Thursday, December 1, 2011

16487--Similarities to Persons Living or Dead (Ch. 11)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.Similarities to Persons Living or Dead is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series. Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it. For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.

Chapter 11
 Clues were pointing to the mysterious Corvus company being involved with more than just corporate nastiness. Special Operatives Corvus? Secrets of Corvus? Steak or Chicken? “Murder of crows” was the trigger for the card. Maybe it was Society of Crows. Whatever it was, if they were behind chasing Harmony Storm around town, there was sure no need to deliver her to their doorstep. I hadn’t figured out why she was being chased, but I wasn’t gonna help get a dame roughed up…or drop her in the lap of zombies or ghosts or whatever, even if she wasn‘t paying me.

One of the Corvus elevators took me to the top floor. Off the elevator and I wasn’t sure whether I’d walked into a reception area or a fashion photo shoot. The top floor was obviously closer to Heaven than I’d thought. Whatever was going on, I couldn’t complain about the scenery. I almost didn’t notice that the centerpiece of the room was a brass bird, a crow or a raven I was pretty sure, that stood about two feet tall and rested on a white marble pedestal that was about three feet tall. At the base of the bird was a plaque that read “Corvus Corax”, Latin for “Don’t touch our big brass bird”, no doubt.

“Can I help you, handsome?” asked a beautiful blonde.

“If you can’t,” I told her, flashing a little bit of a smile, “I’m already dead.”

“I’m about to start my break,” offered a curvy redhead with smoldering green eyes, “and I’d be happy to take you down to the nurse’s office for a complete physical.”

“Hi. I’m Sharon,” another blonde chimed in, grabbing at my left hand and scribbling in it quickly with a felt-tipped marker. “Call anytime.”

“Haven’t enough men done that already?” another woman asked.

“Never enough for Sharing Sharon,” another said.

“Ladies, all I need--”

“I know what you need.”

You need a good lunch, big man.”

“I need the head man’s office,” I said. “I’m here to discuss important banking business with him and when duty calls my hunger has to wait.”

“This is still a work day, ladies. Right this way, sir,” the shapely redhead said, an enthusiastic gleam in her eyes as she grabbed me away from the others. “If you’ve got an appointment with Director Moss, we don’t want to keep you waiting.”

Her full, coral-painted lips kept moving, but the only talking I was paying attention to was coming from her hips. “Well, I don’t have an appointment,” I confessed, “but I don’t usually let that sort of thing stop me.”

“Don’t worry about it. I make his schedule,” she told me confidently. “If I say you have an appointment, then you do.”

“You run him as well as you do the flock out front, don’t you?” I asked. “And he probably thinks it’s all him.”

“Well, aren’t you perceptive?” she asked.

“Occupational hazard,” I said. “And I had a good breakfast, too, so that helps. Still, something about you told me you were something special as soon as I saw you.” That was an understatement. Something about her made me feel like I’d grabbed a live electric wire, but I tried to keep my cool.

“I see. What do I call you: tall, dark or handsome?”

“Stone. Brick Stone,” I told her.

“Oooh, I like it,” she said as we walked, her eyes playing a flirty game with mine. “A strong name for a strong man,” she said, squeezing my arm. “You do feel strong. What‘re you…six feet tall, about two hundred pounds?”

“Two twenty-eight.”

“Oh, my…I may swoon, tough guy,” she teased. “I didn’t know they grew bankers so big.”

She smiled at me as we stopped at the office door. Her smile made me feel like she’d just lit a fire inside my private eye hat (standard issue). “Thanks for the walk. I should let you get back to work.”

“Oh, I never stop working it,“ she bantered. “You look like a man with too many questions on his mind.”

“Story of my life,” I told her. “Goes with the job. Question number 1: is the personnel department only hiring models? Question number 2: how does Moss get any work done in such a…distracting environment?”

“I keep distance between him and the cubicle drones, no matter what they look like. I’m Helen,” she told me with a smile and a chuckle. “Helen Blazes. If you still have any questions when you come out, stop and see me. If you need anything later on,” she said, her voice dropping to a sultry whisper as she tucked a business card into my shirt pocket, “just let me know.”

I only had a second to glance at it as it passed, but I couldn’t help noticing that the card she slipped me wasn’t black. I watched her walk away, hips swishing profoundly, and mumbled something to myself just to make sure my voice was still working. Then, making sure my private eye hat (standard issue) was firmly in place, I kicked in the big double doors. I was obviously feeling better. As I barged in, the wrinkled desk jockey went from slack-jawed to indignant.

“Who the devil--? What are you doing in here?” he demanded.

“Brick Stone, private eye,” I replied. “Hey, those’re nice. Are they oak?”

“Get out of here before I call security!” he ordered as he picked up his phone.

“Does that line ever actually work? Go ahead and call ‘em in, Petey,” I told him, taking a seat in one of his guest chairs. “We can all talk about Alex Gold together.”

“You…What do you know about Gold?” he asked, suddenly very nervous as he put the phone back into its cradle and sank back to his chair.

“He had a serious talk with another ex-employee a few days ago,” I said, “that didn’t have a particularly favorable outcome for her. Apparently, she wasn’t as good at evading an early death as Mr. Gold.”

“What? That son-of-a-bitch isn‘t dead?” he said in a strangely distant manner.

I remembered something Harmony had said about the strangeness in the eyes of her stalkers. The ones at the train station wore sunglasses, but they moved and acted oddly. Moss had something to his eyes almost like he was looking through me. Also, his words and his tone didn’t match up. They were missing something…an emotional content. It was sort of like being in a show with a bad actor.

“He’s supposed to be three years gone and six feet under,” Moss went on. “If he had gotten away clean, why stick his head up now to--? An accomplice perhaps? Who did he kill? What else do you know?”

“For now, that’s for me to know and you to tell me why you care,” I said.

“Alright,” Moss conceded. “Gold didn’t like some of the company’s activities and vanished with significant corporate assets. The misappropriation wasn’t discovered until after his apparent death in a horrific automobile accident. There was very little left of him after that,” he said. “At any rate, our very young company would’ve suffered greatly had the knowledge of the monetary loss become public. Our stock would’ve plummeted.”

“Effectively killing Corvus.” When is a murder not a homicide?

“Yes. So we tried to keep things quiet, selling some assets and juggling some things in the books to keep the company afloat,” Moss continued, “but it wasn’t enough. We had to borrow heavily, hoping to buy time for the stolen assets to turn up following Gold’s death.”

“But it never did.”

“No, it still hasn’t and the interest on the loans has become quite burdensome. We’ve found…creative ways to cut costs, but those measures only carry us so far and can only be sustained for so long. Without the return of everything Gold stole, the demise of Corvus is only a matter of time.”

“Maybe you should be selling off your bird collection,” I suggested, noticing a slightly smaller version of the one from reception standing proudly near the corner office’s corner window.

“Are you trying to be funny, Stone?” he asked, his dark eyes narrowing at me. “The raven is Corvus. The organization would be long gone without it.”

“Yeah, I’m sure your lucky charm is the glue holding the place together.” Even with the missing emotional component, I was picking up on some serious desperation. “I can’t imagine why some pushy bankers or the possibility of restructuring…or even waves of layoffs would be that big a bother to you,” I said, scrutinizing his face from under a raised eyebrow. “It isn’t the banks, is it? You went to the streets on this, didn’t you?” He looked at me with dark eyes, bordering somewhere between fear and anger. That and his silence said enough. “Who was it?” I pressed. “Santini brothers? Rumplestiltskin? Tell me it wasn’t Rumplestiltskin.”

“Qadish,” he said with a shudder. “It was Qadish.”

“Jamal Qadish? Son of Fenrir, Jamal Qadish?”

“Yes,” Moss confirmed. “He’s been taking over most of the city’s alternative financing business.”

“Wow, you were desperate. I assume your uneasiness means you’re aware that he will literally bite your ass off if you breach your deal,” I said to the sweating businessman.

“As I said, no one has come up with the missing assets yet, but a fresh perspective on the case couldn’t hurt at this point. Who knows? One more investigator might make the difference.”

“Having the right investigator makes the difference.”

“Does that mean you’re taking the job?”

“You’re hiring me?” That was a first. I was pretty sure I’d never been hired by a guy I was shaking down for info. It was either his latest desperate move or he was trying some weird reverse psychology to save his ass.

“If you can find what Alex Gold stole,” Moss said, “we would certainly make it worth your while…in future security contracts and the like.”

“I see.” I saw the potential for great stretches of future tedium. “I should be in touch soon, Pete,” I said, heading back toward the exit.

“I certainly hope so, Mr. Stone,” he replied.

I wasn’t used to that. Most people weren’t too happy to hear from me a first time, let alone a second.

I left the big shot’s office and started out past a sea of identical cubicles staffed by joyless people shuffling papers and tapping on keyboards. There weren’t as many phones ringing as I would’ve thought. That made me think of the phone number that had been written on my palm a few minutes before. Finally, taking a moment to look at it, I saw that instead of a number she had written “Let me die”. That was at least mildly disturbing. On the brighter side, unless she was a total nut, she couldn’t expect me to call her. I guess it depended on whether she knew what she was writing or if she actually thought she was writing a phone number and the words came out instead.

Could I look casual and find her before I made it back to the elevators? What was her name? I was pretty sure she was the one they called “Sharon”, but Helen had been so distracting that I really hadn‘t paid much attention to what Sharon looked like. It was so strangely quiet I started to wonder if most of the folks had left for an early lunch or were taking naps. Looking around as I walked, I began to realize that I didn’t see any co-worker chat going on. There were no clusters of people laughing and talking or interacting with each other at all. Did they really run that tight a ship at Corvus? I’d never worked in a standard office job, but I’d heard people did lots of socialization at them. Then, I almost tripped over the latest gorgeous brunette.

She looked like she was in a rush, carrying some files somewhere, and paying no attention to me at all. Something about the swish of her hips, though…I watched her turn down another aisle and caught a look at her face. I almost tripped over my own feet when I saw her. She looked so much like Heather Morgan that I had to make sure it wasn’t. Having people I’ve killed getting back up and walking around could be bad for my rep, not to mention the census. When I shot trouble makers, I was used to them staying shot. It was a system that had always worked well for me.

I followed her and when she sat I walked into her cube and crouched beside her. “Hey, crazy pants,” I said. “Remember me? Busy day?”

She turned toward me in her swivel chair and smiled at me with a weird half-smile. She had those same eyes, dark and distant, looking through me like Moss. “I’m sorry, sir. Is there anything I can help you with today?”

There was zero recognition and that same lack of emotion, which was a seriously drastic shift from the Heather I‘d briefly known. It was her, though. I felt as sure as if I was looking at my own face in a mirror. She’d become one of the pod people. There was something weird about her eyes, though. Something was wrong…with her…eyes were black. “Heather, your eyes are black.”

“Yes,” she said vacantly, swiveling back to face her desk. “Thank you for noticing, sir.”

“Yeah, they’re supposed to be hazel,” I said, remembering back to the night I had met her and ended up killing her. “Would you happen to have a scar about the middle of your chest?” By all rights, it should’ve been a hole, but I figured that would hardly do in an office setting. They needed to rename the place Stepford.

She looked down into her scoop neckline, then reached a finger into her dress. She searched her flesh with her fingers, finally stopping and saying, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Fascinating,” I said. “Do you happen to remember how long you’ve been here?”

“Hmmm…How long…? No, I don’t…I…I…Can I help you with something, sir?”

It was looking like I was overloading her. There didn’t seem to be any more info to be mined from her. “No, thanks,” I told her. “Thanks for your time.” She turned back to her typing, paying me no more attention. I stood and took a quick look around before heading back to the elevators.

I was trying to put together the pieces I’d picked up, figuring where they belonged in the bigger picture. My encounter with Heather had given me a headache, but I also ended up with an answer about Sharon: she probably had no idea what she had written. If Heather was an example, there was a good chance that Sharon was supposed to be dead and probably neither of them was going to be winning any chess games this week. It was looking like a really good time to get going.

Back in reception, as I came up on the company’s lucky charm, I felt compelled to reach out and touch it. I was experiencing a moment of defiance, most likely. Whatever the reason, I rubbed the big, brass raven. It shouldn’t have surprised me, considering the day I’d been having, but it was warm instead of cool and, far more strangely, it talked to me. More accurately, it screamed…and not so much to me as at me. It was a desperate, pleading voice that sounded like what Harmony and I had heard before when we activated the black cards. Over and over, I kept hearing “Let me die!” in my head. I took my hand away from the bird. It was definitely time to go. The next time I saw a sign that said “Don’t touch our big brass bird” I was definitely paying it more attention.

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