Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hard-Boiled Eggs

The rain came down like sheets of glass, shattering at the pavement into tiny droplets that bounce back half a foot. The homeless, the drunks and the street pushers huddled around garbage can fires that fought bravely to stay lit amidst the omnidirectional downpour.

I watched them from the window of my second-story office, rubbing their hands, shaking. The rags that they wore were unrecognizable for the clothes they once were, coats and shirts and dresses and drapes blending into one generic form: rags. Even their faces, if you look at them, had lost some of its humanness. Bad skin, bad teeth, wrinkles everywhere and breath that was as foul as any beasts’. Eyes hollow and sunk deep into their sockets. These people had faced the world and had lost, among other things, their souls.

I watched them, like antelopes on the savannah, breathing, existing for the sake of existing.

I watched them, in the dark.

The woman. A pinstriped dress under the heavy coat. A hat, and a veil. Red lips peeped under it. She cut a path through the huddlers like a finger on a clear pool. The gap quickly closed behind her. She should have known better. The streets are unpredictable. But not tonight.

She was lucky.

Tonight, even the worst and most desperate of them would not have tried anything. It was too cold and it was too wet. It was much better to gather round a fire than try to mug someone as beautiful (and therefore presumably connected) as her. The syndicate took care of its own. And this woman was probably one of them. A mistress, or a wife, it didn’t matter. You don’t touch them. Only one of their people would off another. Like I said, the syndicate took care of its own.

In Trenchtown, the syndicate was God.

She was coming this way. At the bottom of the stairs, is a barber shop. Upstairs, is a massage parlour. A real sleazy one. I doubt she’s that kind of a woman and I don’t think she needs her hair in a crew cut. And so I waited for the bells to jingle.

When they did, I was still watching the streets below.

Even when seated, she continued to breathe unevenly, as if she had ran to get there, or probably was trying to stifle her emotions. On one hand, she was clutching a man’s kerchief. When she looked up at me, I saw that the area around her eyes had puffed up a little, even after visible attempts to hide it with make-up.

“I have…a problem.”
“Don’t we all?”
“I need your help.”
“Everybody needs help.”

“Look, Mr. Pelvas,” She rose, put one hand on the table and leaned over for emphasis. There was just the tiniest hint of cleavage. A few strands of her hair came loose from the bun and swayed by the side of her face. I could smell her from this distance.

“Can you cut the Sam Malone bullshit and find my son?”


She straightened up, and gave me a ‘why are you giving me such a hard time’ look. I shot her a ‘because it’s cool’ look.

You don’t become a private investigator for the money. You do it because it’s cool. Or due to the fact that you can’t do anything else. In my case, I simply won’t.

“Whatever. Look, I can pay you for this. A lot. And maybe some more in jewelry. I think you can get a better price than I could.”

I leaned back in my chair.

“Okay, start talking. ”

Half an hour later, I got out of the building and, drenched in the cold rain, went to the Red Lion across the street.

I went up to the counter and ordered a martini. Larsson, the bartender, handed me my customary drink.

The sax player, Anton, had retired for the night. The backup band was playing a slow number, while Carmen Valentino wove the cheap, 12-dollar-an-hour magic of her voice on the few who were not too drunk to listen.

Her name was not Carmen Valentino.

No one has a name like that, except in books, where she found it and took it as her own.

The slightly short, ferret-like man in a felt hat came up to a stool beside me, holding his drink in a nonchalant way, spilling some for effect. His eyes were quick and darted back and forth, across the room, even when I spoke to him directly. There was a nasty scar running down from the corner of his left ear down to his chin.

“You got something for me?”

On other nights, I would have said no to Lupus. On other nights, I would have just come to the pub to warm myself a bit from the quiet loneliness of the office.

Lupus would always be there, waiting for the scraps I had for him.

You got something for me? No.

It became almost a routine. A ritual. A tired two-man vaudeville act in a rundown theatre. But tonight, I slid an envelope across the counter to him.

“Kidnapping. Picture of a man and a girl. Get the guy, and we get the kid.”

“What, you going domestic now?”

“You want the job or not?”

With a move that attempted to be casual, Lupus pocketed the envelope. He was about to leave.

“Oh, one more thing.”

Lupus paused in mid-step.

“Find out about Bernie and Mary Carpolax.”

“Snooping around dirty laundry? I don’t know you anymore, Pelvas.”

“You never did.”

After finishing two more drinks, I got out of the pub and went to Betsy. My Ford. Haha.

The engine stalled for the umpteenth time. A visit to Joe’s Garage was long overdue, or probably to the scrap yard, for that matter. Might as well make a few bucks of the old tin-bucket.

But I have faith in the old, or the ancient – you could never really kill off anything that has been around long enough to see the world’s true face.

The car sputtered to life.

“That’s it, old girl. That’s it.”

I went to the maid – Bertha or Omerta or whatever name these people go by - first, slipping in through back doors and loose security. No hospital would give visitation rights to anyone who is not kin at the ungodly hour of four o’clock in the morning.

The woman was a bit surprised when I woke her, but was very cooperative when I told about Mary Carpolax hiring me. She recounted everything faithfully the way her employer had described it earlier.

“Where were you attacked, exactly?”
“Near the bench. I was tying Sydney’s shoes. The poor k—”
“And you’re sure it was Adler?”

She eyed me. With the bandages on her head and the thin, flat lips, she looked like a missionary in Europe.

“I smelled him.”
I raised an eyebrow.

“He had this cheap cologne, smelled like flowers or something. And…”
“And he smelled like them things the people smoke in them joints. You know?”
“Opium dens.”
“But you didn’t get a look, did you?”
“No,” she conceded.

I slipped out the way I came in, pocketing some rubber gloves on the way out.

I went to the park where the kid got swooped. I didn’t have much time. It was almost dawn and soon, the park would be littered with paper-boys.

I went back to his office and slept on the couch. And then I began to dream.