Friday, July 12, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Four

"What in the name of the blessed Virgin was that?" Louden finally asked. We were headed back to my office. Louden had been quiet up until now, and so had I. What do you say after an encounter like that? I personally had decided to forget what Cicci had looked like, and focus on what he'd said. "She's gone." "She's where no one can reach her now." "Too late for her."

It didn't sound to my ears like Cicci was gloating or happy about the girl's fate. Dare I even say it, I thought he sounded full of regret. Whatever part he'd played in her demise, he wanted to take it back. He hadn't realized the mistake until his body went rogue on him.

"That was a dying mobster," I replied.

"That thing..." Louden trailed off. "What was happening to him?"

I felt a little guilty, I admit, for not sharing fully with Louden what had happened in the alleyway last night. I knew he could be trusted with it, but maybe I was a little concerned that he'd decided I needed to see the inside of a padded cell. But now he'd seen something like that with his own eyes. I decided it was time to tell him. I told him all of it; the alleyway, the shadow thing with hands that had eyes and mouths on them. Vivian Vanderhoff and her strange, urgent demand that I find her book and decorative stick. The whole nine yards.

Louden said not a word until we were both back at the office.

"Jeez-a-loo!" exclaimed Glenda at seeing us. "You two look like you seen a ghost!"

"In that neighborhood," I said, trying to affect a grin. Glenda is not unused to seeing me in an evil mood, if I've just come back from a tougher job, but I doubt she's seen me white as a sheet before. Louden and I went into my back office where I doffed my flogger on one of the sofas and headed for the cabinet I keep at the back. I needed a stiff hooker of scotch, and I was pretty sure Louden wouldn't turn that down, either. I got out the bottle and two glasses, while Louden sat and fished out a smoke. He sat a while longer, puffing on his snipe and dipping his bill occasionally after taking the proffered glass. Finally he spoke.

"So," he said. "We headed to Racks, then?"

"I'm getting a feeling," I replied. "That Racks may help put us on Probst's trail, but I don't think he's there."

"Why's that?"

"It's what Vivian Vanderhoff was saying about his need to have that book," I said. "Maybe this whole Three-Fingers case is changing the way I look at things. At first I was sure he wanted something that was valuable and could get him some decent scratch."

"Not unreasonable," said Louden. "Two-bit flim-flam men like him are always looking for ways to line their pockets."

"Sure," I agreed. "But that book. Where would he fence something like that? What possible street value could it have? No, he wasn't taking it to sell it or make any prophet from it. He wanted the book for himself."

"That's assuming it was even him what took it," Louden reminded me. "This Vanderhoff dame suspects he has it but she has no proof."

"True," I said. "But we know he wanted it. According to Miss Vanderhoff he was desperate for it. If he doesn't have it himself, he must know what it is, and what it's good for. Either way, he's our best lead."

"Oh, I don't doubt that," said Louden. "But I gotta tell you, Zed. This whole thing is giving me the cold creeps. Whatever was happening with Cicci, I don't think we killed him, and that means he can...I don't know. But unless it's my imagination, those whispering things? I think he made those, somehow. We never saw them, but then, we never would have seen him if you hadn't forced your way into his room. After what you saw, and then what we saw, now we're going after some old book that men can get obsessed with. None of this seems square. If I didn't know better, I'd think we were being played for suckers."

"I had that thought, too," I said. "But obviously that ain't it." I polished off my drink and put my feet on my desk. Then I pulled out my deck and lit a Lucky. "Take some time, Louden," I said. "Go see your family. Kiss the wife. Play with your kids. Try and restore some energy. Tonight we're going to Racks, and if Probst isn't there, we're not stopping until we find out where he is."

Evening came. Glenda was gone. The sun was starting to fall, and I was pouring myself another shot of liquid courage. The photos of the book and claw were still on my desk. I'd taken polaroids of them so I could keep them in my coat pocket. Ol' Pappy was in his holster, strapped to my chest. At this point, I was fully prepared to walk into that pool bar and be confronted by a bunch of Dracula's, but whatever the case may be, I wanted to be as prepared as I could be.

I heard Louden walk in, heavy feet tromping through the outer office. His short, stocky silhouette filled the glass of my door. He knocked, which he usually doesn't do.

"Ready to go?" I heard him call. I double-checked Ol' Pappy. He was fully loaded, and I had another clip in a separate pocket, easy to reach. I stood and donned my Fedora, and we headed for the Model A.

Racks looked like every other pool joint I'd ever seen, or at least it did while we were still arriving. Both Louden and I were paying closer attention to the premonitions you can sometimes get in this  business. That itchy feeling that makes you think you've got a gun trained on you from somewhere in the shadows. The sense that someone's watching you. Sometimes you need to pay attention to those feelings. Other times they're just normal paranoia. This time, though, we both felt it. Something wasn't right inside Racks.

The joes were coming and going through the front door, just like they should be. The sign was lit. Smoke and the noise of music poured through the door whenever it opened. Nobody would have looked twice at it on the way by. But when I looked at the front of the building, a sense that something was looking back assailed me. Something that could see me and knew my name, and didn't want me coming in. I told myself that today's encounter with Cicci had me jumpy, but I couldn't convince myself of that.

Louden looked at me. His eyes told me he felt it too. I nodded and patted the spot under my coat where ol' Pappy was holstered. He patted his own, and we started for the door. The smoke smell hit me strong, as did the smell of spilled eel juice and the noises of people shouting and music being played. I heard pool balls smacking against each other, some hitting pockets. The occasional shouting match. And people seated at the bar and high tables all around. There were women there, all dressed in skirts slashed above the knee; the necklines of their blouses going lower than was seemly. All in all, nothing I hadn't expected.

There were a few mustaches among the male patrons, and more than a few hooked noses. None wore a ring matching the one Probst was supposed to wear, at least none who were currently visible. I decided I'd pretend I was just here for a drink, and see if the bartender knew our man.

I moved close to Louden. "Work the room," I said. "See what chatter you can pick up. Maybe join a game. I'm gonna talk to the bartender."

He nodded, and I headed off.

The bartender was a tall, broad man with an unshaven face and a mop of red hair. He was calling back orders in a booming voice. I took a stool and waited.

"What can I get you?" he roared when he got to where I was.

"Scotch, neat. And I'm lookin' for a guy. Hoped you might know him."

The bartender's eyes narrowed. This wasn't the type of establishment where people met for friendly business. Right now he was wondering if I was part of some underground ring, if I was gunning for someone, if I was a dealer, or a customer. After a moment, the bartender decided to take it one step at a time.

"He got a name?" he asked me.

"Probst," I said. "Arnie Probst."

The bartender's face turned white. He backed up a pace. "Get out," he snarled. "Now."

"I don't want trouble," I said calmly.

"Want it or not, you gonna get it if you don't leave," said the bartender. He was reaching under the bar now. "Any friend of Probst is no friend of mine."

"I ain't his friend," I said. "I just need to talk to him."

"Don't bother," said the bartender. "He ain't coming back here. And you ain't, either. Now breeze off." His hand never left beneath the bar.

I decided this wasn't going to be profitable any more, but I already knew more than I did coming in. Probst was apparently a regular at this place, but recently, quite recently, unless I missed my guess, he'd done something to make himself persona non grata at this establishment. That was very interesting.

Louden made his way over to me. He had a pool cue in his hand. "What's the wire?"

"I said the wrong thing," I told him. "Arnie Probst's name. I don't know what happened, but he won't be frequenting this establishment any time soon."

"Psst, pally," came a voice. Louden and I turned, and saw a small, greasy man in a well-worn white suit coming our way. He wore dark glasses, even in this dim light, and hadn't shaved in several days. "This way," he said as he breezed past us. I glanced at Louden and we nodded to each other, then followed the little man.

He led us out the back of the bar into a grimy but well-lit alley. The occasional hop-head meandered by, and a few patrons who'd gone over the edge with the rams were emptying their dinners into garbage bins or street grates.

Our greasy guide turned to us as soon as we were out. "You gunnin' for Arnie?" he asked.

"We just need to talk," I said. I gave him the up and down, relieved that he didn't appear to be changing form before us. He took it differently, though.

"Hey, I'm square," he said, opening his suit jacket so that we could see he didn't have a heater. "They call me Eyes. It's 'cause I see so much that I shouldn't. You can call me Manny, though."

"Manny Eyes?" I said incredulously. "What a handle. You know where we can find Probst?"

"What's he done?" asked Manny. "Who are you?"

"The name's Zeddicker," I said, and watched to see if Manny knew the name. He did.

"You're that flattie, ain't you?" he asked.

"Not a cop, an op," I said. "Strictly private. And as for what Arnie did, not really relevant. I just need to find him. Talk to him, friendly-like."

Manny laughed; a short, dry sound. "Flattie, private dick," he sneered. "All the same, really. You're all Johns to me, and I don't talk to Johns." As he said this, he extended a hand. "But a sawbuck might change my view."

"Why not say what you know, and I'll decide if it's worth a sawbuck," I said, ignoring his hand.

"Aw, why you gotta go and play it like that?" he whined. "Tell you what, buy me a drink?"

"I like what you tell me," I replied. "I may buy you two. But first you spill."

Manny shrugged and looked crestfallen. He shook his head and began.

"Arnie pulled one king of a con a few years back," he said. "Married some society dame. Came back here spending money like it was water."

"We know this part," growled Louden. "And then she got tired of his ploy and dumped him. Left him beat."

"He got nuthin'," said Manny. "So he crawls back here. But now he's a little different. He can't stop talking about this book. I didn't know what he was talking about at first; thought he meant a betting book or something. Then three nights ago, he comes back. Says he got the book, and now he can get started."

"Get started with what?" I asked.

"He didn't say, but Christ, was he glad he glad he got that book," answered Manny. "I never seen nobody so happy without havin' just made whoopee with Jean Harlow. That night..." Here he paused, took off his lid and rand a hand through his greasy hair. "He asked for a room upstairs. He had this old book with him; looked like it was gonna crumble to dust in his hand. And he's got this stick. It's this tall, old wooden thing all carved up and it's got a head made of..."

"We know the stick, too," I broke in. "Just tell us what he did."

Manny swallowed. We knew about the stick, and the way I said that so casually clearly didn't sit well with him.

"He got his room," Manny continued. "A small one right upstairs. Lays that book on the floor and starts chanting. And then that stick started glowing. First the ball on top, then all the carvings on it. I saw this myself because I went up with him. He sounded like there was two of him; one bird chantin', but two voices, one of 'em deep-like. The book...well, I didn't get much of a look at it because the glowing of the stick kept me from seeing much, but it looked like the picture on the page he was lookin' at was...moving. You fellas know anything about that?"

I shook my head. Louden stared at him wide-eyed.

"We ain't involved in whatever he was doing," I said. "We're just after the items he had with him. They don't belong to him."

"Yeah, I know," said Manny. "They belong to that society broad he married. He never made any bones about them bein' hers, and he was gonna get 'em any way he could. But he has 'em now."

"So what happened then?" I asked. "After he set the stick glowing and the book moving?"

"Well, he kept it up," said Manny. "He didn't seem to care who was watching him. He turned the pages a few times. Then he let go of the stick, but it kept standing straight up and then started spinning."

He watched our faces as he spoke. I could tell he was watching to see if we were buying his story. I was, because Manny was getting more nervous the more he talked, and not the kind of nerves one gets when they're afraid the jig is up, more like when they're afraid of what they're talking about. Manny didn't like this story, but he wanted the green, so he was telling it, and hoping we weren't gonna call him crazy.

Our looks must have reassured him, because he kept talking. "It spun so hard it felt like there was wind indoors," he said. "And the glow got so bright I couldn't look at it. And then, just like that, it stopped. No more glowin', no more spinnin', and no more chantin'. He laughed, and it sounded like nuthin' I never heard. I mean, Lionel Barrymore don't know a laugh so evil. And then he closed the book. He said two words; 'It's done'. And then the door to his room shut in our faces. And that's the last of it. I don't know no more."

"You don't know where he is now?" I asked.

"Huh? Where he is now?" asked Manny, clearly confused. "You didn't catch what I just said? Nobody's seen him since the door to his room shut. He's still up there. Been there for three days, and nobody can get that door open. Can't even break it or chop it down."

"So the bartender..." It began to dawn on me. After a display like that, the bartender surely wouldn't want any more of it. Anybody come in my office asking for some cat who started making the mumbo-jumbo, and I'd chase them out with ol' Pappy.

"He won't let anybody up," said Manny. "But if you gotta see him, I can take you another way. There's a back route for the laundry truck. Keppler in there don't know I know about it."

"Yeah," I said. "I gotta see what I can. Lead us on."

Manny took us a few feet away to a little enclave recessed in the wall that looked like a junk room. In fact, it was a junk room but on the far wall was another door, locked and bolted. Manny produced a set of little files and made short work of both. The door swung open.

"Come on," Manny said. "It's a short flight up."

We walked up a spiral stair case that clearly didn't see the right end of a mop very often. Manny moved quickly and quietly, but Louden and I were much larger, and had to move slower in order to keep anyone from hearing.

"Hurry up, you two," he hissed at us. "I can't have you up here for long or someone's gonna notice."

I could feel it as we neared the top step. The floor was vibrating. Very slightly, but it was there. The vibration got stronger as Manny led us down the hall to a room gouged with axe-marks and boot prints. I put my hand on the door. It was like putting it down on a live wire, or at least, I figured this is what it must feel like.

I jerked my hand away and stared at Manny. "It's been like this for three days?"

"That hum got stronger since then," he whispered.

I pulled out o' Pappy and knocked on the door with the butt of his grip. Even through the metal I could feel that pulse. I saw Manny flinch, probably thinking I'd meant to shoot him.

"Arnie," I said, not as loud as I wanted to. "I've got a message from your wife."

The hum stopped and the door opened onto more blackness. This was happening too often to me lately. I jerked to one side, as did Louden. Manny was already standing a few paces away.

"What does that bitch have to say?" snarled the most wicked voice I could imagine. Gun first, I slowly turned into the doorway, and saw standing before me a skeletal, pallid man who I knew immediately had to be Arnie Probst. The purple suit he'd been wearing was stained with sweat and other things I didn't want to think about. His fingernails had been peeled away. He was barefoot, and I saw that the same was true of his toe nails. He'd been scratching at his neck hard enough to leave long, bloody marks behind.

"She just wants her book back," I said. "And the staff."

"She can drag her sorry ass down here if she wants it," he laughed. I nearly slugged him at the sight of that smile. Such an evil look. "That is, if the book even wants her anymore."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.

"Oh, I think she'll find the book recognizes a new master now," he said. "If she thinks she has the power to take it back, she's welcome to try. But she's too late to stop it. The thinning is begun. And I will be the doorway."

The shadows in the room behind him began to move. "Now, that's enough of that," I said. "We'll be back. Stay there."

"I shall," grinned the gaunt figure. The door slammed in my face.

"Two rooms, two haunted people," I said. "This has got to stop." Louden and I turned to head down the laundry staircase. Manny Eyes was already nowhere to be seen.