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.”