Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Moontown Palooka: Chapter Four

Longstreet pulled in front of Oscar’s apartment somewhere just past lunch. The building was a rectangular two-story bunker surrounded by a wooded fence that reminded him of broken fingers. The only other car outside the building looked as if the building had been built around it like a curious rock formation. Even in the strange neighborhood of Moontown, Oscar lived in one of the poorer sections. The houses across the street looked just as battered and there were no children playing in the street. It wasn’t a neighborhood so much as a place where people came to pass out and forget about their meager lives.

Longstreet got out of his car and smoothed his tie. He circled around the building to get the lay of the land. The broken finger fence also surrounded two other prominent features of the tenement, one of which was probably not envisioned by the original owners. The first was a gigantic refuse pile on the eastern side. The first was an above ground swimming pool on the western side of the building. Neither looked particularly glamorous, but the pool had fallen father from the pinnacle of beauty. Ivy of a nauseated hue had crawled up the sides of the pool. The earth was trying to cover one of mankind’s awful mistakes. The remains of a diving board poked up from one side like the mast of a ghost ship.

Longstreet ducked between two of the planks of the fence and entered the grounds. He passed the ivy-covered pool and made his way to the front door. It was unusually warm here for an October day. Because of the weird energies channeled by the citizens of Moontown, the weather was constantly changing. One block would be a balmy August day; the next would be covered in a deluge of locusts. Longstreet thought about returning his coat to the car. He turned, stopped, and felt his hand crawling across his belly for his gun.

Something in the pool was moving.

Thick green waves had begun to loll across the surface of the water. The sides began to creak and moan. The ivy began to shift, as if the thick water spilling over the sides were pennies from Heaven. Longstreet began to perform a curious three-step. His curious nature was driving him forward but his cautious nature was pulling him backward. Both were rational enough to keep his hand on his gun.

A webbed hand burst through the surface, clutching the edge of the pool. Its partner followed, each the size and thickness of catcher’s mitts. A head came out a second afterward. It was shaped like a mound, with round eyes bulging out of the side of the face and a thick set of lips that weighed down the face. Its skin was the color of dead kelp. Somewhere, Longstreet’s mind made a connection. The ivy was actually seaweed. The creature hunched over the edge of the pool. Its mouth opened, and it spat a gout of water back into the pool with a retching noise.

“Can I help you?” it asked sweetly. Longstreet blinked, bravely. It blinked back.

“Could you direct me to the caretaker?”

“That’s me,” the thing said. It seemed to manage a smile.

“Mrs. Hughes?”


Longstreet’s hand crept out from under his coat. “My name’s Longstreet. I’m a private investigator.”

Mrs. Hughes face sunk again. “What do you want?”

“One of your tenants came to me and said his place had been broken into. I’d like to look around.”

“I detest snoops,” Mrs. Hughes said, lowering her head for a gulp of water.

“Ma’am”, said Longstreet, slowly walking toward the pool, “I’m just doing my job.”

“I know who hired you, and I don’t care for him. He was late with his rent last month.”

“Yes.” Longstreet pushed his glasses back up his nose.

“And he has money to hire a detective? You must not be a very good one.”

“I understand if you may not like me but I just want to look around. If you don’t want to talk to me, perhaps I can speak to Mr. Hughes?”

“There’s not one,” she said, and slits on either side of her neck flared. “Not anymore.”

“My apologies,” Longstreet said, looking at his feet.

“That bastard dragged me out of Lake Michigan,” Mrs. Hughes said, her big marble eyes fixing on Longstreet, “and told me we were going together forever. Then one day he says he’s going out for milk and never comes back. All I have to show for it is this pool and this tenement full of deadbeats, magoos, and hobos.”

“Sounds like a real raw deal, but,” Longstreet said and let his breath wrap into a sigh. “Ma’am, the sooner you let me into his apartment, the sooner I’ll be gone.”

Mrs. Hughes’ webbing tapped the edge of the pool.

“Perhaps you could use my services,” Longstreet offered.

“If I want to peep in someone’s windows I can do it myself,” Mrs. Hughes replied.

“Not as a detective, ma’am. I could help you back to the lake.”

Mrs. Hughes made a half-croaking, half-moaning sound. “I could a cab there if I wanted to go back. I can exist out of the water. It’s just more comfortable in here.”

“How about the garbage pile? I could get rid of it.”

Mrs. Hughes dipped her head back in the water. “I usually pay one of those Fiore magoos to get rid of it but they keep raising their prices. I don’t see a dump truck out there.”

“I’m also a sorcerer,” Longstreet said. “If you let me take a look around, I’ll get rid of your garbage pile and you can skip paying Eddie Fiore this month.”

Mrs. Hughes moaned and croaked again. This time, Longstreet realized that was her laugh. “Okay, sorcerer. Let me get my housecoat.”

As she sunk beneath the surface, Longstreet turned toward the building. He guessed Hughes was one of the Goodly Folke. The stories that they were all strangely beautiful were apparently a myth. They had appeared a few years ago, primarily in Irish immigrant neighborhoods. He had one client try to hire him to chase after a leprechaun’s pot of gold, but he refused. Usually, leprechauns led those kinds of suckers down a blind alley where his less diminutive cousins like firbolgs and ogres could shake down the poor sap. He had never heard of one holding down a regular job. He also had never heard of any of them being quite so uneasy on the eyes, either.

“Follow me,” said Mrs. Hughes as she waddled past him. The housecoat she wore was a thick terrycloth robe that seemed to be held together by Mrs. Hughes’
bitterness. As she walked, her arms were set slightly forward, with her palms against her body. It reminded Longstreet of a gunslinger from a western. They made their way inside the building. The entrance hallway was lit by a pair of lights on either end. As they walked past the apartments on the first floor muffled coughs and mumbles snuck through the cracks of the doors. Hughes led him up the stairs to Oscar’s apartment.

She slid the key into the lock and paused to look at him again.

“Don’t take anything,” she croaked. Longstreet nodded, and she opened the door.
Oscar’s apartment was fairly simple. The main room was carpeted. The border between the kitchen and living room was marked by the abrupt ending of the carpet. The appliances curled around the right had wall, ending in a half-open door that Longstreet assumed was the bathroom. He had kicked over a few letters that had been dropped through the slot on the door. He bent to pick them up and cycled through them. Bills for the most part. Nothing foreboding.

“Did he tell you how someone got in?” Longstreet asked. He walked into the main room. The pull-out bed was still down from the wall. It was the only major piece of furniture in any good condition. There was a small table with a pair of chairs set near to the kitchen. Both chairs had pieces held together by wire. Oscar apparently didn’t own a radio.

Longstreet heard Hughes heavy footsteps behind him. She made an unpleasant noise. He brushed past her on his way to the kitchen.

“Did you not hear my question or do you not care?”

The kitchen was a sickly white. The cabinets were more or less bare. An old iron stove crouched in the corner. There was a pot for coffee on top. Longstreet hunched down and opened the door on the side. He poked around for a bit and pulled out a small scrap of paper that had been burned. Longstreet put in his pocket and stood.

Oscar’s bedroom had a bed hidden between piles of laundry. The piles were composed of work clothes and overalls. The bed was a single person affair. It looked like it had been purchased from an orphanage or convent or something. The headboard was decorated with crosses and angels. It was badly scratched. Apparently, the kids liked to carve up the saints. He poked around underneath the bed and found an old box. There was a kid’s baseball glove on top. He dug past it and found a couple of shirts that looked like they had been chewed up.

“Thank you, Mrs. Hughes,” he said, turning. She was following him closely.

“You done?”

“After a question. Does he have any pets?”

“He better not.”

“I’m done here. For now.”

“And the deal?”

“Still on.”

Hughes stepped out of Longstreet’s path. They exited Oscar’s apartment and went downstairs. She led him to the other side of the building. The refuse pile almost stretched the length of the tenement and was almost as tall as Longstreet in places. Longstreet walked up and down the length.

“Well?” grunted Hughes.

Longstreet regarded her with a curious look.

“Snap your fingers,” she hissed. “Burn it up.”

Longstreet shook his head. “I can’t do that. There are no spirits here. At least, none I want to talk to.”

Hughes narrowed her eyes. “All sorcerers lie.”

“I can’t burn it up,” said Longstreet, “but I’ll get rid of it. I just need the right materials and the right spirits.”

“You a necromancer?” asked Hughes. The look in her eyes told him that he could make some pin money by summoning the dearly departed Mr. Hughes for her.

“If I had that kind of juice, I wouldn’t be a nickel and dime detective, would I? I can talk to the spirits in things and ask them to do things. I can do a lot with it, but you have to find the right spirits to talk to.”

Longstreet walked the length of the pile one last time and went around the building. Hughes stayed at her post until she heard the sound of splintering wood. She came around the corner to see Longstreet walking towards the street with planks he had broken from the fence. Longstreet came to the rusted out car he had parked next to when he had arrived. He would take one of the planks and trace it down the side of the car, like a dancer or painter. As he did this, he would snap each plan in half, and then each half piece in half as well. When he made it to the front, he would whisper and fit the pieces into the grill, sharp ends poking from the rusted metal. He did this about three or four more times. When he was finished, he took a moment and leaned into the one remaining rear view mirror that jutted from the side of the car. He paused, whispered something, and turned to face Hughes.

“All set,” he said. Hughes folded her arms.

“And what is supposed to happen now?”

“Tell it where to go,” Longstreet said and pointed at the rusted car.

“That’s going to get rid of my garbage?”

“If you ask it,” Longstreet replied. Hughes walked toward the strangely decorated car.

“Get rid of the garbage out back,” she said.

The car roared to life, suddenly, with a growl of engine and wail of something else. It hopped onto the grass and rolled past the pool, disappearing around the corner. Hughes looked back at Longstreet. He gestured and headed around the building. Hughes gasped as she came around the corner. The car rolled forward, tore off a huge chunk of garbage with its front grill, and reversed to chew it for a bit. It swallowed, rolled forward, and repeated the process.

“I told the rust spirits inside the car that they’d have a better meal with the garbage pile. Keep them fed and they’ll stay happy.”

Hughes nodded and turned away from Longstreet, eager to see the machine at work. Longstreet returned to his vehicle and drove away.

Longstreet could barely keep his eyes open as his Ford made its way through the streets. The combination of the late night and the summoning had taken their toll. He made his way back to the office.

“Louise,” he said as he took off his hat, “see what you can find on an Oswald Kier. And hold my calls. I’m going to take a nap.”

We don’t have a phone, boss.

“Then you shouldn’t be distracted too badly,” he said as he shut his office door behind him.

Longstreet slept until after sunset. His head was tilted back on his chair and his coat was draped over his chest like a blanket. A grating car horn woke him back up. His head rolled forward and he rubbed his face. He needed a drink and a chance to sleep in a real bed. He peeked out the window. The rusty car waited in the alleyway. When it saw him in the window, it winked its one working headlight at him. Longstreet was down in the alley two minutes later.

“Did you have trouble finding the place?” he asked, speaking into the rear view mirror. The headlight blinked twice.

“Your former owner, Mr. Kier, currently lives at 3318 Ghiberti Street. He’s on the second floor. Do you have anything for me?”

The car blinked once. The hood popped open with a creak. Longstreet slid his hand inside, fumbled for a moment, and pulled a crumpled piece of paper out triumphantly. The car shut its hood and backed out of the alley. Longstreet reached into his pocket and pulled out the bit of paper rescued from the fire. He held them up in the single light of the car’s lamp. They were the same type. Smiling, he flattened the larger piece out and saw the message on it.

“I know your secret, Oscar,” he read.