Thank you, 101 Words, for publishing my microfiction.
The same electric sign has hung out over the sidewalk in front of Dusty’s Pub since 1946. The sign features a cartoon French maid dusting the word “Dusty’s” with a feather duster. One warm summer evening in 1978, Dusty, the club’s namesake and creative genius behind the sign, clutched his chest, slid down a wall behind the bar, and was no more. His widow sold Dusty’s before Dusty was cold and the pub went to a man named Claude Radke.
Radke did not rename Dusty’s Pub. Instead, he opted to spend the money needed for a new sign on something more practical. This practical something turned out to be a seven cartons of cigarettes which he smoked through in four weeks.
As Dusty had, Claude Radke required that “his girls” wear the uniform of the French maid on the sign. On Friday and Saturday nights, two of Claude’s girls would skitter about the pub slinging drinks and tickling the noses of their tippers with feather dusters. It was said that Radke’s girls would tickle other things although that remained, as yet, unproven.
One drunken night, Claude Radke groped one of his girls and she slapped him. Hard. Humiliated, he tossed her out on the sidewalk to the drunken cheers of his small knot of elderly regulars.
The banished waitress showed up at my desk the next morning with information about Claude Radke she thought I could use. She was right. I dropped by Dusty’s later that afternoon to tell him the good news.
Three men sat at the bar when I walked in. They swiveled to me.
“Afternoon, boys,” I said, opening my jacket. “Stop by again when you can’t stay so long.”
They grumbled at the badge and finished their drinks, tearing bills from wallets and flipping them onto the bar.
“So long, Claude,” one said.
“Thanks for stopping, guys,” Radke replied bitterly. The door closed behind them and Radke said: “What in hell do you want?”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” I said, taking a seat. “I’m on duty.”
He scowled. “A comedian.”
We were the only two in the building so I made a show of looking around and asked: “How’s business?”
His eyes narrowed to fiery little slits of hate. “You want something, cop?” he snarled, “or are you just here harassing a hardworking businessman for no reason?”
I shrugged. “Your gal, Louise, stopped in to see me this morning.”
“Not my gal.”
“Not anymore,” Radke said. He dried his hands on a towel.
“She claims you sell cocaine.”
Radke waved a hand in dismissal. “Bah.”
“She told me you keep a pile of it in a coffee can in back.”
“If you knew Louise. She’s crazy.”
“You won’t mind if I look around a bit since you’ve got nothing to hide.”
Claude Radke smiled sweetly; a golden tooth glinted. “Be my guest,” he said. “Long as you got a warrant.”
“Funny you should say that,” I said. I made a show of pulling open my jacket, reaching in, and coming out with a crisp, white sheet of paper, triple-folded.
Radke’s eyes shot to it and stayed there. His forehead bunched up. His nostrils flared.
“Do not do it Radke,” I said.
He bolted out the back.
I laid my palms on the bar, tried to vault it, and bashed a shin. I went down over a couple stools and gimped out the door, cursing a blue street. I went around to the alley and there stood Claude Radke, hunched over and gasping at the ground.
“You should have turned left,” I panted.
He ran a ways before sliding out in the gravel. He landed on his hands and rolled over onto his back. He laid there and moaned for a while and when he sat up, I was there. I palmed his forehead and laid him back down in the rocks.
“I don’t gotta talk to you, cop!” he snarled. “I want my lawyer.”
I let go of his face and sat n the dirt besi, panting. Radke was panting too. A deep, bloody gash had been carved out above his right eyebrow and both knees were torn up slick.
“Too old to be running, Claude. Where in hell would you even go?”
“I want my lawyer.”
“So you said.”
I stood and dusted my pants and held out a hand to Radke. He ignored it and climbed up on his own, wincing. We walked back towards the pub.
“I’m not arresting you,” I said.
“On the level.”
He stopped. “What is this?”
“Here it is: You give me the coffee can and I’ll walk out of here. You get to decide what you do with your time for the next three to five.”
Radke’s eyes got narrow and shrewd. He scowled. “You’re gonna sell it?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“You’re a coke head?”
I shrugged and walked. “Take it or leave it. Ask yourself how much your lawyer charges and compare.”
He grimaced and kept up. “I didn’t take you for a dirty blackmailer, cop. Next month you’ll be back for more.
“One and done. I’ll shoot straight with you, Claude. We’ve known each other a long time.”
He jutted out his chin. “And if I don’t?”
I shrugged. “The Department gets it. You pay an attorney for a plea deal, and you probably do time.”
We walked in the back door of Dusty’s and he put a large can of Folger’s in my hands. I opened it; Louise was telling the truth. I set the can on a table, pulled cuffs from my belt and said: “Claude Radke, I’m arresting you for possession of a narcotic with intent to sell. You have the right to remain silent…”
“You lied to me,” Radke said. His lips were shiny and spit flew when he said it.
I put the cuffs on him, finished his rights, and marched him around the bar out the front door. The pub was still empty.
Radke was bewildered.
I dug in my jacket pocket, removed the folded paper, unfolded it and showed it to him.
“LOST,” it said. “Male German Shepherd answers to the name Rex. Missing since June 17th. Has shots and is friendly. If found, please call…”
I folded the paper back into my jacket and Claude Radke and I took a drive downtown.
You get down into some of these third-world countries and the tech is thirty years behind; this airport had a pay phone.
There’s weight to the sound of a real phone bell you don’t get with a cell. I heard the ringing from far away and ran to it.
Saturday afternoon. Civilians everywhere. A mother gripped her son by the arm and bawled, “Mind me!”
I shoved through. “Down! Down! Down!” I said and a little girl landed on her butt and slid.
A man picked up the handset and the phone detonated.
She pulled from her cigarette, blew a stream of white smoke over my head, and asked: “Really John, what are you implying?”
“I’m not implying anything,” I said. “I’m telling you flat-out that you killed your husband.”
She blinked. There was a slight clenching of the jaw. Otherwise, her face remained careless and slack. She laughed. “You’ve seen too many movies!”
She sighed and regarded me with disappointed eyes. “Well, come in then,” she said, stepping aside. “There’s no point in giving the neighborhood a show.”
I brushed past.
The house was big and lushly decorated, the floors a rich hardwood, the draperies heavy and expensive. We sat on a sofa by the fire.
“Can I offer you a drink?” she asked.
“There’s no time for that.”
“I see,” she said. “Well, in that case I guess you’d better get to it.”
“Your alibi sold you out.”
Fear flashed in her eyes. She looked to the fireplace and when she turned back, the fear was gone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s Ralph,” I said. “He’s your Achilles. The cops brought a little pressure down on him and he fell apart like a jigsaw puzzle. They know you left his place the night your husband was murdered.”
She inhaled sharply and stood up, her eyes big and afraid. “That’s – that’s ridiculous!” she said. “Of course I was at Ralph’s! His – his neighbors saw me there.”
I stood and took hold of her hands. “They saw you walk into his house that night, sure. They even saw you leave the next morning. But they didn’t stay up all night to see if you left. They didn’t keep tabs on the back door.”
She shook her head. “But – but I – ”
“Drop the act, sister!” I barked. “You’re cooked and running out of time. O’Malley will be here as soon as he has the warrant.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “What should I do?” she asked.
“You have the money?”
“And you’re packed and ready to go?”
She nodded again.
“Change of plans,” I said releasing her hands. “You’re leaving with me and I want Ralph’s half, understand?”
She stared blankly. Her mouth tried to make words.
I took her hands again and shook them. “Ralph sold you out. If you don’t want the chair, you and I need to go. Now.”
That broke the trance. She flew up the stairs and returned within seconds with a suitcase and a purse.
“Great,” I said. “Where’s the cash?”
“Here,” she said, tapping her purse.
“All of it?”
She nodded. “Eighty-thousand.”
“All right,” I said, taking the suitcase from her. “We’ll take my car to the airport. The cops won’t be watching for it.”
She nodded and started for the front door. Quietly, I set her suitcase down, caught up to her at the door, and sapped her with a blackjack.
She lay sprawled on the floor, her purse beside her. I opened it, took the cash, and slipped out of the house, closing the door behind me. Sirens wailed in the distance as I drove off into the sunshine.
Louie had a drink waiting for me.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
He nodded. “New hat?”
I removed it and laid it on the bar. “Twelve bucks.”
Louie whistled. “Must be nice.”
“Big money in detective work. Nothing but fur coats and limousines.”
The grin died on his face. “Fat Rico was in asking about you.”
“What did you say?”
“Told him I didn’t know nothing but it looks like he figured it out on his own.”
Fat Rico stood in the doorway.
“Do me another favor, Louie,” I said, nodding at the hat. “Put that somewhere safe, will you?”
The punch fell from the sky like a bolt of lightning, catching me on the forehead and driving me backwards. I laid down, rested my head on the curb, and watched the tops of the buildings. The brickwork looked peaceful up in the sky with the fluffy clouds. I liked it.
“That’s not him, Mikey!” someone said.
“No?” a bigger voice asked.
A hand that matched the bigger voice went into my jacket and took my wallet. “Sorry buddy,” the voice said while the hand took my cash and dropped the wallet on my chest. “Guess I owe you one.”
It was one of the nicer houses on its block which is to say three or four of the windows still held glass and the yard had been mowed at some point over the past year. The front door sagged from twisted hinges over a foot-wide chasm where the porch fell away from the house. There might have been a shutter still dangling that hadn’t yet fallen into the weeds. It was a nice place.
Klein was talking to reporters out front. I nodded and ducked the yellow tape.
I managed to bridge the gap between porch and house without snapping my leg off, walked inside, and retched at a stench that might have been rotting maggots fermenting in the sun.
A broad L-shaped staircase brought me up to a second-floor hallway. There were four bedrooms here, two on each side. Filthy mattresses and greasy sleeping bags were sacked around on the floors. Bottles, cans, and cigarette butts were everywhere. Drying puddles of bodily fluids added to the ambiance.
A bathroom about the size of a teacup stood at the end of the hallway with its door open. Sweeney and McGregor were inside looking at blood spatter.
Sweeney saw me and his eyes changed. He hissed something at McGregor who waddled over and pressed a meaty palm into my chest.
“Hold up, Joe.”
“Sweeney thinks you should sit this one out.”
Sweeney stepped up and laid an arm around my shoulder. “Joe! How you been?”
I looked at Sweeney. Then at McGregor. I looked at Sweeney again. “What is this?”
Sweeney paused and mumbled something to the floor and I put it together.
“You don’t want me to see her.”
Sweeney tried to guide me back towards the steps. “Let’s go down, Joe. You should be sitting for this.”
“Who is she?” I asked, trying to squirm free.
Sweeney and McGregor blocked my path. “Hold up a minute,” McGregor said.
My mouth was dry. A bead of sweat slid down my back. I didn’t like my new heart rate. “Get your mitts off me. Let me see.”
Sweeney exhaled. “Joe…” He and McGregor exchanged a look. “Listen, there’s no easy way to do this. Nothing I say is going to prepare you. Maybe I should just let you see for yourself if that’s how you want to play it.”
From far away I heard myself tell him it was. My heart triple-timed. Sweeney said more but I heard it the way you hear the television as you drift off to sleep. He and McGregor stepped aside. I floated down the hall and I was in the bathroom, kneeling by the tub. The woman was young, maybe still a girl. She was sprawled on her back, bare arms dangling over the sides of the tub, blood still dripping from a fingertip.
She was clothed which struck me as unusual. Her short shorts and sleeveless t-shirt were sopped. Blood was smeared across her face and neck, smeared across her teeth. The skin that wasn’t painted bloody was a bruised yellow turquoise. Her lips were grey. Her hair, blonde at one time, was red and black and matted. I studied her face. Then, I turned to Sweeney: “So? Who am I looking at?”
Sweeney’s eyes narrowed and he furrowed his brow. “You don’t know?”
“Never seen her before.”
Sweeney looked to McGregor.
“Look again,” McGregor said.
I turned back and the girl was sitting. She shrieked at me, wild-eyed and hysterical. I shrieked back. She lunged for me and I was on my feet with my gun out. Sweeney and McGregor threw themselves at me. They took hold of my arm as the gun fired. It sounded like an atomic bomb in that little room.
They pinned my wrist to the wall above my head and held it there. They were blocking the girl. I couldn’t see the girl! Someone was screaming and screaming. I closed my mouth and the screaming went away. Sweeney’s contorted face swam in front of me. He was insistent, barking orders, trying to reach me. My ears sang.
“…a gag,” Sweeney was saying, distant and tinny. “Not real. It isn’t real…” His face was shiny and pasty. His eyes looked insane.
We stood this way for several seconds. Finally, McGregor tilted his head, squinted at me, and released my wrist. He turned to the tub. Sweeney let go and I had my arm back.
The girl was on her side in the the tub with her hands over her ears and her knees pulled up tight. She was shivering, frantic, talking to herself. Sunlight streamed in through a fresh bullet hole in the wall. My bullet couldn’t have missed her head by more than six inches.
I stumbled to the hall, found a place to slide down the wall, and sat on the floor. I laid my gun beside me. My pants were wet. Sweeney knelt by the tub and comforted the girl.
McGregor came out and sat beside me. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He picked lint off his pants. Finally, he said: “I tried to warn him, Joe, but you know how he is. I told him it was too much.” He turned, appraised me frankly, shook his head, and returned to the lint. “Great gag.”
My voice was hoarse and thin. “What happened?”
McGregor sighed at his pants. “The girl is his niece. She’s taking some acting courses at the community college. This whole thing came about when she told Sweeney her acting could fool a cop.”
I considered this for a while. “Makeup?”
McGregor nodded once. “Everybody was in on it. The reporters are actors. Sweeney wanted to get back at you for that stunt you pulled with the pizza delivery guy.”
I smiled ruefully. “Mission accomplished.”
The girl bet him $10 she could convince you she was dead,” McGregor said. “Looks like she won.”
I shook my head. “The blood didn’t smell. There was too much of it not to smell. I knew it felt wrong, I just couldn’t – I couldn’t quite…”
McGregor shook his head again. “Sweeney.”
“Let’s hope the girl isn’t in shock.”
“She’ll come around. Listen, Joe, you’re not gonna…you know…report this, are you? Sweeney and me and Klein, we could lose our badges.”
I shook my head. “What is this trash heap anyway?”
“Crack house, maybe? Smack? I dunno, ask Sweeney. I’m just here because he told me to be.”
I nodded and climbed unsteadily to my feet. I felt ninety years old.
“What are you gonna do?” McGregor asked.
“Going home for dry skivvies.”
McGregor nodded and returned his attention to the the lint on his pants. “Sweeney,” he said.