“Fair’s fair.” He parts the buttons on his shirt with his revolver barrel, showing a bandage like a bloody crucifix over his heart.
I risk stealing the credit; he’s already thinking it: “I shot you.”
He answers softly; “And a nice shot too, but I’m hard to kill.”
“I guess we’re even?” So Tenor didn’t die on the wharf when Jenny shot him. I hate to be right. I want to curl up around the wound, but it hurts to move.
“Where’s the Leụ̄xd? If we both act reasonably, you’ll give me the drug and I’ll leave. That way we both walk out of this room. You’ll like that better.”
The wood door weeps as it opens and the man above me raises one finger to his lips to indicate silence. Morning radiance silhouettes Jenny’s coat and hat. She’s got a paperback in her left hand and if her thumb marks her spot then she’s been reading the inside of the back cover. She squints in the dark room. The book falls from her hand.
A huge man steps into view behind her, and his arm like a car bumper bends round her neck. Her breath hisses. Her feet leave the floor the same instant the book she dropped kicks up dust.
I want to move. I want to do something but torn guts shoot fire down my legs. The scarred man steps back out of arm’s reach with his weapon held steady. All I can manage is to keep myself from keeling over.
I lean back and look up. Morning light catches the wall lamp, outlining the graveyard of dead bugs trapped inside.
The giant tosses Jenny. She sprawls with a sound like dropped firewood.
The newcomer clicks on the lights.
This giant is no sideshow, he’s the main event. His cauliflower ears and smoothed cheek bones might mark him a street brawler like me, but the balanced ease with which he handled Jenny’s weight calls him much more than that. A knee length coat covers a body three times my mass, but angular, belly free, and hard muscled. Eyes glint like mica in the gloom of overhanging moss-brows on a young mountain of a face. Not a brawler, this man. Not like me. This man is a killer.
I’m beginning to regret helping Jenny.
She squirms and rasps deep breaths, waiting for her life to end or the pounding headache from the choke-hold to fade. Freckled cheeks flush. The air comes. One squirming arm clicks her purse open.
The giant hasn’t acknowledged me or my attacker yet. I don’t know if they’re working together or at odds, but the question gets answered when the man with the gun speaks up. “Well hello. What have we here? I’ve seen you somewhere.” His scarred lips drip a leer. “43rd street, under the EL?”
Jenny blinks, her panicked gaze darts between the three of us like a rabbit on the run: “Five- five dollars a- a trick, Mister.”
Leery leers again, “Sure. What’s your stake sweetheart?”
The huge one scoops up the book she dropped and turns it around in his frying pan sized hands. His eyes dart from the cover to Jenny, then squint at me.
Jenny crawls backward on her elbows, away from both of them until her back is against the wall by the bar. She clutches her purse in both hands, as if it were a shield. “Sometime’s tricks is just dancing.”
The gunman shakes his head my way. “You hire her?”
“What of it? The lady was supposed to be here and I got bored waiting.” My guts feel like a torn sausage in boiling soup. “Why’d you have to shoot me?”
The big one speaks in voice so accented German it sounds like scissors: “She is no part.” To Jenny he directs an imperative: “Leave.”
Raisin-face says: “I ain’t done talking to her.”
The German looks bayonets sharp enough to have made the scarred man’s scars.
“Fine. Get lost, legs.”
Confusion turns Jenny’s head this way and that. Her hands spread against the wall like a cornered animal, but she doesn’t waste more than an instant before scrambling up and making a run for it. Somehow she’s dropped her purse and kicked it. It spins across scarred wood to hit the wall near my foot. Almost like she meant to. She’s gasping and wild-eyed and doesn’t look back, but something in the crook of her finger looks like a salute.
Before the door can open the big blond speaks again, his words heavy with German accent. “Was ist Ihr name, girl? Your name?”
Jenny freezes, her hand on the latch on the screen door. “Lita,” she says.
“Ms. Brent, you have already been paid?”
“Yes.” She’s still as a hare and looking with longing toward daylight.
The shards of sharp metal the big man uses for eyes turn to me. Something in that look implies fingers bent backwards, creative use of corkscrews and other extreme unpleasantness. Apparently the big man has some personal opinions about relations for hire. I would probably approve except right now he thinks I’m guilty.
“Vell,” he says, still looking at me, “go then.”
Jenny thanks them. Pretty convincing. Not a bad actress. The door closes behind her with a boom worthy of the gates of hell.
The tenor with a face like a raisin says: “Follow her.”
“You shouldn’t bother.” I’m thinking hard. “She’s got no part in this.”
Raisen-face shows his uneven teeth. “Is that so? Go ahead Hilda, but don’t hurt her unless you have to.”
A name, now I’ve got a name for the German. Hilda is a woman’s name. Hilda already left, I didn’t notice him go. The door stands open to a blank page of white daylight. “What do you want? The note? I’ve still got it.”
“A note? I don’t give a shit about a note. The leụ̄xd. That’s important. You have it, I hope? I’m not gonna waste time caring how you found out about it, but I assure you, it isn’t something you can fence. Whatever you think you can get, you are wrong.”
He talks in a smooth flow of words, never slowing or pausing. He pronounces the word ‘leuxd’ like the name Lou with an extra ‘a’ at the end.
Tears stream from my eyes as I curl around my gut problem. “Sun and bones man, I never got any drug. I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I got the note. I went to the place. There was you. Threatened to shoot me, I shot first. Hell and Hades.”
He’s silent for what feels like an eternity. When he speaks, there’s no change in his tone. “What note?”
I reach into my pants pocket and pull it out – tiny, bloodstained, a curled scrap of paper. He takes it and studies it for a moment, then looks down at me.
“Where’d you get this?”
“A tongueless guy spat it onto the pavement while he died. I happened to be there.”
Seconds seep horribly by. Industry grumbles and a shift bell rings. The open door lets in the smell of snow.
“You stay right there,” He says. “I’ll be back and if it turns out that package is still where it’s supposed to be, well then I suppose we’ll be even.”
Something light but hard bounces off my face. I grope with a bloody hand and discover a small bottle of painkillers. It’s got a rubber and wire cap. I’m still fumbling with it when the door slams shut.
Pain. My father taught me the meaning of the word long ago. His raised fist. My mother’s bruises, discoloring her dark cheeks and shoulders, hidden by a shawl or a jacket or a mosquito net, but visible in how she moved, how she sat, and how she wouldn’t lift her eyes. My own broken arm, or hand, or lips, broken by daring to defy, hurt less, though more often.
His unshaven face laughed with the men, always with the men. He had those bright eyes that shone with intent, intelligence and charm, studying each thing like a puzzle that needed to be solved – the camp to be built, the ruins to be measured, the buck to be hunted, and me to be broken, belittled, controlled, or merely bruised. His mocking remarks – how to hold the gun, you’re holding it wrong, you want the cougar to get you? How to read the surveying equipment – your maths are wrong you’ll ruin the dig. How to speak latin – wrong declension you’re an embarrassment. How to live in the jungle: Trust the guide – the guide’s a fool he’ll steal from us. How to live in the mountains: Drink your water – the water made you sick. Come here boy. Give me some space. Be quiet. Can’t you speak? Fight you coward. How dare you.
I learned. I learned to kill the cougar, to level the theodolite and measure the sites, to live from a suitcase and under a mosquito net, I learned some of his twenty languages, enough to speak wherever we went. I learned to read the changing weather hinting of rain, the changing minds of locals and crew which always warned when we would need to soon flee. Mostly I learned his face. No other sortilege could more reliably predict danger to me or my mother than the shift of his expression. The curl of a smile like prophecy of a scar. The tightening of a fist.
And I learned pain. First from his fists. Then, when I won the game of fists, from his double-barreled shotgun loaded with rock salt. The cloud of smoke and red agony from those shotgun barrels hid his face. I never saw him again.
My mother sent me to America, to a boarding school made of red brick, where nuns in sailing ship hats made a carnival colored world seem black and white. But I learned pain from my father, and I have kept that lesson close over the years and horizons since. I’ve made it my life.
Lying on the floor of an all-night dance hall in industrial Chicago, feeling the blood ooze and stick my shirt to my hands, to my chest and back, to the bench beneath me, and the dirty brick wall, feeling the shuttering convulsions of a shocked body, I count the pains, count my burning breaths, and take stock.
The sting of torn flesh layers over the sharp ache of a cracked rib. A second welt sears under my right arm-pit. The trickle of blood slows already – still serious, but not pumping or bruising in tune to my heartbeat like it would be if an artery were cut. Breathing hurts but it works. The pain of breathing is from the rib, not a punctured lung.
I lift my shirt and probe the wound with my fingers, gasping and groaning in a most unmanly way. The bullet, probably low caliber, struck my lower right rib, twisted past it and turned to pass out of me about six inches further. The rib is badly cracked and the flesh and muscle torn, but the wound isn’t deep. I’ll probably survive unless the bullet nicked my intestinal lining, in which case it might turn septic, maybe even leak digestive bile into my stomach cavity. But I’m not a doctor, and even a surgeon would hesitate to diagnose himself while laying on a dance-hall bench.
I stand. It isn’t easy. The smells of tar and chemicals waft in the open door. The barman peeks out the saloon doors from his store room, squints at me, and then turns the sign on the door to ‘closed’. The factory next door rumbles on. Swaying, I consider my options. Ms. Jenny-Lovecraft said her sister worked for a criminal and wanted to get out. Apparently Sylvia stole some kind of drug when she took off, which has gotten me shot, though admittedly not as badly as the man outside my apartment.
My rib feels like broken glass in a jar of jam. Blood seeps through my shirt and oozes down and through my pants to cloy in my underwear. Hell with it. I’m going to the hospital. These people don’t need me, and I don’t need them.
Swearing softly and constantly, I shamble to the door. The pain doesn’t care about my swearing, but I find some solace in the opportunity to be properly foul. I haven’t been shot in years. The barman pulls the door open with an ingratiating gesture, but something crunches underfoot. There’s a paperback book lying on the floor, its pages pathetically crumpled. The book is titled Death Sands, a Marcus Summanus adventure.
Jenny-Lovecraft-Lita Brent dropped it there. She had been reading the author’s bio on the back cover. I flop it over with my foot and bend the back page open. Sure enough, my portrait glowers off the pulp-paper cover. My eyes are too deep set, my cheeks too hollow, my eyebrows too thick. A cheap print job and a high contrast photograph make me look like a vampire brooding in the dark. Dark of hair, dark of eye, dark of complexion and quality. I have a sense of humor, I swear. Death Sands; a late college attempt to earn a little legitimate cash, blatantly cashing in on my mother’s good name. The book flopped because it was terrible. Because my mother spoke poetry in fifteen languages, and I could manage to grunt in maybe half that. By the strength of her pen name they printed a lot of copies, so even four years later you can still find it in bins with the other rubbish. I toss the book in the trash can, and then regret the movement which sends a tearing sensation through my belly. My mother’s name doesn’t belong in the trash but the book isn’t her, it’s me.
Jenny’s purse lays against the wall.
Peeking out from the popped latch is the muzzle of her gun.
She left me her gun. Did she do it on purpose?
Sinking guilt settles in my chest. When Sylvia didn’t show, Jenny stepped out. She checked up on me, recognized my picture, saw I hadn’t lied, thought about it, and decided to come back, to keep my help, to let me watch her back and get her through whatever stormy waters she’s treading. Instead of helping, I fell asleep and got shot.
But there’s nothing I can do about that now.
Or is there.
He wants to see you. I’m sorry. 5 PM, 43 north Ziegemeire.
I imagine the slip of paper in my hand, recalling its details, the words in saliva-blurred pencil, the wrinkles, the little tear in the corner. I repeat the words to myself in a whisper.
A few seconds of searching rusty memories doesn’t bring me much on the word ‘Leụ̄xd.’ Raisin-face shot me because he thought I knew where to find a drug shipment, and that must be the name of the drug. I’m not familiar with a drug by that name, but the big one these days is opium, which comes in from China. Leụ̄xd isn’t a word I know in Mandarin. I don’t know many words in Mandarin and even fewer in Cantonese. Regardless of where it was coming from, I know the drug shipment wasn’t at the warehouse at 43 N. Zeigemeire because Raisin-face already knew about the warehouse and he’s still looking for the drug. So 43 N. Zeigemeire must be where the drug needs to go. That means the warehouse is probably smuggling storage of some kind. Agayfa or his people might be there, or they might be out looking for Sylvia.
I can’t think of any way to catch up to Jenny. She left her purse and her gun, but the purse holds only a couple dollars cash and some spare bullets for the gun.
That’s what I’ve got. A word I don’t know, an address, a pea-shooter, two bucks, and a chest wound.
It’s a high quality pea shooter.
I’m standing in the doorway bleeding. A drug store down the street probably has gauze pads and medical tape, which is all I’ll need unless the need is for surgery. I’ll do first aid and then drive downtown to the hospital. Maybe I’ll take a detour past 43 N. Zeigemeire, just in case.