Time for a new story! Something a bit more hard-boiled than our usual fare. Enjoy!
Some days you wake up and you feel like you’ve been living in a gutter, and you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”
Some days you wake up in a gutter with no recollection of the past twenty-four hours.
I like to think of that as the difference between a metaphor and a metal sleeping pill. One’s literary and the other’s literal, a bunch of buckshot in a sack. Apply directly to the skull. It’ll put you right out, like ether, and if it doesn’t, you can always try harder. Like ether.
That’s how I found myself the day it all went wrong, lying face-down in a pile of garbage on the street. The early morning sun forced its way behind my eyelids, insistent and cloying. I tried to roll over to get away from it, but that’s a lot harder to do when you’ve got a pile of trash waiting for you and not a soft white pillow. The smell of wet trash does wonders for waking a person up in the morning. Somebody should tell the coffee companies; they’d make a fortune.
I pushed myself to my feet and coughed like my lungs were trying to escape from my chest. I looked around to see if anybody was watching. They weren’t. That’s one of the perks of living in the big city; nobody really gives a shit. As far as anyone was concerned, I was just another transient with a set of problems no one wants to deal with. About anything. Your mileage may vary, of course. I hear they’ve got softer hearts in San Francisco, but I wouldn’t know.
In a situation where you wake up on the streets, the first thing you want to do is check and see what you have. I had a pounding headache with the epicenter at the back of my skull, so I knew it was a beating and not hangover. I had a series of vague memories, like stills taken from a motion picture: a bar, a beautiful lady, a man the size of the gorilla, and then nothing. Lights out so fast and so hard you’d think that God pulled the plug on my eyeballs.
I checked my pockets next. I still had my wallet and my phone, so whoever sapped me hadn’t been after my money. I still had a sense of self (Daniel Carter, private eye, professional alcoholic, and a terrific dancer) so they hadn’t done any permanent brain damage. I still had my .45, and that would make getting answers out of the dumb son of a bitch that did this to me a lot easier and a lot more satisfying once I found them. Nothing quite says, “Sit down, shut up, and start talking,” like a hole a half-inch wide in one’s chest.
I shook my head to clear away the last of the cobwebs, got my bearings, and made my way back to my office. You make enemies in my line of work, sure. There’s no way around it. But when someone wants you dead, they shoot you. When someone wants to send a message, they leave you for dead. Business had been dry for weeks now, and it was going to take some serious thinking to figure out who I’d pissed off and when. It was a shitty place to be, but still I smiled as I made my way through the people on the street. There isn’t much of a percentage in sleuthing on your own time, but if I had to spend another day sitting in my office, doing nothing and waiting for the phone to ring, my liver would never forgive me.
* * *
When I got back to my office, I saw something I’d never seen before: there was a pretty girl, mid-twenties, dark hair, leaning against the wall and waiting for me.
“You’re Detective Carter?” she asked as I approached.
“That’s what it says on my private investigator’s license.” I reached for my keys and got them into the door on my first try. Thank God for that. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, there’s nothing more embarrassing than trying to fight a key into a keyhole and missing, especially when there’s a beautiful girl watching. I swung open the door and gestured for her to enter. She just stood there.
“You look like you’ve had a rough night.”
“Occupational hazard. You coming in, or were you just waiting for a bus?”
She smirked at that, and walked inside without saying another word. I followed and shut the door behind her.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Miss…”
“Rourke. Elizabeth Rourke.”
I blinked at that, and she smirked again. She saw the surprise on my face, and it must have amused her. The Rourke name carried a lot of weight locally. Old family, lots of money, you know how it goes. The older generation tried to stay out of the public eye, having the decency to enjoy their wealth in the privacy of their own mansions, but some of the younger scions attract a lot of press. Most of it negative.
Growing up with a sense of entitlement will do that to you.
Still, I had no idea who this girl was, and with a face like hers she’d have wound up in the papers for something. I figured she must have been a recent acquisition. The kings and queens of old used to send their children off to marry foreign rulers to foster healthy relations, and the plutocrats of the modern era liked to keep up the tradition.
“Ah. You must be someone’s daughter.”
“Wife, actually. Mrs. Henry Rourke.” She didn’t smirk, so I must have managed to keep my surprise (and, I admit, my disappointment) to myself. Henry Rourke had to be pushing eighty, and when you’ve got an eighty year old involved with a twenty year old, one of them is planning to suck the life out of the other. I’d seen pictures of Henry, and while I wouldn’t put it past the guy to be a vampire, something in my gut said that wasn’t what was going on here.
“Henry Rourke’s a lucky man.”
She smiled at me, her mouth and the dimples on her cheeks warm and inviting, her eyes as cold as ice. “Isn’t he just? I used to think so, but I guess he doesn’t. The old bastard’s cheating on me.”
I arched a single eybrow at that. “An eighty year old man is cheating on you?”
She smiled that smile again, all ice and death. Five hundred years ago, a woman like this would have been advising her husband to murder his boss so he could become king. “I know. Hard to believe, right? I can’t prove anything, but the way I figure, that’s your job.”
I nodded. “It’s a job I do very well. Thirty dollars a day, plus expenses,” I said. “And I need a week’s pay up front. As a retainer.”
Elizabeth snorted at that. “You’re not cheap, Mr. Carter.”
I smiled and shrugged. “Would you want a detective who was?”