SIMILARITIES TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD
Hugo steered me to a table where I could sit with my back to the wall. We talked about my culinary needs while I took off my private eye coat and hat (both standard issue). He left me with some water and a basket of bread while I waited and didn’t try to bother me with a bowl of rabbit food. I liked that Hugo took the interest in waiting on me personally because it saved me a lot of time and unnecessary talking. To Hugo’s benefit, taking care of me himself kept his waitresses from making a scene and, since his waitresses were his daughters, avoided a whole lot of other complications that could end with having poison mushrooms added to my lasagna.
“Here’s for you,” Hugo said, sliding a hot platter and a cold glass onto my table.
“Oh, this smells great, Hugo,” I told him. “I smell spicy sausage in there.”
“Extra spicy for our favorite detective,” Hugo smiled. “Mangia!”
“Five! And a new sauce,” Hugo smiled proudly. “You let me know how you like.”
“I will,” I said distantly. “Thanks, Hugo.”
“What’s amatta, Brick? You sound so sad.”
“I’m just trying to get some useful insights from the random puzzle pieces of this case I’m working on.”
“Why you don’t use your standard issue Private Eye Handbook, Brick?”
“Funny story,” I replied. “I can’t find it.”
“Oh, yes, I remember you say you burn it up a couple nights ago.”
“Burn? Burned? What? When?”
“You come a-staggering in for food,” Hugo explained. “You say you was atta party and you burn you book.”
“Me? I did that?”
“Sure. You tolda me dat. You girl think it was real funny,” he said.
“Swell,” I said, dropping my head to the table. I was gonna hear about that. I didn’t know what the penalty was for burning the handbook, but it couldn’t be good because then it wouldn‘t be a penalty. The writer/publisher had earned a reputation as a bit of a hard-ass, which wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone who knew that he’d been worshipped as a god several thousand years ago. Times changed. His followers died out, but he was still used to getting his way and being listened to even if he didn’t carry the market share of newer religions.
Still, my getting help from the book would‘ve been a longshot, anyway. The publisher, Crom (“Crom and his devils”, technically), hadn’t strayed far from his old attitudes of valuing courage, tenacity and overcoming adversity, so he was a pretty straightforward fellow. Given the handbook’s straight and narrow approach to dealing with things, I‘d never seen anything in it as weird as what I was mixed up investigating and I hadn‘t seen a single butler to pin any of it on.
“I’m su-prise you up ana workin’ again so soon,” Hugo said with his boisterous laugh. “You still strong like a bull. Hercules!”
“Well,” I began, sitting upright again, “I spent some time in bed and got some sleep in my office this morning. I’m feeling better. Right now, I’m just hungry again. A box of doughnuts will only keep you going for so long.”
“Ay! That’s no way to eat! You come here when you hungry,” Hugo said. “You know we take good care a you.”
“And the next time you decide to spend the night in a different bed--”
“Ay! What?” Hugo jumped like he’d grabbed a live wire.
Gina, one of Hugo’s sexier daughters, had made her way toward the table. I smiled, but pretended to try to ignore her for her father’s sake.
“You no bother Mr. Stone!” Hugo ordered, taking the curvy brunette by the shoulders and steering her away from me. Gina was giggling at the reaction she’d caused in her old man and flashing me a mischievous smile over her shoulder as Hugo continued talking to her. “You got lotsa work to do way over here and inna back, out inna kitchen. Go helpa you sisters!”
Even without the book, I was pretty well convinced that Alex Gold was actually alive, well and still making trouble. Stuffing the unidentifiable, charred remains of a body into what’s left of your car was a great way to make people think you were dead. After being gone for three years, what would make somebody like that come out of hiding? Money. Embezzling big business bucks, though, was nothing compared to multiple murders. Did his decision to disappear have something to do with Corvus supplementing its workforce with idiot zombies? Or was there something even worse the company was doing that drove Gold to do what he did with the response at Corvus being the recycled labor program? I needed to find him in a city of millions. I was definitely going to need lunch first.
I leaned back a bit and closed my eyes, trying to relax for the first time in hours. Drawing in a deep breath through my nose, I could practically taste the garlic, the different cheeses and real butter on freshly baked bread. The more I relaxed, the more I could picture every delicious dish I was smelling.
“No sudden moves, varmint,” a man’s voice said from my right with a heavy Texas drawl.
I opened my eyes and, where I was half-expecting a dwarf with a red handlebar mustache and six guns, I saw the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun with Stark White staring at me from the other end. Apparently, his work clothes of choice were the white suit, white gloves and white shoes I‘d seen him in before. For a second, I felt like I was being mugged by Ricardo Montalban.
“Let’s get them hands up on the table where I can see ‘em, pardner.”
“You’re doing it wrong,” I told him.
“What in the Hell are you talkin’ about, son?”
“That’s a shotgun. You’re supposed to say, ‘Hewwo, wabbit’ and laugh,” I told him. “And now I say, ‘What’s up, doc?’”
“I see the problem now,” the strawberry blonde sniper said. “You are flat-out a crazy man.”
“And I’m available for kids parties,” I added on. White looked confused. He was obviously unfamiliar with the effect of my methods for dealing with being on the business end of a firearm. Whenever I found myself on the wrong end of a gun, I found it to my advantage to interfere with the other person’s ability to think straight.
“You been out in the sun too long without y’hat, son,” White decided, stepping closer to my table. “I got something special to help you t’cool down.”
I don’t know where it came from, but he suddenly had a decent-sized snow globe in his hand that he was giving a shake and then slamming down on the table in front of me with a firm THUD! He smiled at me.
“And I didn’t get you anything,” I said, trying to look sad.
“The weather outside is frightful,” he said as he took a few steps back.
A cold breeze whipped through the restaurant accompanied by an unmistakable torrent of big, fat snowflakes. I started to try to stand, only to realize my legs weren’t working. A quick look under the table revealed that a large snowball was growing up beneath my chair where my feet used to be. I remembered once more just how I hated magic. “I’m gonna feed you your nuts, you sick jackass!”
“So, I have your attention,” he said from beyond the perimeter of the swirling blizzard. “Would you believe I picked this up at a yard sale of all places? Old geezer didn’t want to sell it, but I was extra-per-suasive. Now, assumin’ you got any rightful idea which way is up, you need t’commence findin’ your way out of my business dealings. I work for a right powerful sorcerer. My business is his business and he don’t take kindly to anybody messin’ with his business.”
“So was ventilating my lady-friend his business or yours?” I asked as my lap vanished in snow. “I’m only curious so I know whether to budget for one bullet or two.”
“I can understand you feelin’ a certain way about that, Stone,” White said. “She did appear to be a fine bit o’sweetness. Truth t’tell, if our positions were reversed, I might be a bit raw ‘bout the whole thing m’self. As things stand, however, she and her partners agreed t’pull a job for my boss. They paid the consequences of havin’ second thoughts after bein‘ paid in advance.”
“Because he don’t take kindly to people messing with his business,” I said. “Got it. The scary sniper man shot a girl from hiding to make a point.” And the others weren’t killed by a curse or a chatty piece of plastic? Fascinating lunch chat.
“An’ if’n he didn’t have a plan in the works for you,” White continued, “you’d be makin’ funeral arrangements now. As it is, in fact, you choose t’keep wastin’ your time with me and you might find y’self short of a few more friends.”
“Threats don’t bother me, White,” I said firmly, “not from you or your boss.”
“Well, I reckon not,” White said with his evil smile, “since you’re still here.” He started to laugh as he turned and walked out.
“Yeah, I--You mean now? Asshole!” I shouted after him. He was taunting me, I realized as I pulled my magnum and aimed it at the snow globe. One hot bullet shattered the glass with a thunderclap. The table was wet, the floor was wet and even the air was cold, but the snow had largely vanished, the flakes popping like soap bubbles. White had dangled the clue that, as real as it seemed, the globe’s effect was primarily an illusion, probably based partly on my believing it to be real.
I bolted up from my chair. I could still hear him laughing, driving my adrenaline, as I grabbed my private eye hat and coat (both standard issue) and ran for the door. White was really going out of his way to earn himself an extra bullet.