in my chair. “You know who Dougher is, right?”

He laughs like a bully about to take your stuff. It’s a sharp little laugh.

“I know him. He’s one of my friends.”

“Your friend?” Dougher works for one of the old mob families here in Mills. He’s a knee breaker, a big zozo on the local scene.

“A colleague.” He lets that hang in the air.

“So, what am I looking for?”

“Claude left town a while back. Had a briefcase with him. I want it back.”

I picked up the picture of the girl.

“Why is she important in this?”

“Claude was supposed to be back in a week. It’s been three. A few days ago she disappeared.”

“Who is she?”

“Annie Flynn. She was his girl. No family in the city.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, we went around and asked a few questions. Went to his place. Went to her friends. No one knows where they are.”

So, the mob want me to play detective for them. How nice.

“You know my fee?”

“Me and my friends figured that you’d be open to negotiation.”

“Is that some sort of fancy way of saying dollar bills or gold bullion?”

“No. See, like I said, I do know the guy that owns this place. Your rent might all of a sudden go way up or way down. It’s a tricky economy we have right now.”

“Well, either way I still need paying.”

“Call it a good will gesture.”

“I can’t eat good will.”

“In my experience, when someone tried hard enough, people can eat anything.” He’s grinning as he says it, those sharp little teeth all white like a shark’s and his smile just as friendly. Mother of God, am I really arguing with a mobster?

“I’ll need my travel expenses; gas money, overnight stay and all that.”

“How about we just don’t break your legs?” He still has on that smile. He says it so lightly, so much like he just said, how about those Dodgers, right? He isn’t trying to be a hard man, his smile tells me that much. He knows this game.

“Break my legs and you won’t get anything.”

“Oh, come on Sam, I can call you Sam, right, you know how this is going to go; you keep angling for money, I keep saying no, you say I’ll have to find some other shmuck and just as I get up to go, you come down on the price. Am I right? So how’s about this,” he leans forward in his seat, “I let the owner know about how big of a help you’ve been and maybe I convince him to let you use this place free of charge. I’ll even throw in a few bucks for your time myself? I’m a fair man, Sam, you can see that.”

When I wore a badge and had the word Detective in front of my name, I think I would have gone straight to my superior if a mobster had tried to bribe me. Of course my boss would have either kicked me out of his office for wasting his time or told me to give him a cut of whatever deal I was getting. Mills City Police Department; the place Justice forgot.

“Ok.” It’s the best I can probably do. Might even help if I have some good standing with the mob.

“Attaboy,” he slaps the desk, “you and me are gonna have a good long friendship, I think.” He tosses a little roll of bills to me. “That should get you started. There’s ten bucks there.”

He gets up, brushes his suit off, picks up his hat and walks to the door.

“What do I call you?”

“You don’t call me,” he says, closing the door behind him.

 

I don’t have much to go on; two pictures, one of Flynn, one of Dougher, and a phone number scrawled on the back of the envelope with the words ‘ask for Hank’. I consider going down to the pay phone and ringing the number, but my guess is that Hank will just turn out to be the fancy suit wearing gangsters contact man. I’ll have to call him when I have information for them.

I take the roll of money he left. Ten dollars. I haven’t had ten dollars in my hand for a long time. Maybe never. I can actually eat tonight. Hell, I can eat every night if I want.

My stomach lets me know that that is a shit hot idea. There’s a diner a few block from here. I can get a burger. Hell, I’ll even splash for a coke and fries. Most of my meals come out of a can or from under the awning of a late night food wagon.

If I’m careful, ten bucks could last me a long time.

I get my coat.

 

The diner is warm. It’s so warm that I actually moan a bit as I walk in. The smell of hot fried onions and even hotter coffee make me think I’ve walked into heaven.

I’m not used to this sort of place and I guess it shows.

“Sit anywhere you like, hun,” the server says. She’s a tall lady, thick in the shoulders with red hair and freckles. There’s a soft lilt to the voice. Doesn’t matter though, she has a coffee pot in her hand and a burger in the other. She could be Vito Genovese and I’d still do anything she said for a burger.

I take a seat at the counter and she comes over soon, bring with her the smell of grease and coffee and cigarettes.

“Coffee?”

“Please.”

“You know what you want?”

“Yeah.” I point to the menu, “burger with everything, thanks. With a side order of sausage please.”

“Hard day of work, huh?”

“Yeah.”

She bustles off, yelling into the kitchen. She does have a nice voice. It’s soft, but strong, like an unturned guitar but still lovely. She comes out a second later with a cup that she fills to the top of hot black coffee.

“Anything else, hun?”

“No, thanks.”

She goes to the other end of the counter and takes a wash cloth out to clean the surfaces. It starts to rain outside.

What do I know about Dougher? Not that much really. He works for a man called Max Jackson – a Texan crook that moved into town during prohibition and started up his own crime family. Dougher started running with him about ten years ago, doing leg breaking, intimidation and protection jobs.

I remember listening to the big boys from Vice and Homicide. Dougher’s name came up a lot, but they couldn’t pin much on him. He’d been down to the station once or twice, but always just to pick someone up or drop off a bribe.

I’d seen the various reports come in over the years. It’s astonishing what humans can do to one another. One man was hung from a lamp post in full view of the station house. Another was dragged through the street by a car.

But Dougher? The stuff they tried to pin on him was the worst of the worst. Most people use bats and cudgels for beatings. Most people use guns for killings. Dougher just used his fists. Seven feet tall and weighing something like three hundred pounds, there was a lot of power behind those huge hands. I look at his picture one more time. Grey hair, face like an old stone statue. The man could be carved from granite.

Man like that, with all his money and power, he could just take what he wanted. He wanted the money so he went and took it. He probably just went and took Annie Flynn. She’s beautiful in the picture, movie star beautiful. No, she’s more than that. I don’t have the words for how damn pretty she is.

It seems mad that a man like Dougher can just, just take someone like that. Like she was just his property.

I picture Dougher, his huge hands wrapping around her arm, claiming her like some heathen king of old with a gold torque around her neck that showed the world that she belonged to him.

So where was she?

Had she run off with him?

Had she decided that, with him gone, she could get away from the mob and Mills and all of this?

My stomach groans.

Too many questions, Sam.

So, I muse to myself, you’re after a big man that could probably twist your head off with one hand. That briefcase will be stuffed with money no doubt.

How much?

Enough to make crossing Max Jackson a worthwhile risk.

That’s a hell of a lot. I could really do with that sort of money. I’d move out of town. Maybe go to California. I could have a burger every night for diner. I could buy a car. Hell, I’d probably not have to work for the rest of my life.

“Thinking of riches?”

I look up. The waitress is smiling at me from behind the counter.

“Huh?”

“You’ve got the look of someone thinking about big piles of money.” I like her voice, although I can’t place the accent.

“Uh, yeah. I guess so.” Under her gaze I suddenly feel self-conscious, aware of my dirty clothes, my old trousers and my grubby skin. I dip my eyes.

“What would you buy with all that money?” She asks.

“Oh. Err, car. A car.”

“Yeah,” she sighs. “A car would be nice. You could get away and just drive out somewhere better than this.”

I don’t know how to respond so I just say, “Yeah.”

She grins again.

“What is it you do, mister?”

“I’m a private detective.”

“Really?” She leans on the counter. “What’s that like?”

It’s better than being a cop. It doesn’t involve getting your ass kicked by your colleagues and you don’t have to stand in the rain for fucking hours because the big boys in Vice and Homicide decided they needed extra man power.

“’S alright.”

“Well, I bet it’s better than this.” She smiles. “I’m saving to move to LA. I’m gonna be in movies.”

“You’re pretty enough for it.” As soon as I say it I start blushing and feeling slightly wretched.

“Thanks honey,” she refills my coffee cup. I hadn’t even realized it was half full. She smiles at me again, and starts wiping down the surfaces. The skin of her hands is red and worn, but her arms and face are smooth cream, dappled with a blush of red freckles. Her short hair is the polished copper you get in electrical wires.

She’s Irish. It clicks, really suddenly and unexpectedly, and I feel like an idiot for not seeing it before. The Irish are pretty rare in Mills. Most of them got off the boat in New York and tramped across the country to places like Washington. They normally only went as far south as Kentucky. I’d only ever met one Irishman, a flatfoot by the name of James McHurn, back when I had my badge.

Flynn. It’s an Irish name.

“Hey, miss.”

She looks over, half way through her cleaning.

“Yes?”

“You know someone called Annie Flynn?”

She goes white, her eyes popping like green pebbles out of her face. She starts to back away.

“Wow, wow, hold up miss,” but it’s too damn late. The kitchen doors slam open and three hundred pounds of knife wielding spic stands between me and her.

“You stay away from Miss Susan, compadre.” He doesn’t fuck about. The knife comes straight for me, swinging like he’s hitting a home run. I’m off my chair and half way down the counter by the time it gets to where I was.

The Mexican comes over the counter, all hot pepper mad, the girl screaming something at him. The spic’s between me and the door. If I want out I’ll have to go through the window or through him.

“Let’s calm down, fella,” I say, trying to keep my distance.

“You stay away from Miss Susan.” The knife shakes in his hand and his face is hot red.

“You don’t want to use that thing,” I say, keeping my hands up and my movements slow. “Just put down the knife and we’ll talk, that’s all I want to do, just talk.”

“José, we don’t want any trouble.” The girl’s voice is all high and frightened.

The big spic looks behind him at the Irish girl.

“You want me to throw him out, Miss Susan?”

“Ye… No… I don’t know, José.”

“My name is Sam Noble, mam,” I say, keeping half an eye on the Mexican, “I am looking for Annie Flynn. I’m a Private Investigator, remember. I can show you my credentials if you want.”

“Yes.”

I reach in, nice and slow and take the crumpled envelope from my pocket. The letter inside is only about three months old, but it’s already aged a decade from rain and my underarm sweat. I toss it along the counter to the big guy.

“See?”

She takes it from him and reads silently.

“Alright. You can talk to me. José, I can smell something burning. This fella paid for a burger with everything. He should get it.”

“You sure, Miss Susan?”

“Yes.”

The spic gives me the ol’ stink eye but rounds the counter and disappears back in the kitchen.

“Mind if we sit?” I offer her a stool near mine.

She ignores me and leans against the counter on the servers side.

“Look,” I say, “I’m looking for a man and I think Annie might know where he is.”

“Who’s paying you?”

“What?”

“Who’s paying you? You’re a PI, so who’s paying you?”

I sigh. I have a feeling that I’m about to get another round of filleting by the big guy. “A man came to me today. He didn’t leave his name, but I suspect that he’s part of the mob.”

She looks at me hard. Her lips are a tight white line.

“Listen, I’m employed to find a briefcase, last seen in the possession of a man called Dougher, not Annie. I just reckon that she knows where he is.”

A bell dinged somewhere and the spic passed her a steaming plate which she set down in front of me. The smell was all grease and burnt meat, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t smell like the best thing on the whole planet. I stuff bits of the burger into my mouth. The patty’s charred, near burned black in fact, but it’s the first hot food I’ve had in two days. The fries are good, soft but crunchy, full of salt.

 

“You don’t want to hurt her?”

“No, I promise.”

“I don’t know where she is. But…” she bites her lip. “I have an idea.”

“Anything you can tell me will help at this point.”

“You know St Mathews?”

“The big church on the corner of 5th?”

“We met there. All the Irish end up there.”

“You think she might be there? Claiming sanctuary?”

“It’s what I’d do.”

Susan probably hasn’t been in Mills for very long.

“Ok. I’ll check it out. Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“She worked here. I got her a job part time in the afternoon. Management got rid of her though. She was turning tricks.”

“She… she was a whore?”

“Yes.” She says it simply, without any of the revulsion I would have expected.

“That doesn’t sound very Catholic?”

“She wasn’t very Catholic. Church was for Sundays. When I found out what she did, I wanted to hate her, but, without me realising it, she had become my best friend. I couldn’t hate her even if I tried.”

“Doesn’t god have some pretty strict rules about that sort of thing?”

Susan shrugged.

“I think we were her only real friends, me and José. I don’t think she had a very normal life.”

Normal is what you make it I guess. I know, being a policeman that we don’t have normal lives, although I never really thought about what that meant.

“Did she mention anyone? Any family?”

“Nah, she didn’t have anyone. Like I said, I think she took this job because it was more normal. Doing all that whoring gave her plenty of money but no friends.”

“You have her address?”

“I can get it.”

“Would you?”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

I’ve read books and watched movies where the lead female character says that same exact line. The guy normally puffs his chest out and says something heroic, like ‘Because I’m The Good Guy’, or ‘You’ll Just Have To’. I don’t have anything to say to that. I don’t have anything good. Why the hell should she trust me? I wouldn’t trust me.

“Because I’m not one of the bad guy?” I feel lame as soon as I say it. I drop my face back to stare at my plate, hiding my blush as I shovel more burnt patty and bread into my mouth.

She goes behind the counter and ducks into the kitchen. I can hear low murmuring. The big spic comes out, his apron stained and his face slick with sweat from the heat of the kitchen.

“Annie was a good girl.”

“You know what she did?”

“A job is a job. What she does on her time isn’t my business. Miss Susan says she wants to give you Annie’s home address. I don’t think you should take this work you’ve been offered.”

“Job’s a job, right?”

He gives me the stink eye again.

“You go looking for her, what happens when you find her?”

“I ask her some questions.”

“What questions?”

“’Where is the big briefcase full of mobsters money?’ Look, I’m not after her to kill her or hurt her, I’m just trying to get that money back. She may be completely inconsequential, maybe she doesn’t figure in this at all, but I can’t find out until I find her.”

He rubs his jaw. He still has that big cutter of his.

“When you find her, you come back and tell us where she is?”

“I will.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah, I promise.”

 

I head over to St Mathew’s first. I’m not really one for churches anymore, but the place is damned impressive.

The lights are still on inside. I guess midnight mass is still going on.

There’s not many people around, maybe a dozen scattered among the pews and the big cheese up at the lectern. Everything’s all gilt edged and fancy. You could throw a rock in this place and hit something worth a years’ salary.

When we were young, Ma would take me and my brother down to the local church. I think I liked going. I remember getting dressed in my best shoes and tie and making sure my clothes looked good. I remember sitting up straight and listening to the preacher. It was nice, like a fancy party. Ma liked church. I think it was all she had aside from us.

When I got older I think I kinda forgot all about god and going to church. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t think it mattered much. Ma tried to get me to read the bible, but I had trouble believing the stories.

I’m not a man that wants to believe in much. I have trouble believing some of the things I know are real already.

The words of mass are being spoken, but the space distorts them into blurred radio hum. I guess it’s nice, if you like that sort of thing.

I shuffle along one of the pews and sit down next to an old woman.

“Have you seen this girl?” I show her the picture of Annie.

She shakes her head, looking offended that I even asked.

“This man?” I show her Dougher.

Another shake.

“Ok, thank you.”

I get up and move over to another person, a young man.

“Seen her before?”

He looks up at me, his face earnest and solemn. Corn fed shoulders on him and the look of a hayseed about him. Farm boy in the inner city. I’ve had my fill of farm boys.

“Yeah. She comes Sundays.”

“Know her name?”

“No. Father Nerry might.”

“The big guy up there?” I point to the priest up at the lectern, reading from the bible.

“That’s him. You’ll get to talk to him soon. He’s almost finished.”

The old lady shushes us into silence.

I wait another fifteen minutes before I get to talk to Father Nerry. He finishes in the same half heard mumbling boom and then shuts the book in front of him with a soft clap. Some folk get up right away and head off, others take their time. Some have even brought kids with them.

“Father.” I catch him as he finishes shaking the hand of the last well-wisher.

“Yes?”

He’s a big man, fleshy and round shouldered, with huge hands that seem to be made of all knuckles. His face has a lopsided look to it, like it’s still recovering from a beating.

I take out the picture of Annie.

“Can I ask you a few questions about her?”

He looks at me, his eyes slightly narrowed.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Sam Noble, sir.”

He swallows and looks at me form longer than I’m comfortable with.

“Come into my study?”

I follow him into a wood panelled room, roughly the same size as my office. Long green wall hangings cover up alcoves and bookcases in the corners. The thick carpet steels the sound of our foot falls and, when he closes the door, the only noise I can hear is my own breathing. The room smells of dust and good liquor.

Nerry pads across the floor, removing his vestment as he does so. He seats himself at his great desk and undoes his cuffs.

“Who are you working for, Mr Noble?”

His tone is all business. His pudgy face is like a slab of cold ham. He has a lawyers eyes.

“I’m afraid I can’t disclose my clients.” It’s technically true. Maybe.

His eyes don’t leave me. They bore into my own and I feel like he’s working me out, like I’m some mathematical equation on a test.

“Can I offer you a drink, Mr Noble?”

“No, thank you.”

He doesn’t move. His big brown eyes don’t leave mine.

“Do you know this girl?” I try to hand him the picture, but he doesn’t reach out to take it.

“I do not recall.”

“Then why did you bring me into your office?”

He smiles and it goes all the way to his eyes. He gets up and walks to the side of the room, pulling aside a hanging to reveal a well-stocked drinks cabinet. He pours out a glass of whiskey.

“It’s a simple question, sir.”

“Are you with the mob?”

“I can’t say.”

I can smell the whiskey.

I’ve not touched a drop in so long.

“You don’t look like you are with them mob,” he says, almost to himself. The smile hasn’t gone away. He swirls the whiskey in its glass, but doesn’t take a sip.

He comes closer, his eyes meeting mine again.

“So, what do you want with the whore?”

I feel a flush in my cheeks, at the proximity to the whiskey or the insult to Annie, I can’t tell.

“I need to find her. A friend of hers said she might have come here for sanctuary.”

He raises the glass to his lips and takes a long slow sip. My mouth feels dry all of a sudden.

“What would it take to get you to forget you heard that?”

“Excuse me?”

“What would it take for you to forget you heard her little whore friend say that she came here?”

He has the look of someone who’s spent his life getting what he wants. He looks like every piece of shit clergyman this city has. All fat and rich and arrogant and far too pleased with himself. I bet if I looked through his stuff I would find trophies taken from a thousand girls like Annie – panties, necklaces, smutty pictures.

“Nothing.”

He holds my gaze still and, for a moment, I see him squirm.

He turns and sits down at his desk again.

“You should have stayed away,” he says. The strength I saw a moment ago is gone, fled as if it was never there. Now he is just an old man, fat and aged.

“Tell me what you know about Annie Flyyn.”

“The girl in the picture? I never knew her name.”

I wait for him to continue.

“I paid for her. I paid her properly. If you want more money, I can get it, but you have to give me time.”

“I don’t understand. Start from the beginning. How do you know Annie Flynn?”

“I paid for her. I sent my boy out to find a whore. He found her. We had sex. The next day some huge mobster came by and gave me a beating, saying that I roughed her up. I never did, Holy God, I never did.”

“He gouged you for more money?”

“I offered, but that’s what got me the beating.”

I dig through my pockets, finding Dougher’s picture.

“This man?”

“Yes, yes, that’s him.”

“So, you paid a member of your congregation for sex and then got beat up by her beau. That about right?”

He has the decency to look shame faced.

“Yes.”

“You have any idea where she is now?”

“I swear I don’t.”

 

The boarding house is big and black. It’s a tombstone of a building. A manhole cover belches steam up into its windows. This is the sort of place that I’d have been called out to when I was on the force as an extra body during a riot or a bust.

Not a nice place.

A siren calls out across the city. It sounds lonely.

This is the place. Annie’s home.

Unsurprisingly the front door is open. Someone must have forgotten their key and used a boot. The little entry way smells of urine and fried food.

I go upstairs. The walls and floors are painted in layers and layers of tobacco smoke, a mustard brown patina covering the walls and ceiling.

Hard wooden stairs groan beneath me and, despite the hour, I can hear music playing on the second landing. It’s some scratchy gramophone jingle. Keep House, Keep Happy, Do Da Doo Doo Daa.

I keep on going up.

Sitting on the stairs on the fourth floor is a young man. His ass has spread all across the stair, like his body was poured molasses. His lips are wet with saliva as he slobbers over a taffy stick.

Behind him, wrapped up in another shabby coat the shade of mould, is a thin kid all made of spit and gristle. He looks at me with rat’s eyes, his fingers running up and down the edge of a switchblade. They both shuffle aside for me. I keep on with my climb.

I make it to the top floor landing, may chest feeling pinched and my breathing harder than it reasonably should have been. Despite the cold, a small trickle of sweat runs down my brow.

Annie’s door, number thirty, gapes to my left. It’s been knocked in.

I’ve been here before, I think as I step over a pile of smashed furniture and discarded papers. I’ve seen a hundred rooms like this; little busted up portraits of little busted up lives. After a while they all blend into one.

The room serves as both bedroom and kitchen, with a small door leading to a toilet. The toilet has been used by, I can only guess, a mountain gorilla.

“Someone did a number on this place, huh?” I light a match and breathe a cigarette into life. It’s going to be a hell of a night digging through this lot and finding anything worth-while. I don’t know how long this place has been open for or how many of her things might have been taken already.

I sit down on the wreckage of the bed. Lot of books. I never thought a whore would have so many books. Not many people do. I manage a newspaper every once in a while. The pawn shop doesn’t normally deal in paper backs.

Not many clothes. The doors are all opened and a few flung across the room, but I can only see a few bits and pieces of clothing. A sock, a pair of ladies underclothes and what looks like a man’s shirt.

Neighbours probably took them already.

Then why am I not sitting in a totally bear apartment? Folks I saw on the stairs might as well have shucked the place down to the dust mites and sold them off for a dollar. Nah, nah I reckon she’s bolted and she packed up her clothes. She left all the books because they’re too heavy to take with her.

I start to rummage. She has an old ice box in the corner. Nothing in it. Her cupboards don’t have much in either, just a few faded playing cards and an old train ticket.

Under her bed there’s a stack of papers, old letters and magazines mostly. I dig around for a bit. I find her birth certificate. It’s been stained and stinks of coffee beans. I slip that into my pocket.

There’s no money, no clothes.

She’s run away, that’s my guess. The draws have only a few bits of cutlery, a conspicuous lack of any handy knives. There’s a whole load of not much left here really; no maps, no umbrella, no blanket. There’s a few picture frames with nothing in them.

Right, so I think she’s gone. Either she ran or she moved out quick.

But where the hell would she go?

The church wasn’t hiding her. Her friends have no idea. She had no reason to go to the mob.

Mills is a rats nest of rats nests. If she wanted to hide here then she could dig herself down into the old mine shafts beneath the town and not come up for years. She could have gone north, up into the rural land near the Clipper, or towards the more bohemian sprawl that is Short Town down by the Troll Bridge.

I go over and check the cupboard again and take out the ticket. It’s hand written on short, thick card with a much used and blotchy stamp.

It’s a return ticket going from Mills and traveling to a stop I don’t recognise. The name is written in a scrawl of letters. Blackhole. I don’t know it. Might be a dead end? I pocket the ticket and look around a bit more. Nothing. The ticket’s the best I have.

I’ll go home. Get some sleep. I’m tired as all Hell now.

I pass the men on the stairs as I go back down.

“You found anything, Mister?”

I turn around. The youth with the knife is the one who spoke.

“No.”

He gives me a look that just makes him look even more like a long streak of piss. He’s playing with his knife in a way I know is supposed to make him look cool and dangerous.

“You don’t sound like a nice man, sure as sure.”

“I’m leaving, boys,” I tell them, “goodnight.” I start walking down the stairs again.

A hand falls on my shoulder.

“You’re right, Waldo,” Piss’s big friend says, standing next to his skinny friend.

“Boys,” I can hear how tired I am. Hell, I can feel how tired I am. The burger with all the trimmings sits in my belly and lets me know that, whilst it enjoyed being eaten, getting a fist to the gut isn’t on its dance card. “Boys, just let me go so I can go home and go to bed.”

“Not very friendly at all,” Piss says. Then he hits me.

I go backwards, the hard boards of the landing slamming into my spine. Little black spots dance in front of my eyes briefly before my head gets a kick that turns my lights out properly.

My oblivion is short lived however.

The big fella grabs my ankle and drags me downwards, my head beating a drum solo on the wood.

“What did you find in her room?” Piss asks. He has to ask it several times – my head is making enough of a noise to cancel out his words.

“Nothing.” My back crunches against the hard wood.

“It’s a long way down these stairs,” he says, “you willing to keep that up all the way down?”

Something cracks in my skull and stares dance in front of my eyes. There are at least eight flights of stairs between me and the ground floor. I lose consciousness again but only briefly. By the time we get to the bottom I’m drooling and near incoherent with pain.

They take me outside and dump me in an alley. Got to say, the garbage they toss me in is comfier than my bed at home.

“Who you working for?” Piss asks.

“I only know the name ‘Hank’.” I’ve got nothing to hide, maybe this way I’ll save myself some more bruises.

“Hank who?”

“I don’t know, just Hank. He’s with you guys I think.”

Piss looks up at Waldo, a sharp jittery smile on his face.

“Who’s we with then?”

“Yeah, who’s we with?” Waldo slurs the words around his stick of taffy.

Ah, shit. Who indeed?

“You guys not with the mob? Not with Claude Dougher’s old gang?”

The manic little smile spreads all along Piss’s face.

“Who’s this Claude Dougher guy then?” Waldo starts laughing, thick sugary sounds rolling down from his mouth and join up with Piss’s hard little barks of laughter.

Piss pulls out a knife.

“I want you to tell me everything you know, right. If you don’t, I’m going to have to cut you up. You get me, right?”

It’s a big knife.

“I got you.”

“Good. So, what’s your name?”

“Sam Noble.”

He pounds my head against the wall, bursting fireworks inside my skull.

“What’s your name, fuckstain?”

“Sam Noble.”

My skull makes a hollow knock-crack against the brickwork again, stars exploding in my vision. I taste vomit on my tongue. Goddamnit, I think something broke this time.

“Search his pockets.”

Waldo rummages through my coat and pants. He pulls out my PI licence, my wallet and the nine dollars and change. He slips that into his own pocket. He hands the licence to Piss.

Piss looks at me and then looks at the letter. He turns back to Waldo shoving the paper at him.

“You seeing this?”

The fat man takes it.

“Nah, it ain’t him, is it?”

Piss turns back to me, “who you think you’re fooling, mister? Who you really?”

“The guy,” I say through bloody teeth, “who just stole your knife.”

I’m not a big man. Quite average I guess. But I’ve been hit for damn near my whole life. I guess I’ve carried some of those beatings with me down the years, like I collect them or something. Sometimes, in the soft moments between the hard ones like this, I imagine that I’ve a great big sack filled to bursting with bruises and broken bones and bloody knuckles from all the brawls and beat downs I’ve had over the years. Times like this though, times like this is when I get to open that sack and pretend I’m Santa Clause.

 

It’s a good knife.

Piss burbles away at my feet.

It’s my knife now.

Waldo’s up against the wall, his pants wet with urine. Never moved when I went for his friend. Never said a word. Never tried to help. Fat ones are always funny. Some are wrecking balls and some are just big fat children.

“I’ll have my money back now, thanks.” I didn’t realise my throat was so raw. It hurts to talk and my voice sounds like it’s whispered through a rusted gasmask.

He tosses me my wallet.

“Good boy.”

“We didn’t mean to hurt no one, sir.” He’s still got that big slobbery pink voice, like that taffy stick of his was talking instead of him.

“So, what were you up to then?” I can’t help coughing. My throat feels like its coated with sand.

“We was to make sure no one came up to her room. The boys went in there and turned it over, looking for something. We was just supposed to stay put and watch for anyone that came round. We saw you and… and we didn’t know who you was.”

Know who I was? That’s new. Most folks don’t give a damn who I am.

“What do you know about me, son?”

“You’re Sam Noble, sir. We was told to give you respect.”

“By who?”

“My pa, he said we should stay away from you.”

“Who’s your pa?”

“Clancy Marlow, sir.” Marlow rings a bell. Small time hustler, debt collector and racketeer. Worked over in Oldways with people like Tom Tuck and Harry Boyette.

“He tell you why?”

“It was you that did for the Clays, sir. You that walked through that fire.”

I guess I did, although all that was more luck than anything.

“What else?”

“You kill folks that cross you. Pa said you’ve the makings of a mad dog.” Not the first time I’ve heard that tonight.

My left forearm tingles a little.

“So, what are you going to tell people happened tonight?”

“Nothing, sir, I swear to the Lord Jesus Christ that I didn’t see anything or anyone.”

I stand, my knee clicking as I settle my weight on it. “That’s good.” I wave the knife at Piss. “You might want to get him to a hospital. Tell them he had an accident. Tell them he was playing with a knife.”

 

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