“Who are you?”
She looks at me through wide green eyes but it’s my question that hangs in the faintly mildewed air of my rattled cab.
She’s can’t be much older than twenty. Her coat is wool, black, and expensive, but frayed at the hem. Her gold hair hangs loose, shoulder length, and like she doesn’t pay it much mind. She’s got freckles on her cheeks, two white-knuckled fists and her eyes burn like a copper fire. Seems her stomach has settled.
She doesn’t answer. We hit a pot hole and the cab bounces. A few drops of heavy mist tap the windshield and I flick on the one working wiper. Industry byways wander. Dirt roads. Dark night. Wood fences, cheap housing and fleeing cats.
“Alright. Then where am I going?” I ask.
She says nothing, but curls her knees toward her.
I pass her bag across the bench seat. She snaps it open and pulls the gun out. With deft fingers she checks the chamber. It’s loaded and ready, and she aims at me.
“More comfortable now?”
She nods. “Sure is mister. So who are you?” She’s got an accent from somewhere in the Midwest. It matches her complexion. A passing light slides over freckles taught with worry. She seems brittle.
“Fair’s enough. My name is Mark Simmons. My mother called me Marcus Summanus.”
“Yeah nuts.” Her frown looks like it gets a lot of use. “Try again.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Sure,” she says, “but I’ve got a good head for pulps and pen names, see. Marcus Summanus isn’t real, so you’re not him.”
“That’s all true,” I say with a slow shrug, “Except Summanus is still my name.”
“Fine, then you call me Lovecraft.”
A moth slaps the windscreen in a twist-winged splatter of legs and gore. The engine sounds like a rattle snake. The T winds past an empty lot where metal struts making strange shapes.
“I’d rather not.”
She taps her trigger guard with an index finger. The car bounces through a puddle. The gun bounces too, but it doesn’t go off. Damn I need a smoke. I sigh: “I dropped my last cigarette when you started shooting, you got any spares?”
At last she replies: “My name’s Jenny.”
“Hi Jenny. Pleased I’m sure. This taxi’s wandering where it should go?”
She winces. “I’m trying to decide if I need to shoot you, mister. What were you doing in that alley?”
“I had a ticket on the train to hell and I was looking for my seat. What about you?”
“I followed you.”
She waves the gun at me. “I just saved your life, but by all means keep messing me about.”
“I would love to but the fuel’s almost empty on the old wandering T here,” I pat my steering wheel, “and I don’t have any pennies to feed it. You tell me where you want to go, and I’ll point her that way. Maybe we get a little closer before it comes time to walk.”
“Stop the car while we talk, brilliance.”
“Nah, ‘cause then you could shoot me without crashing.”
“Then, mister, you’re gonna have a problem when you run out of fuel.”
I laugh: “Alright! What do you want to know?”
“Who you are and what you were doing in that alley.”
“I’m an interloper, see, a Johnny nobody. If this were a pulp, I’d be the stranger. You know who that is?”
“Sure,” she says, drawing the word out as her eyes narrow and her thumb caresses a custom grip on the pistol. “They meet him once the story’s started and before they know what to do. He seems crazy but he’ll turn out to be either Jesus or Satan, or maybe Merlin the Wizard. But the thing is, you’re actually coming in on the end of something, so if this were a pulp, you’d be an annoyance between me and the last few pages.” She raises the gun to make a clearer point. “This is the last time I’m gonna ask, brilliance, so answer me straight.”
“Right.” I briefly show her my palms. “My name’s Mark Simmons, or Marcus Summanus which you don’t believe. I’m a professional at problem solving, though I’m currently out of work. I live in an apartment under the south leg EL and about four hours ago I saw an oriental looking guy get shot outside my window. When I went to check him out, he gave me a note which brought me to the place you opened fire. I’m nearly certain that note was meant for a tall lady with black hair. Maybe you know her?”
“Sylvia.” She purses her lips, doesn’t lower the gun; a name. Sylvia. That’s the blue-eyed lady’s name. “If you’re a professional problem solver then you must be mighty lazy, ’cause I don’t think the world is short of that kind of work.”
“But strangely, nobody ever wants to pay.” I shrug. “Did you see all that under the overpass? The tongueless guy die and the blue-eyed lady vanish?”
“Yeah I saw,” she confirms, but her face tilts away. “Her I know, but who was he?”
“No idea. She disappear like that often?”
“Why’d you go to that warehouse?”
“The dying fella gave me a note. I went because I could. Maybe I was hoping to find work. Maybe I don’t have a good answer. I’m an adventurer and this looks to be one. What about you? You shot that man on the wharf. Not that I’m ungrateful but why?”
She swallows, looks momentarily green, and blinks rapidly, but doesn’t say anything. Whitening knuckles grip the handle of her pistol.
She doesn’t know what to make of me, but the feeling’s mutual. She made the choice to pull the trigger and a man may well be dead. But despite the commitment that takes, I can feel every line of her body trembling the cab’s dank air. She’s half like a bit of rag caught in a wind, and half like a violin string pulled tight. The green eyes, the unkept hair, the old coat, the gun, her fear, and her focus like lightning fill the car to its edges.
I miss a stop sign and get an angry honk from a big truck.
She brushes the hair out of her eyes and I notice her fingernails have been chewed down to stubs. She says: “Seems like I thought you were someone you aren’t. Why don’t you go ahead and pull the car over. I’ll walk.”
“Whatever you want.” I lie and the words drop a rock in my guts. I don’t want to go back to an empty room. As the tires slow into a puddle, a streetlight falls on Jenny’s face. I stare at freckles and fear for a moment. “The woman under the overpass…” It hits me: the line of her jaw, the shape of her eyes. “She was your sister?” The question feels like a home run before it finishes leaving my tongue – like the tingle of the bat when you know you kicked that ball’s ass.
Her eyes narrow and shoulders hunch. Looks like worry. Looks like a yes. The gun shivers, but not so much it would miss me.
The car sits with ticking engine, sharing a puddle with a streetlight on the corner of a bend of mud and a bad place. I tell her, “I don’t know what you and your sister are up to but I’ve got a feeling you need a hand. I’m offering you mine. Not because I want anything, mind you. I’d like to meet your sister but she doesn’t owe me money or anything. I have questions. She interests me. I like stories, and hers looks to be a good one. As it happens, I haven’t got anything better to do.”
“You like stories? Like a reporter?”
“Bushwa,” she declares. The hammer on her pistol slides forward as she relieves the tension. The gun reposes to her bag and she declares: “You’re a goof.”
She kicks the car door open and dodges out, moving like a matador side-stepping a bull; a kind of showy grace at odds with her elbows-and-knees awkward.
I could let her go, but she did shoot a man to save my life. Besides, I’ve a growing suspicion she might be capable. I like capable people. I’ve another suspicion she might be in trouble. Bad trouble. Judging by my history, I also like that.
I stand out my car door and holler after her: “Yeah I’m a goof! But you’re in the rough and I’ve been there. I’ll work on the cheap!”
She spins around with her hand open in a sign of almost surrender. She squints. The streetlight turns the rain into a halo. Out of sight around the bend of mud, drunk voices exchange shouted insults. She says: “Summanus is a penny-serial adventurer. You aren’t him.”
I lean on my rear bumper and shove shaking hands in my pockets. Been a while since I was shot at. Or near, in this case. The nerves hum. The sounds of the gunfight on the wharf turn my mind to times I’ve left behind. I take a deep breath. I’ve answered her question before, so I trot out the dog and pony: “Summanus was a lie my mother told – a character she made up for a lot of books she sold. When she died, I held on to it. It did me some good for a while, before the world caught on to my distinct lack of literary talent, so I turned to my more genuine endowment which is misdeeds. I’m no hero but I’m here. You might as well take my help; you’re in the wrong quality of coat to be walking alone in this part of town.”
Her voice is a half and half mix of sarcasm and confusion; “You got some kind of resume?”
“It’s written in scars, sweetheart. I’ve been a bouncer, been a brawler, traveled a lot, shot and been shot. Never been a bodyguard before but I bet I can do. I’ll watch your back, keep unwanted hands off you, and all it’ll cost you is what it takes to keep me in smokes and a couple of meals a day. I am who I say I am, kid. I haven’t lied to you, and I won’t ever.”
“Jenny,” she says with a killing light in her eyes. “Not ‘kid’, and definitely not ‘sweetheart’.’” She looks around at the rain and night, echoing with shouting drunks. “Get me to a phone and maybe we’ll talk, play me slant and I’ll walk. Lie to me, and you’ll just roll to a halt.”
Gold light from an all-night store’s window floods a black tar parking lot. Raindrops chase their tails down the flat plane of my windshield. I lean back in the seat and watch Jenny through two layers of glass and a little rain as she dials a black pay phone nestled at the back of the store between candy bars and pulp paper fiction. I don’t know who she’s calling, but she holds the receiver like a baby.
Reflected in the window glass I imagine Sylvia’s blue eyes, lancing again at me from the shadows of the overpass. Those blue eyes like ice and fire. Recognition stirs, ignites. I know her. I’ve seen her before. It’s like glimpsing a friend aboard a passing train. The memory’s gone and its echoes rattle around in me, making me feel hollow.
I’m hungry. I’d kill for some soup. Something with spice. Anything really. Forget the spice.
Jenny left her purse. Sloppy. It looks like a stuffed stomach on the car seat. Tasty. I snap it open and pull out the gun. Not so tasty.
My hands shake so the gun almost dances, and it takes me a minute to figure out why. I set the gun down and swallow deep breaths as my heart races and my eyes water. The tongueless man died right in front of me, and the mud that stirred up snuck right up on me. There was blood on his lips, cracked and dark. He wasn’t the first person I’ve seen die, or even the first by violence. First time was in Africa, on a dig with my father; a porter carrying a rock on his head fell and the load came down and made him blind. My father thought it would do me good to sit with the dying man, and I did it, though I didn’t know what to expect. I learned that people are a billows and a fire wrapped in a few flimsy bones, and coals can burn a long time before they go out. I also learned that fires are easier to fix than people. But the most important thing I figured out by watching an Indian man suck his last gasp through cracked lips, was not to carry heavy rocks on my head. Not that that’s relevant.
My trembling fingers leave prints on the blued steel of Jenny’s gun. I was right, it’s a colt: Colt Woodsman, .22 caliber. The magazine holds ten tiny bullets, the slender barrel’s extended, and the grip is a chip of wood that looks hand whittled to fit her palm. This is the sort of low recoil, high accuracy, custom job used by blue-blooded target shooters, assassins, and also countrysiders with a passion for hunting small game.
Somehow it fits. Jenny’s got a kind of farm-country face like might have grown up shooting tin cans, milk jugs, and vermin. A marksman’s gun; this is fancy, accurate, and the least powerful cartridge a pistol can fire. In all the awful ordinance of the modern world, this gun is among the least likely to kill something as big as a man. A crack shot would do it by breaking the heart or spine, or striking the head from close enough to make the bullet bounce off the back of the skull and rattle around inside. That means a couple of things: One, she probably didn’t shoot the man who died of a chest wound outside my apartment, that wasn’t a .22 caliber injury; and two, unless she’s real good or real lucky, she didn’t kill the man she shot by the warehouse.
I take the bullets out of the clip before I put the gun back.
The shop door squeals open and Jenny stalks out. She tosses me a pack of cigarettes and a matchbook as she slides through the car door.
While I tap the pack and light up, I focus on the theater act of keeping my hands steady. The smoke tastes like tar, city air and exactly the kind of night I’m having, which is to say, pretty good actually. Kind of a relief to be on the move.
She hefts her purse, feeling the weight of the gun inside. “Why’d you give me back my pistol?” she says. “You didn’t have to.”
“It’s yours. I’m not going to give you cause to use it.” I toss the cigarettes back to her. It hits her coat front and lands in her lap. “So am I hired?”
She leans forward, staring at my hands. Her eyes read the scars on my knuckles. Then she looks deep into my face, the kind of earnest examination city-people don’t give each other until after a beer or two. I can’t make myself hold her gaze. A moth bats against the windshield, trying to get out. “How do you know my sister?”
“So you said. But why was she outside your house?”
“I do not know. Looked to me like she was there to meet someone. Maybe the tongueless guy. Maybe that’s why he had a note for her.”
Her sigh spins my smoke and she turns to study rain-spotted glass like it’s a painting.
“Alright,” I say. “I get the picture. You don’t need my help, and you don’t want me around. Where do you want me to drop you off?” I start the engine.
“Sylvia is my sister,” she says. “She works for a man named Agafya. He’s foreign. Russian maybe, or Siamese. I’m not sure. I’ve never seen him, and when she talks about it at all, the details tend to slide. He employs some international types. A real menagerie. My sister’s one. They work the opium trade from far east to here; I don’t know the details, but they move a lot of smoke.”
“No. Also guns, art, artifacts, and… people.” Her green eyes blaze with defiance, but desperation curls her fingers to fists. “She wants out of that life. I came to town to help her get out. We were on the train when she said she had one last person to meet. I thought she must have meant you.”
“I never met her. What about the fella you put a hole in?”
Her eyes shift and her face goes even paler. “A button-man, hired gun…. He’d have blown you over in six seconds, you heard him. They’re on to her dodging, they have to be. These people aren’t normal they’re dangerous. That’s why she had to shoot that fella who gave you the note. But then she disappeared and I don’t know where she was going. I figured she knew you. I figured you must have known. That’s why I followed you.”
She lost her nerve. It’s written all over her face. She saw the man in the shadows and fear got the better of her. No shame in that. It gets the better of everyone sometime.
“Well thanks,” I say.
“You pulling that trigger probably saved my life.”
“Sure,” she looks a little green, but she wrinkles her nose like it’s a joke. “So you owe me your life value, which would be maybe two or three dollars? How ya gonna pay me back, brilliance?”
“Har har.” While I gather my words she starts chewing the nail of her left index finger. Her right hand creeps to her purse. The clerk in the store watches us over the top of his magazine. “How do you reach Sylvia?”
“I just tried. She didn’t answer. She’s good at finding me, but the place we usually meet is a spot Agafya’s people know about.”
I nod. My smoke-laden breath startles the moth on the windshield. Wings make whirls. The insect darts at Jenny and she catches it, then opens her door to loose it into the night. I say: “So the game is drugs, and a girl who wants to get out of it.” I sigh. The words don’t feel right. The way Sylvia moved was like a ghost. Maybe I imagined it. “Seems simple enough. I was into smoke dealing once, as a finger bender not as a dealer, but I got out. The good news is once you jump town they won’t have much cause to follow. It’s a big world and tracking down one ex-employee isn’t worth the trouble. Unless, that is, you steal something on your way out the door. That’s a bad idea. Has she stolen anything from her employers?”
“I don’t know, she’s not much for talking. So are you going to come wait or what?”
“Good idea. If Sylvia shows up, you’re in the ritz. If it’s Agafya’s boys who come looking, they’ll want to repay you for shooting up their guy; you might like to keep somebody around who’s glad you did.”
She rolls her eyes, still chewing her nail. “Somebody like you. What’ll you charge?”
“My rate is usually two dollars a day, or ten if there gets to be shooting. So, that means tonight pays off my life debt, plus eight dollars if bullets fly.”
“You figure your life is worth two dollars?”
“Hey you did the evaluation. Can’t change your mind now.”
“Fine.” She nods like a gun cocking. “I’m good for that, but if Sylvia shows and she doesn’t like you, it’s over. You heeled?”
“Loaded, brilliance. Heated. You got a gun?”
“Not currently. Got two fists and whatever’s laying around. Where did you pick up your slang?”
“Gonna bring a shiv to a gunfight? These dogs don’t box for points.” Jenny snorts and settles into her seat. “Maybe they’ll shoot you before me. That’d be worth eight dollars.”
I put the T in gear. “If they do, you won’t have to pay me.”