The stench of death is upon you
I walked home with a plastic bag in one hand and a smoothie in the other. I was running out of cash and had no idea how I was going to pay my cell phone bill, which was already past due, but I sprung for the smoothie anyway after getting what I needed — finally, I was sure — to fix my front door. Seeing Bastien was much easier than I expected, which made me feel a little stupid. I’d been procrastinating in my search for Kell and now there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. But mostly I felt good, like I’d passed a really hard test. Like I was finally over all of it. I was totally in a good mood — until I saw the black limo waiting across the street just down from the Halal market. It was all sleek and curvy, like a reef shark. I slurped the last dribbles of my treat to myself and tossed the cup into a trash can before passing the rear of the vehicle to cross the road. I pretended not to notice it.
Bouncer-man stepped out from the driver’s side. “Mr. Raimi hasn’t heard from you.”
“I mailed him a full report,” I said without stopping. “Typed and double-spaced with proper margins and everything. Mrs. Cho would be very proud. He should have it in a couple days.”
“He’s losing confidence in your ability to hold up your end of the bargain.”
“Well, I tell you what.” I turned and started walking backward across the street toward the market. “If I don’t deliver, I promise I won’t make him pay. How’s that?”
“He’s wondering if you require additional motivation.”
I stopped. It was the way he said it. Made me wanna kick him in the balls.
“Is that a threat?”
Bouncer-man opened the door to the back. “He would like a word.”
“We all want things.” I turned again for the door.
“Ms. Song,” he called insistently.
I didn’t stop.
“Ms. Song!” Lyman’s voice. Like a boom.
He was in the back of the limo. His mostly bald head was poking out. I shit you not, he was in the douche uniform: khakis and a striped Polo under white cardigan with a colorful border. Big & Tall size.
“I’m working on it,” I called. I waggled my hand to shoo him. “Go foreclose on people’s homes or inflate the price of lifesaving medicines or whatever.”
“Do we have to shout?” He looked around. “Can you get in the car? Please?”
I sighed and walked back to the limo. Bouncer-man shut the door behind me. It was very quiet. I was facing Lyman. He looked like he was sick. His eyes were dark and I got the sense he’d been coughing when the door was closed, which was maybe why bouncer-man had stepped out first.
Across the seat from me was the black guy with the long face who’d searched the motel room. He glowered menacingly.
I rolled my eyes and dropped my plastic bag in his lap.
“You may not appreciate it,” Lyman began, “but cash is expensive. Every hour that a dollar isn’t invested, it loses — ”
“Come on.” I made a disgusted face. “You’re not gonna give me a million dollars. Okay? It’s insulting. I’m not that stupid.”
He looked at me. He pulled down the center cushion in the seat back, which revealed a compartment. Inside was a metal suitcase.
“No way . . .”
He took it out and opened it on the seat next to him. The lid raised and I gasped.
It was full of ten-thousand-dollar stacks, but different than the one he’d given me. These bills had clearly been used. They weren’t in terrible shape, but they weren’t all neat and crisp like the others.
The car was deathly quiet for several seconds.
“This is five hundred thousand dollars,” he explained in neat and tidy words. “I’ll have another case just like this in the morning. Unmarked, non-consecutive bills. Just like you asked.”
“Fuck me . . .” I couldn’t help it. That was a lot of goddamned money.
He motioned to the front. “William doesn’t think we need you. He knows some men. Ex-cops, ex-NSA, who would guarantee results for a fraction of the cost. Understand?”
I was still looking at the money.
“Convince me,” he said.
“She texted me,” I defended my lack of progress. “I got a number.”
He smiled in a very self-satisfied way, like the everyone in the world had just stopped what they were doing and they’d all shouted what a smart guy he was.
“I told you she trusted you. I knew it. You’re the only one.” He nodded to the bodyguard in the seat next to me.
My eyes got big. I reached for the door but it bouncer-man locked it from the front. I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I turned and the black dude with the narrow head punched me. Like, hard. My head flew back and bounced off the window hard enough to make it ring.
“Owww . . .” I didn’t know whether to grab the back of my head or the front. My nose was running. My eye was hot and was starting to swell. I was gonna get a shiner, just like Kell. “Assholes,” I breathed.
They took my phone. It was locked, of course, but Lyman just nodded again and his bodyguard grabbed my arm. I made a fist and tried to fight him, but the fucker was strong and he worked my thumb free and held it on the reader. My phone unlocked and I scratched his face with my free hand. I think I got his eye. He screamed and elbowed me hard. It was a reflex and he didn’t hold back. It hurt even more than the punch. I flew back and hit the side of the car and fell to the floor.
That’s where I was when the door opened and William bouncer-man dragged me from the limo. He just dropped me right on the road. I watched from the asphalt as Lyman got what he needed from my phone and deleted the text so I wouldn’t have the number. Then he tossed my phone to the street. It bounced and slid.
I picked it up. The screen was all cracked. “You fucking dick!”
“Thank you for your help.” Lyman pulled a single hundred dollar bill from a stack in the case. “This ought to cover your time.”
He crumpled it and threw it at me. It bounced off my hair. The door shut and the limo pulled away, almost running over my foot, which I yanked out of the way at the last second.
I tongued the inside of my lip. The back of my head stung. My eye throbbed. And I was pretty sure I was going to have a fat, tender bruise on my chest from where dickless elbowed me. I sat up on the pavement in the middle of the road and sniffed. My eyes were watering and I needed to clear my nostrils. I ran the back of my hand across my nose. I had almost forgotten what getting your ass kicked felt like. I felt bad, but honestly it wasn’t the worst beating I’d taken. A couple years before, Kell and I got arrested for brawling on the street. Some drunk lesbians were yelling gay slurs to our friend Rey, who was super skinny and very, very shy. He just wanted to leave, but Kell and I were drunk too, and high, and words got said and things got out of hand very quickly. I don’t think any of us intended to fight. All I remember is being so angry at them. They were lesbians — they were supposed to know better!
The fight was epic. Punching. Screaming. Kicking. Hair pulling. The works. The police came and broke it up. They had us all line up and sit with our backs to the wall. Kell and I looked like shit. Hair a mess. Cuts and bruises everywhere. Spots of blood on our clothes. We were outnumbered and totally got our asses kicked. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alive. Kell, too. I’m sure that’s why neither of us said anything. We just sat there like darkening bruises as the police processed the lesbian gang. We had stood up for our friend and we were feeling good. We were soaking in it like a hot bath and neither of us wanted to do anything to break the spell.
All I could think as I was sitting in the road in front of my apartment was that I would’ve killed for a joint just then.
A car screeched to a halt behind me and honked. The dude got out barely a second later and started yelling at me to get out of the road. He was in a blue and green track suit with a soccer logo.
“Girlie!” he yelled. “Do you understand English?”
It was so funny I almost laughed. His accent was so thick he was damned near unintelligible.
“Is that what you call it?” I sniffed and wiped again.
He moved toward me, like he might drag me out of the way or something.
“Touch me and I’ll eat your balls.”
He was about to retort when a white turd landed on his cheek. He wiped it and looked at his hand.
“What the . . .”
We both looked up.
Lots and lots of fucking birds. Crows, mostly, but sparrows and starlings as well, just like before. They descended as a angry, quarreling flock and landed on rooftops and street signs and cars and everything. There was chirping and cawing and flapping. None of them stayed still for very long, which meant there was a constant swirling mass of feathers, so many that they actually stirred the air.
A crow dove over the guy in the track suit.
He barely had time to duck before another came. He crouched to the street, where I was already thankfully planted, and swatted over his bald spot.
I felt something brush my hair, which gave me the willies, and I shook my hands around my head. But another came. And another. And another. It seemed like they were closing in, getting lower and lower and lover until WHOOSH. They scattered. Just like that, the whole menagerie took to wing and flew into the air in all directions, as if in fear for their lives.
Track suit guy had his head craned to the sky.
“What the fuck?” There was a tiny wet spot on his crotch. “What the hell was that?”
“A murder,” a man said behind me.
I was still sitting on the ground. I dropped my head back and looked at him upside down. He stood with his hands in a fantastic coat.
A coat. In June.
Still, I can see why he was so fond of it. It was awesome. It was an old-style chuban, like they used to wear on the mainland centuries ago, only the buttons had been replaced. These were all different. One was stamped metal. Another was polished amber. Whatever had been printed on the fabric had long-since faded to wisps. Now it appeared as an early morning fog, or maybe smoke from a campfire.
He was looking at me. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he wasn’t particularly short either. His skin was an odd color — it had a faint ocher hue — and he was completely bald.
I glanced up one more time to the sky. The last few birds were fluttering away. But by tilting my head back and then forward like that, I caused my nose to run. I sniffed and tasted blood. I touched it and saw red.
“You are bleeding.”
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket as if he were a stage magician. It had the initials H.H. embroidered in the corner.
“Thanks. I’m okay. My apartment’s right here.”
I got up and moved toward the door, one finger pressed to my nostril.
Track suit guy raised his arms as if to praise Allah that I’d gotten out of his way. A car honked behind his and he told them what he felt about it in colorful language.
“You are Cerise Song?”
Bald guy knew my name. I stopped to reply, but I had to wipe my nose again.
“May I have a moment?” he asked.
“Uhhh . . .” I didn’t feel like arguing. I backed to the door. “To be honest, the lock’s busted and I couldn’t stop you anyway, so — FUCK.” I looked up in frustration.
“Nothing. It’s just.” I raised my hand toward the end of the street. “They drove off with my . . . Never mind.”
I went in and trotted up the stairs. I walked into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. When I turned off the spigot, I heard him at my front door. I came out with a tissue hanging from my left nostril. He was staring in silence at the giant sparkly clitoris in my living room.
“It’s . . .” I started.
His eyes moved over the couch and the floor and the little kitchen nook. My place was a mess. There were like worn panties lying around, plus an open box of tampons, along with the art and everything. There was no place for him to sit.
“What is it that you wanted, Mister . . . ?”
“My name is Étranger.”
The name got me. “Have we met?”
“I don’t think so. I would have remembered.”
I’m not sure if he was complimenting me or his memory.
He handed me a card. “Perhaps you have been to my restaurant.”
Bistro Indigenes. With the name in print, it all came back. I held up the card. “Mory.” I nodded.
“Dr. Sandoval. He was my aesthetics professor. He used to rave about you. Holy shit — excuse me.” I covered my dirty mouth with the card. “He’d freak.”
I loved that class. It was the only one I attended regularly. Professor Sandoval was this funny little Puerto Rican Jew with a thick Brooklyn accent. He’d go off on Kant and baseball in the same sentence. He loved Étranger’s food — his art — but could rarely afford it on a teacher’s salary.
He told us about the Cirque Gastronomique, this food art series Étranger did — and about the Eros Gastronomique in particular. It wasn’t just a dinner. It was a complete sensual experience that “penetrated a wet cave,” an ocean grotto exposed by the tides, with a stunning view of a red-hued sunset over the Indian Ocean. There were candles and lights strung overhead, and the courses were served with an increasing urgency as the tide returned over the duration of the meal, thrusting in and out. Dr. Sandoval said the diners swayed, not just with the waves but in tension between the desire to savor and the desire to hurry and finish before the waters returned and drowned them. As he told us the story, he stood on stage with his eyes closed making this face. I swear he was going to pop in his shorts right in front of the class.
But my guest seemed uncomfortable with his notoriety. Or just annoyed with me perhaps. “You paid a visit to the home of Lyman Raimi recently.”
“So I did.”
I started feeling queasy and went to the kitchenette for a glass of water.
“Can I offer you anything?” I called. “I’m afraid the only soft drink I have is water. And Red Bull. But you don’t look like a Red Bull man.”
“May I ask the reason for your visit?”
“Reason?” I put three ice cubes in a glass, filled it with the half-empty remains of a vending machine water bottle, and added a dash of Southern Comfort. “What makes you think there was a reason?”
“Lyman Raimi is very ill and doesn’t accept guests.” He said it like he knew from personal experience.
“Is that so?”
I walked to the couch. I was going to offer him a seat, but it was covered with crap. He saw me looking at it.
I pushed clothes and a blanket and Kell’s plastic bags to the floor with my art supplies and everything. A book fell free. It clunked on the hardwood and landed near my guest. He looked down at it. He picked it up. He read the spine.
“An adequate history,” he said. “Although you might prefer The Long Vacant Cupboard. For the introductory commentary.”
He handed it to me, which is when I noticed his palms were tattooed.
I scanned the title quickly. The Sacred Marriage: Alchemy, Witchcraft, and the Life Eternal. I walked it to the kitchen table as he lowered himself to the couch. He stood immediately. There was one item left, apparently — my magic eight ball. He lifted it and sat again and held it in his lap with two tattooed hands. He had perfect posture.
“May I ask your business with Mr. Raimi?” he said.
“That’s funny. I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“He is a collector. Of sorts. He recently liquidated most of his fortune in order to acquire something of great value. An artifact, thought lost.”
“Lemme guess. It belongs to you.”
“No. It belongs to The Pit, which is where it should be sent.” He looked at me with concern. “Are you certain you do not require medical attention?”
“Huh?” I yanked the tissue from my nose. The tip was red.
He motioned to my eye. I touched it and flinched. It felt flushed and tender. I was going to have a helluva bruise.
That really pissed me off.
I walked back to the kitchen. “I’m very sorry,” I called back to him. “I’m not usually in the habit of getting my ass kicked in front of total strangers. I usually reserve that honor for my close friends. It’s just been a really . . . strange couple days.”
“I would suggest it is going to get stranger,” he said.
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“The stench of death is upon you.”
I swallowed the last of my drink and almost choked. What do you say to something like that?
“Gee. And I took a shower yesterday and everything.”
I dumped the ice in a towel. The movement made my chest hurt. A painful stiffness was spreading across my entire trunk. I walked back into the living room holding the ice pack to my eye. The sensation wasn’t pleasant. I was really starting to feel like shit. I just wanted to sit. I walked to the couch and plopped down.
“I believe you may have a concussion,” he said, studying me.
But there was certainly a dull throb resounding in my head. It bounced back and forth like a wave between the walls of my skull. And I was starting to feel nauseated.
“A visit to the hospital would be wise,” he suggested, leaning toward me slightly.
I shook my head, which hurt. I shut my eyes, which also hurt, albeit a little less, and leaned my head back.
“I don’t have insurance. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
I felt the cushions shift as he got up from the couch, which was cool because I really didn’t want to have to ask him to leave. But he didn’t leave. He put his tattooed hand on my forehead.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery in order until the book is released in early 2018. You can start reading in order here.
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cover image by Axl Salles