I stopped outside the diner and dropped a dime, dialing Louden's number. Three rings later, his gruff voice answered.
"Louden," he said.
"It's Zeddicker. Listen, I don't care what's happening right now. The trail's getting hot again and I need some support."
"You on foot?"
"Yeah. I'm outside the Eat 'n Bounce. Be here in fifteen."
"I'll be there."
Louden's a dependable guy for the most part. Yeah, he's got his fingers in a dozen pies or more, but I keep him around because he's trustworthy, he tells me when he's gonna be out of pocket, but when he's around, he'll drop anything for me. I've taken him away from pitching whoo and he barely complains. He's one of my more valuable assets.
While waiting, I put together what little I knew. My world is not a pretty one. It's violent, it's seedy, and routinely has me viewing the worst part of humanity. This seemed way more than that. I know how dark and ugly the human soul can get. Could it get so bad that it touches...something humans aren't supposed to touch?
History is replete with unexplained mysteries. A socialite in Manhattan buys a book while out for a walk and never comes home; no body is found. A businessman goes on a trip to Santa Barbara and never comes home. His body is never found. An entire cargo ship on its way from Barbados to Bal'mer just vanishes with all hands. Stuff like that may or may not have a reasonable explanation. But ginks disappearing from locked rooms and watched cars, shadows becoming hands...that sort of thing only happened in the picture shows. I was either being played for a sap, or something was happening that all my senses said could not happen.
Ten minutes later I was sitting in the back seat of the Model M, Lucky between my lips, checking to make sure ol' Pappy was fully loaded. Louden was silent behind the wheel as he waited.
"Whatcha heard?" I asked.
"I got a source says there's a shake-up among the big players of this city," said Louden. "Sound right?"
I took a long drag. "Matches what I heard pretty square," I replied.
"How we play this?" he asked.
"Cicci," I said. "He's our meat. He showed up here last night with a roundheel and started waving his heat around. Now he's in the air. Collared a low-rent hood who says Cicci's running Three-Fingers' show now, but he wasn't where he said he'd be."
"Where's he supposed to be?"
"The Chilton. That's where we go next."
"Egg in the coffee," replied Louden.
The Chilton wasn't far; just a bit farther south than the diner. My office is near the center of town, edging the poorer districts. Gangland is the term for all the property in the southeast. Big trouble boys ruled the roost down there. Gambling and prostitution may be illegal, but here nobody put a stop to it. Coppers didn't tend to frequent the area. It was one big sprawl of urban ugliness, ruled over only by warring crime families.
Frankie Three-Fingers ran all the gambling rackets, including off-track betting, and it was that supposed "victimless crime" that roped poor, hapless Phil Parkins into debt with a man who took money owed him seriously. Phil had been a bookie with an addiction; started small with card games, eventually upping his ante to horses. No matter how much he lost, he always came back, determined that this time he'd be able to get square. He was always on his uppers, and Frankie didn't like that at all. He threatened to come after the one thing Phil loved more than gambling; his little girl. Phil hadn't believed him; why would they take an innocent little girl just for some money? He figured they'd kill him first, but Frankie doesn't work that way. His motto is, if you've got problems getting scratch out of a living man, it's impossible to get it from a dead one. Instead, he makes you wish he'd killed you.
Now, I deal with all kinds of rotten in my lay, but to me, it doesn't get much lower than snatching kids. I try not to take cases that have me going up against groups like the mob, but you take a kid, and you've crossed a line. I didn't have much pity for a guy like Phil Parkins, but the idea of that little girl waiting somewhere in the dark for her daddy to come up with scratch he just couldn't get ahold of...well, I had to try.
I had some pull with a few people in town who owed me favors, and within a few days I managed to pull together the rhino on Phil's behalf. I arranged an anonymous meet in the alleyway, and after that...things were going to hell.
The Chilton seemed oddly quiet. Usually when I see a hotel, I see people coming and going out the front door, cars parked in front to pick up or drop off passengers. None of that was happening, however. Louden noticed it too.
"Something queer going on, Zed," he said.
"I pipe that," I said. "We're going in."
Louden parked in front and we checked our guns. I buttoned my flogger and Louden went first. The way he moved felt like a stalking tiger. The man is a total pro.
The lobby seemed empty at first, until we noticed the top of a bald head behind the admissions desk. Somebody was crouched there, possibly waiting to pop us if we looked like we didn't belong, which we didn't.
"I see you there, gee," I called. The head ducked further, and I heard a loud bang followed by a "youch!" Within a few seconds, the owner of the head stood slowly and looked at us. Just an employee here, then. He looked ready to take the run-out, but he was just standing there, hands on the counter, look on his face like he was trying to convince himself nothing was wrong.
"Something I can help you gents with?" he asked. His voice was a bit too high. Something had him nervous, and it wasn't us.
"We came to see Cicci," I said, as if I had an appointment.
"You fellas...his friends?" asked the counter man.
"Not precise," I said. "We just need to talk to him."
"He's not here," the man replied quickly. For just a moment his eyes jerked in the direction of a flight of stairs to his right.
"That's what I was told," I said. "But, see, way I figure it, that can't be. I think he's here, but doesn't want people like me to know about it."
"You ain't a cop," the counter man spat. "Else you would have flashed a buzzer by now. What's this about? Who do you work for?"
Louden was at the counter faster than I could blink. He had the man's shirt collar in his hands and was leaning into his face. "Look, chappy. We know he's here. We just told you that he had to be and you didn't deny it. And don't think for a second I didn't see that look at the stairs. Now, where's he at? What floor? Room?"
There were some dry swallows from the bald man's throat. "You...you don't understand," he croaked. "If you go up there...I don't...it won't go nice, you see?"
"You just let us worry about that," I assured him. "If it helps, I'll belt you on the pan and you can say I knocked you out. Just tell us where he is."
"Naw, it ain't like that," he continued. His lips were trembling like they wanted to fall off. "He's...something happened last night. Nobody's seen him since he came in. It was...I don't...you just really don't want to go up there." He was near tears.
"Listen, gee," I said quietly. "I know there's something bad up there. I may know more than you think. But I gotta talk to Cicci, just trust me that none of this is gonna fall on you. If I were you, though, I'd hop the next bus out of town."
"Oh, trust me, I'm gone soon," he said. "Look, fellas, I don't know what to tell you. I've been working in this town for twenty years. I've seen men blipped off in this very room. But when Cicci came in last night...he was wrong. I can't say it any other way. And he's just gotten more wrong since then. He's barricaded himself in Room 1004, and he won't let nobody near him."
"Thanks, pally," I said. Louden let him loose. "We'll take it from here."
"Don't," pleaded the man. "Please, just don't. Leave, and I won't tell nobody you were here."
"We got business with Cicci," said Louden. "We ain't leaving until we talk to him."
Over the sounds of the counter man's tears, Louden and I headed to the elevator. There was no way we were climbing ten flights with time pressing like this.
As soon as I stepped into the elevator I knew the counter man wasn't exaggerating the wrongness in this building. The car smelled like a sewer that someone had pumped industrial waste into. The air was bitter, tangy.
"Jesus..." I heard Louden swear beside me. I only heard him because the light was out. When the door closed, I pressed the button for ten, and we felt the elevator move, slowly and shakily, but the light never came back on. A creeping chill broke out over my back. I could almost feel a cold set of fingers playing on my neck. I turned swiftly, but the feeling departed just as fast.
"Zed," said Louden. "You hear that?"
I listened. There were small scuffling noises coming from above us. "Whispers," hissed Louden. I listened further and realized he was right. I couldn't make out what they were saying, but the scuffling noises were definitely voices, and were forming words.
"This is bad wrong, Zed," said Louden. I didn't disagree.
After what felt like a day and a half, the elevator stopped with a jolt, and the doors opened to a similarly dark hallway. Occasionally a light flickered, and a thin stream of daylight was trying to get in at the far end of the hall. Thanks to this mediocre illumination I could see that the floor was covered in a scrim of wet. It looked sticky, or possibly slippery, but it covered damn near the entire hallway, all the way across and down. "Watch your step," I warned.
We stepped out, guns drawn. This was the kind of environment that might hold someone waiting to grease us, and we looked both ways down the corridor. The doors to all the rooms were closed, and the wet was on the walls on both sides at about waist height. I decided I had no interest in touching it.
We crept down the hall in the direction of Room 1004, our feet sliding with every step. The stench was overpowering. It was like the elevator only more so. And those whispers, whoever was making them, were following us. Louden's body was a picture of poise, his gun raised and his head craning this way and that, ready for anything.
The door to Room 1004 was locked, the handle covered in the slippery wet.
"Zeddicker," whispered Louden. "You notice?"
I had, and nodded to indicate as much. There were no guards. Cicci holed up in a private room, and he hasn't posted any hoods with choppers waiting to pop anybody who tried to get in? That was impossible.
I motioned to Louden, who turned his back to the wall and stood by the door. I knocked, reaching for a spot on the door not covered in thick wet.
"Cicci!" I called. "Open up. Gotta talk to you."
I waited. One minute, two. Silence.
"I'm gonna count to ten, and then I'm gonna open this door," I said. "I know you're in there. May as well open up." I counted as soon as I finished speaking, mouthing the words "sweet patootie" between each number. I heard a choking sound coming from the room.
Carefully I stood back at an angle and blasted the goo-covered door handle away. Louden and I both froze, each of us looking a different direction down the hallway, guns out. No one came.
I pushed the door open and went in. What I found was more of the same goo decorating a sitting room in large splotches. It took me a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden daylight pouring in from an open window, but as soon as they were I saw the broad. She was blonde, just like the waitress had said, and buxom, and completely naked, with her stomach ripped open from neck to nethers, and her insides hanging out like slippery ropes. She was covered head to toe in the thick slime, and slime it surely was.
"Cicci!" I called out again. "I'm here with the girl. I know you killed her. Come on out and let's settle this like men." That should have drawn him, but I only heard the choking noise again. It sounded like it was trying to form words. And it came from the back bedroom.
I held my gun before me and walked toward the closed door. The choking noise continued, and slowly began resolving into words. "...stoooop..." Wheezing.
"If that's you in there, Cicci, I'm coming in," I called out. "I don't care if you're pitching whoo to your digits, that door is opening."
He didn't get any farther. I kicked the door down and stared into a pitch-black room. All the shades were drawn, and in the dim gloom I could just barely make out a man shape sitting against the far wall facing the door. Cicci.
There was a large bag of something in front of him. I couldn't make out what exactly it was in the dark. Cicci himself was leaning a little, as if being pushed over by it. I couldn't see a gun at all.
"Cicci?" I said, slowly. "That you?"
"Who...?" he began. He sounded like something was stuck in his throat.
"My name is Zeddicker," I told him.
"Zed...dicker..." It was the first word he said without the rasp, but he still sounded like he was trying to swallow vomit. "Heard...about you. You're...buttons, right?"
"Nah," I said. "Private dick. Listen, I'm not hear about the madame out there. I didn't know about her when I started. I'm looking for Betty Parkins. Your boss snatched her."
A wet chuffling sound came from the man sitting against the wall. He seemed to be kicking the big back, as ripples were going through it.
"So," he said. "You're him. The...chump with the...cash."
"Yeah," I replied. "And I had it too. But your boss didn't show and neither did the girl."
"The girl," repeated Cicci. "She's...had it. Too...late for her. Late for me too. Maybe...for you."
"Threats aren't gonna work, Cicci," I said. "Frankie left you in charge, so you must know where the girl is. That's all I'm hear for. The rest is a matter for the elephant ears."
"She's...gone..." wheezed Cicci. "She's where...no one can...reach her...I knew...you see...about the meet. Went there. When it was over. 'Spected to find...your body. Frankie...decided not to ransom her. Moved her...some place special. Just had...to remove...you."
"Didn't work, though, did it?" I said. "'Cause here I am. And I ain't leaving until you tell me where she is."
"Told you...don't know," he wheezed again. "The boys...sent to kill you...whatever got'em...came back while I was there..."
A slow horror began to dawn on me. Cicci wasn't threatening me, and he wasn't refusing to tell me what I asked. He had no clue what was going on, and he had seen the very thing, whatever it had been, that I had seen.
"Thought I was...okay at first," he continued. "Went...for a bite, even found a girlie. You saw her...in there. I saw his arm point toward the sitting room. There was something wrong with it. It seemed about half again as long as a man's arm ought to be, and it was dripping. "But it...followed me. Came...back here...with me..."
"What did?" I asked. "That shadow thing? It's here?"
The choking sound came again from across the room. I saw the shape of Cicci lean over and cough, hard. Wet.
"In...this...room..." he said. "With...me..."
"Where?" I began scanning the room, expecting to see those terrible hands extending toward me out of the darkness.
"Not...there..." Cicci struggled to say. "It followed...me...came inside..."
I suddenly realized that the bag in front of Cicci wasn't a bag. It was a large, blubbery, slippery bulb of sickly white flesh.
"They're here..." he gargled. "They're in me. They're in me!"
The bag wasn't pushing Cicci over. It was him. His entire lower half had been turned into this festering, stinking thing. In the dim light Cicci began coughing again, and a thin, white tendril of flesh with an eyeball on the tip snaked its way out his mouth.
"Louden!" I cried. Within seconds he was at my side, gun drawn.
"Too...late for you..." came the voice of Cicci, now sounding wet and snuffling, like the voices in the hallway. His body, glistening wet and bulging, churning, began sloughing its way toward us. We lifted our guns and squirted lead, backing quickly into the hallway. I fired until my clip emptied, hearing those squelching sounds of slugs hitting that bulbous, pliable body, as Louden and I made a break for the door...