“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.”