The door creaks open and her perfume hits me like a ‘37 Oldsmobile.
Beautiful, but Christ she lays it on thick.
“What do you want?”
“Are you…?” she asked.
“Yeah I’m him.”
“I’m looking for something,” she said.
“Long as you’ve got cash, you’ve come to the right place.”
“Money isn’t a problem, but this…” she pauses pulling an elbow lengthened glove from her left arm. “This is a problem.”
I see a blackened and rotting stump and suddenly the perfume makes a lot more sense. Looking back up at her face I catch the signs. Makeup just a bit too heavy. Eyebrows filled in with pencil. Blond hair perfect, but not hers. Dark lensed glasses to hide the tell-tale cloudy eyes.
How’d I miss it? I’m a detective for chrissake.
You’re half a bottle deep at 2 PM that’s how.
“When were you infected?”
“During the outbreak in the wharf district,” she said. “5 years ago.”
God has it been that long?
Guilt bubbled in my already sour stomach.
I shoved it down. My client was still talking.
“My family has money… they got me out of the quarantine zone before…”
Before the army firebombed 16 city blocks.
“Obviously I can’t go to the police. A… a friend… Well, an employee of the family said maybe you could help.”
Maybe I could. Her family had money, and my client list wasn’t getting any longer these days. Still there were risks.
“Helping one of your kind is a good way to lose my license. Hell, it’s a good way to wind up behind bars.”
“Please. I can pay whatever you want.”
And there are the magic words.
“Job like this… Putting my business and my good name on the line, that’ll be expensive. 250 a day, plus expenses. And no guarantees.”
“So, take it from the top. How’d you lose the hand?”
She crosses her legs, and more makeup smudges. A piece like her, it was a crying shame.
“My family, they got me out, kept it quiet. I’ve never fed on a person. They import monkeys, there are a few well-to-do families with someone… someone like me.”
“And monkey brains are close enough to human to keep atrophied at bay without the psychological consequences of lower life forms,” I said.
She nods, and with surprising dexterity for someone with her condition digs into a handbag worth more than my car. Pulls out a silver tooled cigarette case. I’m around the desk with a light ready for her by the time she gets one in her mouth.
She breathes in, and offers me one. I take it, light up and relish the taste of death.
“I’ve mostly stayed inside since. Even for a family like us, it isn’t safe. The police won’t do anything, but people talk– it could hurt daddy.”
She wasn’t kidding. Even the rumor of an infected would make it to the papers, especially if said infected were a part of high society.
“None of this is news sweetheart,” I say. “Skip to the good stuff.”
She looks hurt. Her voice shakes a bit. I’d wager she’d be tearing up if she could.
“I don’t see anybody. Nobody but Mary, who my father pays to visit and brings me books twice a week, Doctor Winsted every Wednesday and Al, who delivers my… my food. He’s a rough sort. I guess you’d have to be in his business, but he’s always kind. He always treated me like a person. And I’m so lonely.”
“How long have you been fucking him?”
Lips purse, jaws clench, and for a moment I think I’ve chased off my first client in weeks.
“Two months,” It’s clipped, angry, but she hasn’t stormed out and it takes every ounce of professional detachment I’ve got not to breathe a sigh of relief.
“And he took the hand, why? You guys have spat or something?”
“I have no idea. He came by last night. Made his delivery same as always and we… we went to bed. I haven’t slept in five years, but afterwards everything went black. The next thing I know it’s morning, he’s gone and so is my left hand.”
“Who’s he affiliated with? The Italians? Russians?”
“That’s a new one,” Not entirely true, South American cartels have a pretty firm hold on the market for fresh primate brains but she wouldn’t know that and it always pays to make a client think you’re working harder than you actually are. “Still I can ask around, see what shakes loose. What was this jokers name again?”
“Al. Alejandro Castillo.”
I make a note.
“Got a picture?”
She fishes back into her bag and produces a shot of a dark- haired kid of maybe 19 with black eyes and a wispy mustache.
“And what exactly do you want? I’m not in the business of killing folks for running off with infected arms.”
She seems to get smaller.
“I guess I just want to know why. I don’t want you to hurt him or anything. I just want to know why.”
“And you’re willing to pay $250 a day for that?”
She squares her shoulders.
“Money’s not important.”
“It never seems to be to kids born with it. Who are you anyway? I’m afraid you neglected to introduce yourself.”
“So, your father..?.”
“Yes. So, you understand the need for discretion.”
I understand I should have charged a lot more than 250 a God damned day.
She gets up to leave. Makes it to the door before I think to ask.
“Ms. Sullivan, how’d you hear about me anyway?”
“The woman who brings me books, Mary Grant. She said you’d be… sympathetic.”
And then everything makes too much sense.
“Is something wrong?”
My heart is sitting somewhere around my kidneys.
“No Ms. Sullivan, I’ll be in touch. How do I get a hold of you anyway?”
“I don’t have a phone. I’ve got nobody to call. But Mary said you have her number.”
As the door latches shut, I’m back behind the desk half a glass of whiskey already poured.
Damn you Mary. Why can’t you leave well enough alone?
The stench of fish and sailor piss hang so thick around the docks my dry cleaners going to think I’ve been digging around in dumpsters again. Of course, the night’s still young, digging around in the filth isn’t too out of the ordinary for a P.I. It’s unbelievable what folks will throw away.
Margot Sullivan said her squeeze worked for the Venezuelans, which means I have to call in a favor I do not want to collect on.
I dodge around a couple raucous navy boys in crisp white and jaunty little hats chatting up a couple ladies who seem just a bit too enthusiastic, and give a rap on the big metal door behind them.
The little window in the middle slides open and set of brown eyes glare out at me.
“Charlene working tonight?” I ask.
The window slams shut. I sigh.
“Tell her Briggs is calling in the favor she owes him.”
There’s no response so I wait.
The sailors and their dates seemed to have settled on a price, one of them gives me a wink as they move down the alley to consummate their filthy business. The girls lean into the theatrics, but I doubt the squids mind much. Probably hadn’t seen a girl since Singapore.
The little window slides open again and a pair of suspicious green eyes flash before the door swings open on rusty hinges.
“Ain’t seen you around in a while Cal.” Charlene says. “Don’t you like me anymore?”
“I like you fine Cher, it’s just that bourbon is cheaper, and I hate myself less in the morning.”
She’s gorgeous, like always, if looking a little tired. Brown eyes glares from above and behind her. Jesus he’s a big lug.
She smirks, it’s contemptuous, but there’s enough mirth in there, a guy might think he could change her mind about him. It’s a look that’s sent more than a couple saps home to their wives with empty pockets and lipstick on their collars.
“You always say the sweetest things,” she says. “But if you love this bourbon guy so much why you darkening my doorstep?”
“Need to call in that favor, Charlene.”
She pouts as if disappointed but it’s only out of professional habit. Charlene could sell encyclopedias to the illiterate.
She whips around and says over her shoulder, “Pay Jimmy and come on up.”
“I’m not here for a date, Charlene.”
She turns back to face me arms folded.
“I owe you a favor Calvin, but I’m on the clock and time ain’t free, so fork it over or beat feet.”
I dig a couple twenties out of my battered leather wallet and hand them over to the hulk of a man.
“Simpre Fidelis boys,” I shout to the rutting sailors down the alley just to make myself feel better, and step inside.
We pass ladies in various states of undress as we head up the stairs, some of them I recognize, most I don’t. Turnover in places like this is high. A few wink, but none of the girls I knew. They were experienced enough to know Charlene had staked her claim on me and wouldn’t waste their time.
Charlene leads me up an old staircase and down a bare walled hallway. A key appeared in her hand and she ushered me into a room. Her room. She did well enough for herself to not have to share.
I shut the door behind us, and she sits on the bed arms folded again.
“So, what do you want, Cal?”
“Eduardo Vasquez, he still one of your regulars?”
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Charlene surprised. Even now she hides it well, but she blinks, and her fingers tighten on the flesh of her arms just a bit.
“My clients are none of your business.”
“True, but I need an in with the Venezuelans and you owe me one, so if you know where he is, you’re going to tell me.”
“Don’t push me Cal,” her eyes flash with anger. The first real emotion I’ve seen from her tonight. “Nobody tells me what to do, not you, not anybody.”
Here’s the part of the job I hate. I step forward and loom. I’m big, and I use it when I have to.
“Listen good Charlene, I got bastards and bookies banging on my door 12 times a week looking for a piece of me and this is the first case I’ve caught in a month, so I ain’t asking. If it weren’t for me you’d be in the poke and your kid would be off in some workhouse for wayward strays getting strapped for forgetting to kiss his foster parents boots, so why don’t you cut the professional pride crap and tell me where he is?”
She glares, then gets up and shoves past me to the dresser. Reaching in the second drawer from the top she pulls out a bottle of cheap clear alcohol and takes a pull.
“Fuck you, Cal.”
“If you want, I paid for the time.”
For a second I think she’s going to hit me with the bottle but then she just sighs and rolls her eyes.
“I don’t know where he is now, but he’ll be here tonight.”
“Every Tuesday at 11 for 20 minutes of grunts and curses, like death and taxes.”
I check my watch and it’s a quarter past 10.
“Well that’s the best break I’ve had in months.”
“You aren’t going to wait for him here?” her voice says it’s a question. Her eyes say it isn’t.
“I’ll get a coffee, and wait ‘til after,” I say. “Tuesday still cherry night.”
“Like death and taxes.”
Mable’s sits right across from the nameless whore house. The booths are all red vinyl seat backs and grey Formica tabletops. I’ve got a cup of coffee blacker than the plague and a piece of cherry pie that gives the vinyl a run for its money.
Through the diner windows I’ve got a perfect view of the cat house. The hookers from earlier have sent their sailor friends on their way and are back to leaning against the wall smoking thin cigarettes. Otherwise the street is empty.
I pick at my pie and pray this case shakes out simple.
Vasquez paying Charlene a visit the same night I need to find one of his boys is the type of luck I haven’t caught a whiff of in a while. It’s been long nights, dead ends and dissatisfied clients for months. It’s gotten bad enough to make a man question his abilities, but if Vasquez has a bead on the kid, this case could be wrapped up by morning.
My mind drifts to places I don’t want it to go. To Mary. To the outbreak. To the worst day of my life. Of our lives.
Five years. I thought maybe I finally had her out of my system. But then she sends some poor infected rich girl with a sob story to my door. I could hardly blame her for leaving.
But at least have the decency to stay gone.
My maudlin musings are short lived though, because at 10:56 I spot Vasquez swaggering towards the cat house. He tips his hat to the ladies and raps on the door with the familiarity of a housewife popping by the neighbors for a cup of sugar.
Looks like my prayers are answered.
I finish my pie and get a refill on the coffee. I’m wondering if a third would do irreparable damage to my bladder when the metal door across the street flies open and Vasquez tears out at a run.
He pauses on the sidewalk, looks straight at the diner and sprints off the way he’d come from.
Shit, he’s made me.
I dig into my pocket for some loose change and toss it down on the table without counting before legging it out of the diner after him.
So much for prayers.
I catch up to Vasquez a block and a half later. At least that’s the way I’ll tell the client if she wants the sordid details I decide as I feel cold steel against the back of my neck.
“You’re getting fat, Briggs.”
“Testament to my success,” I say evenly or at least try between wheezing breaths. “Long time no see, Vasquez. Hoping we could chat.”
“After what you pulled, pendejo?” The pressure against the back of my skull intensifies. “I should blow your brains out here, let the rats have a chat over your corpse.”
Shit. When the hell did I screw over Vasquez? I gotta cut back on the sauce.
“Come on Eddy, that was a long time ago!” I throw in as much remorse as I can manage. “Can’t we let bygones be…?”
There’s a blinding light, followed by an ache in the back of my skull. I’m falling, but that’s alright.
I may be going soft, may have spent the better part of 5 years inside a bottle, but 10 on the streets, and 3 in the war before that, mean I’ll never be completely useless. Vasquez may have knocked me down, but he was standing too close.
My palms slap sharp asphalt. I ignore the pain and sweep my right leg against Vasquez’s ankle. I hear a Spanish curse I don’t know, then a thud, then a shot.
Maybe I’m hit. I don’t know, I just know the next shot will end me, so I push myself to my feet, ignoring the pain in my left forearm as I do. I spin and the world spins with me. I’m see two Vasquezs drawing a bead on me with six shooters the size of goddamned cannons and I kick out wildly with my left foot. His gun clatters off into the street and I draw my own, a snub nose .38. Matte black. No pretensions. A workhorse.
Vasquez spits and shouts more profanities, a mixture of Spanish and English and a few that might have been German as well. I let him go on for a while as my vision clears. My palms are bleeding my head aches and my left wrist is at least sprung, probably broken, but that’s alright. Ms. Sullivan is covering expenses.
Eventually I say, “I told you I just wanted to talk Eddy.”
“Fuck you, maricon.”
“Did you hurt Charlene?”
He blinks, “I don’t hurt women.”
Tension I didn’t know I was feeling ebbs from between my shoulders.
“You got a kid on your crew, package boy. Alejandro Castillo. Sicko. Likes to curl toes with the dead. He took something from a client. You need to tell me where he is.”
He spits again, but his demeanor has shifted from panic to a contemptuous nonchalance. He’s had a gun pointed at his head plenty and he knows, for me, killing him is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
“I’m not ratting out one of my crew, Briggs. You know that.”
I sigh, lower my gun a hair, a minor concession in our negotiations.
“I just want to talk to the kid. He’s already cost you a high-class buyer of monkey melon. You can’t be happy about that.”
Vasquez smiles, a wide genuine smile, the kind that makes young ladies swoon and lesser men want to punch him in his white teeth.
“Eat shit, pig.”
My left fist clenches and I instantly regret it.
Broken for sure.
Time to stop dicking around.
“He took her arm, Eduardo.”
Defiance turns to curiosity.
“Hell if I know. Some sort of sick fetish thing probably. That’s what the senator’s daughter is paying me to find out.”
“Well I haven’t seen him since yesterday, not that I’d tell you,” now Vasquez looks troubled.
“A man with a lust for the unliving is running around the city with an infected arm. I know you make a pretty profit on the great and the good’s dirty little secrets, but you can’t want another outbreak.”
The bluster is gone, I can see the wheels turning behind Vasquez dark eyes. He’s not stupid. Nobody with his skin tone gets as far as he has in this country without a good deal of cunning, but he also hates being cornered. And for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, at the moment, he hates me.
I haven’t roughed him up recently have I?
“Chuta Madre, Fine… Fine. I haven’t seen him, but some of the new boys hang out on that dive on Shelton.”
“Pool hall, right?”
“Yeah, The Pocket Palace,” he rolls his eyes. “He might be there, might not.”
“And I suppose you’ll call ahead, tell them to be extra welcoming for me?”
That lady killer grin is back. “You got me dead to rights, Briggs. That doesn’t happen very often. You leave the rest of my guys alone; they’ll leave you alone. You have my word.”
He spits on his palm and it’s my turn to roll my eyes, but I holster the .38 and spit on mine and we shake; then I haul him to his feet.
“Thanks Eduardo, maybe next time we skip the part where we draw down and just have a drink, huh?”
“If you’re buying, asshole.”
I turn to leave and finally remember why Vasquez is angry with me in the first place.
“Sorry about your girl, Eduardo,” I call over my shoulder. “I shouldn’t of gone there… I was on a bender. It happens.”
My self-satisfied smirk is stifled by his rich laughter.
“One day I’m going to kill you, Briggs. Kill you, or marry you off to my sister. She’d settle you down right.”
His laughter followed me into the night.
The Pocket Palace is a hole. Warm beer, broken pool cues and enough Latin gang members to scare off any reasonable patron. My kind of place.
It’s mostly empty. A couple mean looking customers are shooting pool near the back of the room while a couple of tired looking girls watch, smoking cigarettes and not talking to each other in Spanish. Otherwise the bar is empty. Castillo is nowhere in sight.
I take a seat at the bar and order a brew.
The bartender looks like he could smash rocks with his forehead.
“I think you’re in the wrong bar, amigo.”
I do my best not to picture his skull pulverizing mine and say, “I’m looking for a friend of a friend, heard he hung around this dump.”
A couple bruisers looked up from their game.
“Never heard of him,” says the bartender.
“I didn’t even tell you his name.”
“We still don’t know him.”
The men behind me aren’t even pretending to play anymore. I tilt my head to the side and catch one of the burly bastards easing up behind me to the right. I’m sure the other is doing the same to the left. Vasquez gave me his word his boys wouldn’t give me any trouble.
“Vasquez sent me. Wanted me to talk to him. Alejandro Castillo.”
The bartender slaps his hand against that overdeveloped forehead theatrically.
“You know what? We do know Little Al,” he says. “But you aren’t going to talk to him.”
It occurs to me that Vasquez’s word has always been worth about as much as the shit on sneakers. The goons are right behind me now. One or both of them had far too much garlic with their dinner.
I wonder how much a partner would cost me. Somebody to watch my back, who could take a punch or two for once.
Maybe I could pay in bourbon.
“Oh yeah?” I say, wondering idly if I could take one of them with me. “That’s a shame. Why not?”
“Because he’s dead, Pendejo.”
Burly arms grab me from both sides and for a moment that massive brow is the only thing I see. Then I see nothing.
“Daddy, I’m cold,” Sara said. “Why can’t I feel anything?”
“You’re sick baby, but they’re looking for a cure.” I said. “Now we need you to stay here at the clinic. You stay here and do what the nurses tell you and when Mommy and I get back, we’re going on a trip ok?”
“I’m hungry daddy… I want… daddy I want…” There is fear in my daughter’s eyes.
“I know baby. You gotta fight it. We’ll be back soon.”
Fire on the horizon.
I know it couldn’t have been Sara I heard that day, but in my dreams, it’s always her screams.
I’m freezing. Opening my eyes, I find out why.
I’m in a freezer.
It’s dark, the only source of light is a small rectangular window in the door. I’m propped against a huge bag of something. Rice or beans.
Alejandro Castillo is sitting next to me. Dead. Something sharp and gleaming sticking out of his chest.
My head feels trapped in a vice and about to explode all at once. It’s enough I almost forget the ache in my left arm. Almost.
“Al, why does everybody keep bashing me in the head?” I ask the corpse. “I’m a nice guy, I always say please and thank you. Help old ladies cross the street.”
Unsurprisingly Al has no words of comfort for me.
“Well, to hell with you then.”
I mentally brace myself and stand, leaning against a shelf while the world spins. It takes nearly a minute for my head to clear. I begin to take stock of my situation.
My gun is gone of course, so is my wallet and keys.
Thankfully they left my jacket, but probably just so I won’t die in here before Vasquez gives them permission to kill me.
“Probably shouldn’t have snaked his date, Al,” I say. “Maybe I should work on my manners.”
I inspect the door. No handle on the inside.
I look out the little window and take in the dirtiest kitchen I’ve seen in my life. The walls are caked in grease, cockroaches roam freely over dishes crusted with goo that might once have been edible, something simmers in a giant pot on an industrial stove.
Probably still in the pool hall.
“Looks like dinner’s almost ready, Al.”
Standing on my tip toes and looking down through the bottom of the window I make out the edge of a handle.
I turn back to the freezer’s interior and squint in the dim light, taking in my surroundings. Not counting myself or Al the freezer is pretty bare, just the bags we’d been rested against and a few cans of indeterminate contents.
The gears in my throbbing head began to churn out a desperate, stupid plan.
I fight another bout of vertigo as I crouch down next to Al’s body.
Checking his pockets, I find nothing and sigh.
“I’m really sorry about this pal,” I say and yank the gleaming metal from his chest.
A scalpel. Interesting.
I tear Al’s shirt open and inspect the wound. It’s small and clean right between the ribs. It isn’t leaking either, probably on account of the temperature.
“Good news Al, I know who killed you.”
Very slowly I rise to my feet and the room doesn’t seem to be spinning quite so much this time.
I pull a sturdy looking can without a label off the shelf and step back to the door holding in my good right hand, doing my best to grip the scalpel in my broken left.
I peek out the window to make sure nobody has entered the kitchen, then take a deep breath and close my eyes for a moment. There is a good chance I’ll be dead in the next minute or two.
“It’s been real Al,” I say. “You were a sick puppy, but I’m sorry you went out this way”
Then I smashed the can into the little window. Once. Twice. Three times.
On the fourth it shatters.
The vertigo is back but I’m out of time, so I shove my right hand through the shattered window and grab the door handle.
And then I hear laughter.
“Going somewhere Calvin?”
Through the window I see Vasquez smiling like the sun.
“Oh, just late for church, Eduardo.” I say. “I’ve got a lot of confessing to do.”
Caught and almost certainly headed to execution via gangster boot, I figure there is no reason to go meekly into that good night, so I unlatch the door and step out holding the scalpel in front of me.
I notice idly that blood is dripping down my right arm, pooling on the floor. I must have cut it pretty badly on the glass, but I don’t feel it.
Two of the goons who’d grabbed me stood behind Vasquez. None of them had a weapon drawn, though with two wounded arms and at least one concussion they could probably kill me with a well-aimed slap to the face.
“You’re bleeding on my floor, Calvin.”
“I thought the color might brighten the place up.” I say, and my bravado cracks. “I don’t suppose you’re very happy with me at the moment.”
“Not really no.”
I raise the scalpel between us. Vasquez eyes the scalpel thoughtfully for a moment then his face splits into that rakish smile once more.
“Let’s get you cleaned up, Briggs,” He says. “If I kill you, you can’t find the son of a whore who killed Alejandro.”
Half an hour later I’m bandaged, splinted and getting into a cab. Turns out Vasquez was a medic back in the war. He gave me some pills for my head, but I knew they’d make me groggy so I pocketed them for later. It’s sometime after 2 a.m.
“Uptown,” I tell the driver, and settle into the back seat for a think.
Every fiber of my being wanted to go downtown to my tiny apartment and fall into my tiny bed and sleep for a solid twelve hours, but Vasquez had let me know in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t find the person who’d killed his man, he’d do it himself. And then come after me. Plus, something in me, the intuition that had once made me a pretty good detective, told me this case would go cold the second I took my feet off the gas.
So, as the cab rolls through the empty, late night streets I take stock of what I know.
I’d found Castillo, but seeing as he’s dead, he most likely wasn’t the thief. The scalpel in the chest pointed a bright red arrow at Margot Sullivan’s doctor, what was his name? Winston? Winifred?
Any doctor for the dead won’t be listed in the phone book. I could keep chasing down underworld contacts until he shakes lose, but if things keep going the way they had tonight I’d wind up with more hospital bills than the job is worth.
I could just ask Margot, but she doesn’t have a phone, and something tells me the doorman in her building doesn’t allow strange gentlemen callers after midnight.
That leaves Mary, the person who recommended my services to Margo Sullivan in the first place, the last person in the world I want to see.
From the outside Mary’s place looks a good deal nicer than mine, thick oak door in a quiet neighborhood next to a park. If she works for a senator, she probably has her life together.
Good for her.
It’s 3 a.m. but I knock anyway. Mary got me into this mess, she can damn well help me get to the bottom of it.
It takes a few minutes, but she answers the door. She’s wearing a bathrobe and doesn’t seem the slightest bit surprised to see me. She’s beautiful.
“Hello Mary, sorry it’s so late.”
She shrugs and steps aside so I can come in.
The door opens into her living room. She turns on a lamp and sits in a plush reading chair. The house is warm, with comfortable furniture, books on every surface, and a well-used brick fireplace flanked by sofas. A photo of Sara giggling, holding a sleeping kitten hangs over the mantle. Our house had looked much the same.
“Looks like you’ve been put through the ringer,” Mary says. “Sit down before you fall down.”
I do, on one of the sofas, and a nearly undeniable wave of weariness sweeps over me.
“How’s the case going?” Mary’s large eyes are full of concern though for me or Margo Sullivan I can’t say.
“Pretty much the usual,” I raise my splinted left arm. “Thanks for the work I suppose. Seemed kind of cruel, but it’s been a slow couple months.”
“You were the only person I knew who would help, who wouldn’t turn her in or go to the papers,” Mary says. “And I thought… I thought maybe a case like this would help you. It’s been five years.”
If I stay on the couch I’ll pass out for sure, so I get up and begin perusing one of her many bookshelves. She has a bit of everything from classics to trashy romance. I even spot a couple pulp detective novels and grimace.
Turning back to her I say, “Alejandro Castillo is dead. Scalpel in the chest. I don’t know if he had anything to do with taking the Sullivan girl’s arm but I’m pretty sure that doctor of her’s did him in.”
“Dr. Winsted?” Mary seemed surprised. “I only met him a handful of times, but he always seemed… eager… positive.”
“Well maybe he hummed a little tune while sawing Margot’s arm off, but most folks don’t harvest the infected for parts.”
“So, you need to know where he is.”
I nod, and the world spins.
I close my eyes and it stops.
When I open them again Mary is next to me concern in her eyes.
“I haven’t seen you roughed up this bad in a long time,” her hand is on my arm.
“It’s been a shit night.”
“Let me make you up a bed. The case will still be there in the morning.”
I’m tempted, but say, “No. I need to see this through tonight.”
“Because of Sara.”
Mary cups my face in her hand and kisses me lightly on the lips for the first time in years, “We let what happened to our daughter destroy US, I’m not going to let it destroy YOU. Come to bed.”
She took me by the hand and lead me to the bedroom.
It’s 7 a.m. and my heads still pounding, but with three hours sleep and some strong black coffee at least I’m not falling down exhausted anymore.
The cool autumn sun is just beginning to peak over the horizon when my taxi pulls up behind the stark grey façade of a non-descript warehouse. This is where Mary said Dr. Winsted received his checks.
I pay the fare and take a stroll around the building. Windows are too high to see through and there are only a couple doors, one facing the street, one off of an alley across from a nearly identical grey warehouse. The streets are empty. Nobody comes to this part of town without a reason and rarely a reputable one.
I jimmy the lock on the alley door, draw my .38 and step into the darkness.
It’s only dark for a moment. Fluorescent bulbs buzz to life and I blink in the cold light.
While the exterior of the warehouse was unassuming, nearly identical to the buildings surrounding it, I’d never seen anything quite like the inside. Walls, clinical white tiles, same with the floor. there’s the hum coming from a massive refrigeration unit against one wall. Half a dozen metal slabs sit in front of me near the middle of the room. Bodies lay on three of them.
I’m in a morgue.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.
I have just enough time to register something large moving on my left before I go flying to the right.
I land hard on my right shoulder and skid a few feet on the tile. Pain sears up my arm as the cuts I received trying to break out of that damned freezer open back up.
I roll onto my back just in time to see something huge and vaguely human shaped bearing down on me. It has tentacles. No, arms. Too many arms for a person.
My gun isn’t in my hand anymore.
It grabs fistfuls of my jacket and picks me up as easily as I would a child. Limbs sprouting from the middle of its torso clutch at my clothing. They don’t seem to have much strength but they pinch and dig into my flesh all the same, making me cry out.
I force myself to level my gaze at the monstrosity’s head and meet the cloudy eyes of the dead. It roars and I smell fetid meat. It’s bald and naked and bigger than any man I’ve ever seen. I know I am about to die.
“Careful now Clarence,” a calm voice says from behind the creature. “We wouldn’t want to damage our new subject.”
The monstrosity grunts and sets me down but keeps a firm hold on the lapels of my jacket. Its extra hands, there are at least half a dozen, release me. From its cloudy eyes and blackened broken teeth, I reckon it must have been infected during one of the first outbreaks.
It should not be able to follow commands.
It should be rampaging through the streets cracking every skull it sees and drinking the insides.
I weigh trying to fight free from it’sits grip, but those arms, the ones sprouting out the sides like normal, are thicker than my legs. It would likely just bash me into a pulp.
A man of about 30 in a lab coat steps around the monstrosity and gives me a practiced smile. He’s holding my .38 casually at his side.
“I apologize for your rough treatment,” he says. “We don’t get many visitors and Clarence is very protective of our privacy here.”
“You’re Winsted?” I ask, knowing the answer.
“Thought you’d be older.”
This time the doctor’s smile is genuine and sardonic.
“Sometimes I wish I were. If I’d been practicing medicine before the last outbreak my research would have progressed much more efficiently. Still, there’s no use dwelling on what we cannot change. For instance, you caught us at a bit of a bad time. We were in the middle of packing, but now we’ll have to delay our plans to deal with you. You were hired by Ms. Sullivan I take it?”
Professional ethics dictate I play dumb, but considering I am looking literal death in the face I decide at least a little honesty might buy me some time.
“You got me,” I say. “Hired me last night and I’ve found you already. The police are already on their way, so I’d get out of here if I were you.”
A bit of truth followed by a whole lot of bullshit. it’s It’s the best I can do at the moment. I pray Winsted buys it.
He does not.
“We both know Senator Sullivan would never allow police interference,” he says. “Clarence strap him to the table please.”
The gargantuan picks me back up and shoves me under an arm like a bag of groceries. As he plods to the row of examination tables my feet drag against the ground, but just barely.
“Seriously the cops are on their way! I only came in first to try to get rid of evidence connecting you to the senator.” I feel like a toddler trying to get out of a belting, but I have to do something. I don’t know what this psychopath has planned for me, but I know the second I’m tied to the table I’ll never walk out of here.
I ram my left elbow into the creature’s gut, just below the writhing mass of limbs and despite a slight give, it doesn’t slow a bit, but the shock of impact reverberates down the broken arm making me gasp.
“Clarence’s pain receptors withered a long time ago,” the doctor says conversationally. “You could cut him open from hip to sternum and he’d mosey along as if nothing had happened. Well at least until he tripped over his intestines.”
“You’re a sick bastard, doc,” I say.
“I’m a scientist,” he says as Clarence slams me onto the cold metal slab.
I make another swipe at it, my fist connecting to its jaw. Again, the lug simply ignores my attack except to grab my wrist in one hand and force it down onto the cold metal.
Winsted continues as if nothing had happened at all.
“After the last outbreak, the government decided research into the virus was simply too dangerous and now simply kill and burn the infected. The short-sighted fools.”
“Well that tends to happen after two clinics become ground zero for larger outbreaks,” I grunt. Then before Winsted can respond, I pull my knees to my chest and kick up through the forest of limbs to connect with Clarence’s face.
The infected giant’s head snaps back and for a fraction of a second its grip loosens. I manage to slip my left wrist from its meaty paw and launch myself towards the doctor.
He lifts my .38 and fires. I don’t register if I’m hit or not and my shoulder collides with his midsection. We hit the tile and the gun goes spinning off. I scramble for it, taking special care to put a boot in the doctor’s face as I go.
As my hand closes around the woodgrain of its handle a massive hand closes around my leg. I’m lifted into the air. Blood rushes to my head.
All I see is a grey mass of necrotic torso and flailing arms. The gun is still in my hand.
I squeeze the trigger twice. Bullets slam into the monstrosity’s chest but it does not loosen its grip.
A hand, slim, but strong closes around my neck. I can’t move my head but aiming by instinct I send three more shots up through the nest of flailing arms.
I realize the .38 is empty a fraction of a second before the behemoth releases his grip on my leg and I plummet headfirst to the floor.
Everything goes white.
Sara is crying. “I can’t feel anything, poppa.”
“Cal, we have to get her out of the city…”
“There’s a cargo ship to Canada, we can make it if.…
Fire erupts in the distance, “The bastards actually did it.”
I don’t have time for this.
I cut through the haze of pain and memory with a sheer force of will to see Winsted standing over me rifling through my pockets.
He sees my eyes open and there is panic in his for a moment before my fist connects with the side of his head.
He reals reels back but keeps his feet and points the .38 at me as I rise to my feet.
“Sorry, Doc, out of bullets.”
Winsted lets out a frustrated grunt, pulls the trigger a couple times just to make sure then chucks the gun in my direction and runs toward the front entrance.
I take it in the shoulder, but barely register the pain as I chase after Winsted.
He’s younger than I am, and I’m injured, but he’s also led the soft life of a researcher. I catch him by the examination tables, tackling him against one of the metal slabs with the full force of my body. The doctor gives an audible moan as the air leaves his body and he slumps forward. I ratchet a cuff around his right hand then give him an elbow to the face to keep him docile before securing the second cuff around his left.
“Keys?” I growl.
“In my right pocket,” he wheezes.
I take them and then track down my .38. It skidded to a halt under Clarence’s grotesque patchwork body. I have to awkwardly reach through the forest of arms protruding from his chest to get it. I gag but manage to keep the bile down.
I load the gun and walk back over to Winsted, who’s staring blankly into space.
He gives a start and blinks up at me as if surprised I’m still there.
“In… in the Freezer.”
It’s a squat thing at the end of the row of examination tables. Inside I find half a dozen plastic bags with half a dozen body parts. There are three bags with arms in them. Luckily one of them has “Margot Sullivan” scrawled on the plastic. I close the lid without retrieving it.
“On my desk, over there,” Winsted nods his head towards a corner of the warehouse blocked off by plastic sheeting.
Halfway across the floor it occurs to me that I am in a lot of pain. My head aches, my right arm is bleeding again and I’m pretty sure I’ve re-fractured the left. There’s also something wrong with my right hip though I can’t remember how I injured it.
Behind the plastic sheeting I find a meticulously tidy desk, some filing cabinets and a chalkboard with some fairly gruesome diagrams, one of which I’m certain depicted Clarence.
I pick up the phone and dial.
A voice answers after a few rings.
“I found him. I need a car.”
Twenty minutes later I shove Winsted into the back seat of Vasquez’s black convertible. I slide in beside him with the .38 trained on his head. Margot Sullivan’s arm is cradled in the crook of my left arm, twitching and grasping disconcertingly in it’sits plastic packaging.
Vasquez sits behind the wheel and the bartender who’d cracked me in the skull is crammed into the passenger seat, his legs crumpled into his chest.
“Vasquez,” I say. “Big Guy.”
“You found him quick, Briggs,” Vasquez says. “Maybe you aren’t a washed up old drunk after all.”
“Gotta clear a case every now and then if I want to keep drinking, right,” I say. “I need you to take me to my office. My client will be there in half an hour.”
“That wasn’t the deal. We’re sending this asshole off the pier.”
I knew this was coming.
“Look I don’t care what you do with this creepy piece of trash,” I launch into my sales pitch. “But he’s the only person who can re-attach this for my client.”
I wave Margot’s arm in his face. Vasquez recoils for a moment then eyes Winsted thoughtfully.
“You can sew arms back on people, Pendejo?”
The Doctor gives a start. He’d been staring off into space as if he couldn’t quite fathom what had happened to him.
“Um only the infected… for now,” He says. “My research with them is going to revolutionize medical science!”
Vasquez lets out a low chuckle.
“You won’t be researching much from the bottom of the bay,” He pauses. “But I’d like to see an arm get reattached. So, I suppose I’ll let you live a little longer.”
We’d only just made it to my office, when Margot Sullivan sashays in. Dark glasses, makeup, and gloves mask her condition. She’s every inch the elegant socialite. She is flanked by a couple heavys in black suits.
“You work fast Mr. Briggs,” she says spotting her arm lying on my desk, writhing like a blind snake. “Honestly, I thought you’d take a week to milk more money out of me.”
I shrug, “Tips are always appreciated.”
Margot’s black lensed gaze shifts to Dr. Winsted, still handcuffed and looking miserable in a ladder- backed chair. Margot’s lips contort in a feral snarl and suddenly there is no question of what she is.
“You will suffer for what you’ve done,” she says, and I wonder what happened to the lovesick girl who’d hired me less than 24 hours ago.
“He can fix it,” I say. “He’s been using infected body parts in some disgusting experiments, but he’s figured out how to reattach limbs.”
Margot’s snarl melts into something more thoughtful.
After a moment she says, “Scott, Larry, take him to the car please.”
Vasquez shoots to his feet from his seat behind me.
“Not going to happen, lady. That son of a whore killed one of my men. He’s sleeping with the fishes tonight.”
Margot’s black gaze turns to Vasquez.
“Who are you and why do you think you can talk to me like that?”
“I’m the one making sure you stay fed and don’t lose that pretty little mind of yours,” he says. “So, you’ll let the Doctor here sew up your arm and then let me deal with him.”
Margot lets out a dry laugh.
“You’re the boss Eddy Al always complained about. I always thought you’d be fatter. Brains are cheap and my family has more money than you could hope to see in 100 lifetimes. Should you deny us service, we’ll find another supplier. Dr. Winsted comes with us.”
A pistol appears in Vasquez’s hand. He points it at the doctor.
“One way or another this bastard dies today.”
Margot’s heavys pull out guns out the size of cannons and train them on Vasquez who grins wildly.
I should draw my own gun, find cover, pray for one more lucky break in this unending parade of shit I’ve been marching in since Margot Sullivan sauntered into my office 12 hours ago. Maybe I just don’t have any adrenaline left, but instead of fear I feel only frustration and and bone aching weariness
Dad was a baker. I could be a baker. Probably too late in life for a career change though.
I put my head in my hands and let out a long sigh.
“Are we really fighting over who gets to punish this scumbag? Because he nearly harvested me for parts this morning and frankly, I don’t care who kills him.”
The snarl is back on Margot’s face, “Nobody is killing him, Mr. Briggs. If Dr. Winsted can reattach an infected arm, his research is much too valuable to waste.”
The doctor gave a relieved sigh.
“He’ll continue his research under my father’s supervision,” she turns her snarl on the doctor who’d fallen out of the chair and cowered behind it the moment guns were drawn. “In a state of the artstate-of-the-art lab with no windows and very heavy locks on the doors. He’ll never see sunlight again.”
“That work for you, Vasquez?” I ask.
“Fuck you Briggs,” he says, then shoves his gun back into his holster and storms out of my office.
“I’m still going to kill you one day,” he calls from halfway down the hall.
Margot’s thugs holster their own weapons and I let out another heavy sigh.
“You have some charming friends, Mr. Briggs.”
“Occupational hazard, Ms. Sullivan,” I say. “Forgive me, but I’m exhausted and should probably see a doctor. Would you please pay me and get your mad scientist out of my office?”
Margot smiles and reaches into her purse, pulling out a roll of bills and sets it on my desk.
“This is for your services.”
She sets a second roll next to the first.
“This is for your expenses.”
A third, much larger roll hits the desk with an audible thud.
“And this is for your discretion,” she says. “Thank you, Mr. Briggs.”
She leaves without another word. One of the goons picks her writhing arm off my desk, the other grabs Dr. Winsted by the collar and they follow her out.
I sit in silence for a few minutes, physically and emotionally spent.
Eventually I reach into a drawer, dig under the bottle of whiskey and a few casefiles I should have thrown out years ago and find a cheap wooden picture frame. I set it on the desk and look at Sara’s smiling face for a while.
Then I collect Margot Sullivan’s money and I go to the hospital.
Thanks for reading Disarmed! If you enjoyed it hit that like button and leave a comment. If you’d like to check out more of my weird stories and musings about life, the universe, and the meaning of existence, then subscribe to mindful of madness. You can also find me on twitter @drewjokeringram or on Instagram @andrewingram88. Thanks, my self-esteem depends on you.