She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes — a size eight dame in a size six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and take a seat at the end of the bar. I raised an eyebrow at the South African merchant marine who’d been spinning out tales of his weird cargo at the other end of the bar while I polished a shot glass.
“That there’s a tasty bit of trouble,” says the sailor.
“Yep,” I says, snapping my bar towel and draping it over my arm as fancy as you please. “You know what they say though, cap’n, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.” So I move down the bar toward the dame, beaming a smile like a lighthouse full of charm, but trying to keep my limp on the Q.T. to discourage curiosity.
“I don’t think that’s what they were talking about, Sammy boy,” says the sailor, “but steam on.” Which is the kind of cheering a guy will give you figuring it’s no skin off his nose if you get shot down.
“What can I get you, toots?” I says to the dame. She’s a blond, the dirty kind, and her hair is pinned up on her head so it kind of shoots up dark, then fountains out yellow every-which-way in curls at the top– makes her look a little surprised. Her lips remind me of a valentine heart, shiny red and plump, but a little lopsided, like maybe she’d taken a shot to the kisser in an earlier round, or the valentine heart haa acute angina. Crooked but inviting.
Then the dame fidgets on the bar stool, as if to get a better fit on her bottom, causing a gasp to go through the bar that momentarily clears the smoke, like a truck-sized dragon has sucked it out through the back door. It’s not that a lone dame never comes into Sal’s, it’s just that one never comes in this early, while it’s still light out and the haze of hooch hasn’t settled on everyone to smooth over a doll’s rougher edges. (Light being the natural enemy of the bar broad.)
“The name’s not toots,” says the blond. “And give me something cheap, that goes down easy.”
There then commences a lot of coughing as all the guys in the joint are suddenly paying attention to draining drinks, lighting cigarettes, adjusting the angle of their hats and whatnot, as if the dame’s remark has not just floated like a welcome sign over a room full of hustlers, gamblers, day drunks, stevedores, sailors, ne’er-do-wells, and neighborhood wise guys, each and every one a hound at heart. So I looks over the shotgun bar, trying to catch every eye as I am reaching down as if I am going for my walking stick – which is my version of the indoor baseball bat most bartenders keep, and even though my cane is ten feet out of reach, they get the message. I am not a big guy, and I am known to have a slow boil, but I have quick hands and I put in an hour on a heavy bag every day — a habit I picked up due to my inability to know when to keep my trap shut, so it is known that I can handle myself. Most of these mugs have seen more than one guy poured into the gutter out front after thinking my sunny disposition and bum foot make me a pushover, so they keep it polite. Then again, I also control the flow of booze. Could be that.
“What do I call you then, miss?” I ask the blond, locking my baby blues on her cow browns, careful not to ogle her wares, as dames often do not care for that, even when it is evident that they have spent no little time and effort preparing their wares for ogling.
“It’s missus,” she says.
“Will the mister be joining you, then?”
“Not unless you want to wait while I go home and grab the folded flag they gave me instead of sending him home.” She doesn’t look away when she says it, or smile. She doesn’t look down to hide her grief or pretend she is pushing back a tear, just looks at me dead on, a tough cookie.
First I’m thinking she might be busting my chops for calling her Toots, but whether she is or isn’t, I’m thinking the best way to dodge the hit is to act like I’m taking a shot to the body.
“Awe jeeze, ma’am, I’m sorry. The war?” Had the be the war. She can’t be more than twenty three or four, just a few years younger than me, I guess.
She nods, then starts fussing with the latch on her pocketbook.
“Put that away, it’s on the house,’ I says. “Let’s start over. I’m Sammy,” I says, offering my hand to shake.
She takes it. “Sammy? That’s a kid’s name.”
“Yeah, well the neighborhood is run by a bunch of old Italian guys who think anyone under sixty is a kid, so it’s on them.”
Then she laughs, and I feel like I’ve just hit a home run. “Hi Sammy,” she says. “I’m Stilton.”
“Pardon? Mrs. Stilton?”
“First name Stilton. Like the cheese.”
“Like what cheese?”
“Stilton? You’ve never heard of it? It’s an English cheese.”
“Okay,” I says, relatively sure this daffy broad is making up cheeses.
So she pulls her hand back and fidgets on the stool again, like she’s building up steam, and all the mugs in the place stop talking to watch. I just stand there, lifting one eyebrow like I do.
“My father was a soldier in the Great War. American. My mother is English –war bride. They had their first real date after the war in the village of Stilton. So, a few years later, when I was born, that’s what pop named me. Stilton. I was supposed to be a boy.”
“Well they totally screwed the pooch on that one.” I says, and I give her a quick once-over, out of respect for her non-boyness. “If you don’t mind me sayin’.” Suddenly I wish I am wearing a hat so I can tip it, but then I realized that she and I are probably the only people in all of San Francisco not currently wearing hats. It is like we are naked together. So I grab a fedora off a mug two stools down and in a smooth motion I put it on and give it a tip. “Ma’am!” I says with a bow.
So she laughs again and says, “How about you fix me an old fashioned before you get in any deeper, smart guy.
“Anything for you, toots,” I says. So I flip the hat back to the hatless mook down the bar, thank him, then step to the well and start putting together her drink.
“Don’t call me toots.”
“C’mon, it’s better than the cheese.”
“But the cheese is my name.”
“So it is,” I says, setting the drink down in front of her and giving it a swizzle with the straw. “To the cheese. Cheers.”
Now I want to ask her what brings her into my bar, where she’s from, and does she live around the neighborhood, but there’s a fine line between being curious and being a creep, so I leave her with the drink and make my way back down the bar, refilling drinks and pulling empties until I get back to the South African merchant marine.
“Looks like you charmed her, all right,” says the sailor. “What’s she doing here, by herself, in the middle of the afternoon? Hooker?”
“Don’t think so. Widow. Lost her old man in the war.”
“Damn shame. Lot of those about. Thought I was going to leave my wife a widow a hundred times during the war. Worked a Liberty ship running supplies across the Atlantic for most of it. I still get nightmares about German U-boats –” The sailor stops himself in the middle of the tale and shoots a glance down the bar at my cane. “But I guess I was luckier than most.”
So after feeling top of the world over making the blond laugh, I’m feeling like a four-star phony all of sudden, which happens like that, but I shake it off and give the sailor a slap on the back, letting him off the hook. “Doesn’t sound that lucky,” I says, “considering your cargo.”
“Like Noah’s bloody ark,” he says. “That’s what it is. You haven’t sailed until you’ve sailed through a storm with a seasick elephant on board. Had a stall built for him in the hold. Poor bloke that has to muck it out will be at if for days. We offloaded the animal in San Diego last week, but the stink still lingers.”
“Any tigers?” I ask.
“Just African animals. Tigers are from Asia.”
“I knew that,” I says. I probably should have known that. “Never seen a tiger.”
“The big cats don’t bother me much. They’re in iron cages and you can see what you got, stay away from them. Push a bit of meat into the cage every few days with a long stick. A very long stick. It’s the bloody snakes that give me the jitters. Next week our sister ship is bringing in a cargo of every deadly bloody viper on the dark continent, going to a lab at Stanford, and snakes don’t need to eat, so they’re just in wooden crates. You can’t even see them. But if one of them was to get loose, you’d never know until it bit you.”
“Like a U-boat?”
“Exactly. There’ll be a dozen black mambas on board. Those buggers grow ten, fifteen feet long. Saw one of them go after a bloke once when I was a kid. Mambas don’t run away like a proper snake. They stand up and charge after you — faster than you can run. Poor bastard was dead in minutes. Foaming at the mouth and twitching in the dirt.”
“Sounds rough,” I says. “That settles it. I am never ever going to Africa.”
“It’s not all bad. You should come over to the dock in Oakland in the morning and see the rest of menagerie before we off-load. I’ll give you the grand tour. Ever seen an aardvark? Goofy bloody creatures. Will try to burrow through the steel hull. We got two aardvarks.”
“Aardvarks are delicious,” says Eddie Shu, because that’s the kind of thing he says, trying to shock people, because it is a well-known fact that Chinese guys eat some crazy shit. Eddie is a thin Chinese guy wearing a very shiny suit and black and white wingtips. His hair is curled up and lacquered back to look like Frank Sinatra’s. I don’t see him come in because I am trying to keep an eye on the blond, so I figure he sneaks in the back door, which no one is supposed to do, but Eddie is a friend, so what are you gonna do?
“Pay no attention to this mope,” I says to the sailor. “He lies like an Oriental rug.”
“Fine,” says Eddie. “But as the Buddha says, a man who has not tasted five-spice aardvark has never tasted joy.”
“Uh huh,” I says. “The Buddha says that, huh?”
“Far as you know.”
“Eddie Moo Shoes, this is Captain – “ and here I pause to let the sailor fill in the details.
“Bokker,” says the South African. “Not a captain, though. First mate on the Beltane, freighter out of Cape Town.”
So Moo Shoes and the Mate exchange nods, and I say, “Eddie works at Club Shanghai down the street.”
“Who’s the tomato,” Eddie asks, tossing his fake-Sinatra forelock toward the blond, and I find I am somewhat defensive that he calls her a tomato, despite the fact that she is that plus some.
“Just came in,” I says. “Name’s Stilton.”
“Like the cheese,” I explain.
Eddie looks at me, then at the sailor, then at me. “The cheese?”
“That’s what she said.”
“Have you seen her naked?” asks Moo Shoes.
Now in the mean time I have been watching various patrons circle and dive on the blond, and I see each of them limp away, trailing smoke, shot down with a regretful but coquettish smile. And meanwhile, she keeps looking up at me, like she’s saying, “Are you gonna let this go on?” Feels like that’s what she was saying, anyway. Maybe every guy in the place feels that way. This Stilton broad has something…
“Oh yeah,” I says, answering Moo Shoes. “She walked in naked, but I had to ask her to put on some clothes so as not to distress the upstanding citizens who frequent this fine establishment on their way back and forth to mass.”
“I’d like to see her naked,” says Moo Shoes. “You know, make sure she’s good enough for you.”
“Not for you, then?” the sailor asks Moo.
And Moo Shoes nearly goes weepy on us, hanging his head until his Sinatra forelock droops on the sad. “Lois Fong,” he says.
“Dancer at the club,” I explain.
“That dame wouldn’t so much as punch me in the throat if it made me cough up gold coins.”
“It’s a Chinatown thing,” I explain further. “They have customs and whatnot.”
“We are a mysterious and ancient people,” Eddie says to the sailor.
“But you have seen her naked,” I say, clapping Moo on the shoulder, a ray of fucking sunshine on his dark despair.
“On the job,” Eddie says. “So has everyone else at the club. Don’t think that makes it any easier.”
Then I notice the blonde’s drink is low and it’s time I pay her a visit, so I hold up a finger to mark the place in Moo Shoes’ sulk. “Be right back.”
“Another old fashioned, cupcake?” I says with a grin, daring her to get sore at me.
“My name’s not—“ and she catches herself. “You buying, wise-ass?”
“Me? There’s a dozen guys in here already offered to buy you a drink.”
“Maybe I was waiting for a better offer,” she says, and rolls her eyes, bats her eyelashes, then sighs wistfully – well, fake wistfully, which makes me laugh.
‘You know it doesn’t cost me anything if I buy you a drink, like it would one of these mooks.”
“Which means you won’t think I owe you anything in return, like one of these mooks, right?”
“No, no, no,” I says. “Perish the thought.” Then I lean in in hopes of perpetrating a little conspiracy. “Although I have told my friend Eddie back there that I have seen you naked, so if he comes over, cover my bet, would you?”
“I have a birthmark on my right hip.” She winks.
“That’s the spirit!”
“Shaped like Winston Churchill.”
“That must be a sight to behold,” I says.
“How about that drink, Gunga Din?”
I like a dame who knows her Kipling, or any poetry, for that matter, as I am a sensitive and poetic soul. My dear ma was an English teacher, and from the time I squeak out my first word she steeps me deeply in metaphor, simile, symbolism, alcoholism and all the various iambs of the poetic tradition, all of which have served me greatly over the years in pouring drinks, welding ships, bird-dogging broads, and waxing poetical on both this and that.
So I’m about the say the same about the Kipling to the Cheese, when the door flies open behind her and in walks Sally Gab, Sal Gabelli, my boss, followed closely by an Air Force general with so many campaign medals on his uniform that it looks like someone is losing a game of mahjong on his chest.
The bar is called Sal’s, after the aforementioned Sal, although there is no sign that says so, and over the years the joint has been known as Flossie’s, Danny’s, The Good Time, Grant Avenue Saloon, The Motherlode, Barbary Belle’s and a half-dozen other monikers going back to 1853 when the place first opens on the same spot. I am told that the long oak bar and beveled mirror back bar came around on the Horn on a clipper ship with sailors who dreamed of striking gold in the California hills. Currently, the sign reads only, Saloon, Sal being too cheap or too smart to put his name over the door. Sal is a well-known in the neighborhood, but also well known to be such a douche bag that no one would be surprised to see a long red hose and nozzle trailing out his pant leg. The joint might have survived the great quake of 1906, but Sal knows that having his name on the place just might be enough to bring it down.
“General,” says Sal, a rangy fifty-year old who is always in need of a shave, wears suspenders and an ill-fitting suit, and holds a cigar in his jaw at all times. “This is Sammy Two-Toes, my guy with his ear to the ground in the neighborhood. He’ll be able to help you out with your little problem.”
I cringe a little at the nick-name, which only Sal uses, and I give the General the once-over. He’s a tall fellow, pushing sixty, with a pencil-thin mustache. When he takes his hat off, he reveals a jail-house window of dark strands of hair combed over a bald pate. “Sammy,” he says, as if he wished he has a rank rather than a name to call me by. It would be a low rank, I guess from his tone, and he just nods, not offering his hand to shake, as I am clearly beneath his consideration.
“Two-Toes knows all the hustlers in town, don’t you Sammy?” Says Sal, who suddenly realizes he is talking over the shoulder of a dame and steps back from Stilton to give her a gander. “Hey, sweetheart—“
“Hold that drink, Sammy,” Stilton says, standing up and putting her finger in Sal’s face to shut him up, a red-lacquered nail a half inch from poking him in the eye. “I gotta scram.”
Before I can say anything or make a move she keeps her one finger in Sal’s mug while she threads her other hand through the strap of her pocketbook holds it up to put the halt on me, which I do. “I’ll see you later, handsome,” she says, and in a single move she drops both arms, pirouettes, and slides out the door while her skirt is still twirling, leaving me, Sal, and the general not a little dumbfounded, and me feeling like luck takes a powder on me. Lost, is what I’m saying.
“Extraordinary,” says the general, still looking at the spot Stilton has just vacated. “Now that’s exactly the type of young woman—“
“The gimp is your guy , then—“ says Sal, cutting him off.
Just then Eddie Moo Shoes comes sliding behind the general along with a couple of other guys. The evening crowd tends to clear when Sal is around, as many find him revolting going back to the war when he gouges military guys for the privilege of buying watered-down hooch past off-limits hours.
“Catch you after work for a bite,” Moo Shoe’s says.
“Sure,” I says. “Meet you at the club.”
Eddie waves and is gone, but Sal says, “I told you no fucking Japs.”
“He’s Chinese,” I say.
“Same difference,” says Sal.
Now Sal knows his place is only a block out of Chinatown, and the Chinese were in San Francisco long before the Italians and that his Italian fisherman ancestors had been selling fish to Moo Shoes’ Chinese forefathers for five generations, but he chooses to ignore this in favor of showing his patriotism to the general with indiscriminate discrimination. But the douche bag is my boss, and he gives me a job after the war, when jobs are not easy to come by, and under somewhat phonus bolongnus circumstances that I would rather not have him examine, so I let it pass.
“What can I get you, General?” I says, looking past Sal.
“Scotch, neat. Single malt if you have it.” He looks around at the place and assesses it as the kind of place that won’t have a single malt. Most places don’t. The Scots had to suspend distilling it during the war and it’s not a quick process, but I remember seeing something…
“I’ll see what I can find.”
As I rummage around under the bar, Sal says, “General Remy’s just in town for a few days — meeting with some mucky-mucks, but he’s coming back next week.”
“I’m hoping to make some arrangements for some – some — social company upon my return.” For a military guy, the General seems a little uncomfortable being in a bar. Maybe it’s just Sal’s bar, and how those two end up together is mystery to me as well.
Sal says, “The General is commander of a base back east.”
“Oh really,” I say, my head still down with the spiders and the dust looking for Scotch. “Where is that?”
“Roswell, New Mexico,” says the general.
There it is. I pop up from under the bar with a dusty bottle of Glen Fiddich. “Never heard of it.”
“No reason you would,” says the General. “Nothing ever happens there.”
“Right,” I say, corking the bottle. “Double?”
“Please,” says the General.
So I pour, thinking not at all about New Mexico, but about the Cheese, and how she walks out without my getting her number, or even finding out if she lives in the neighborhood, wondering if she just jitterbugged out into the great beyond, never to be seen again. But then I think, no, she stands up, and stands up to Sal on my behalf. And even though I don’t know where she comes from, where she goes to, or how to find her, it feels like I’m going to see her again, and when I do, something is going to happen — something big and strange and hopeful, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do about it.
Do you want a signed first edtion of Secondhand Souls, but you can’t make it to an event, and you don’t want to wait for it to ship. Well Tuesday 8/25/15, you’ll be able to buy a copy in your own damn town. I wouldn’t wait around. Listed alphabetically by state…
Secondhand Souls – Confirmed Bookstores with Signed Copies
*Please note: while supplies last. You might want to call ahead to make sure the store still has signed copies available
(Selected from the Great Big Book of Death: First Edition)
1. Congratulations, you have been chosen to act as Death, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. It is your duty to retrieve soul vessels from the dead and dying and see them on to their next body. If you fail, Darkness will cover the world and Chaos will reign.
2. Some time ago, the Luminatus, or the Great Death, who kept balance between light and darkness, ceased to be. Since then, Forces of Darkness have been trying to rise from below. You are all that stands between them and destruction of the collective soul of humanity. Try not to screw up.
3. In order to hold off the Forces of Darkness, you will need a number two pencil and a calendar, preferably one without pictures of kitties on it. Keep it near you when you sleep.
4. Names and numbers will come to you. The number is how many days you have to retrieve the soul vessel. Do not be late. You will know the vessels by their crimson glow.
5. Don’t tell anyone what you do, or the Forces of Darkness etc. etc. etc.
6. People may not see you when you are performing your Death duties, so be careful crossing the street. You are not immortal.
7. Do not seek others of your kind. Do not waver in your duties or the Forces of Darkness will destroy you and all that you care about.
8. You do not cause death, you do not prevent death, you are a servant of Destiny, not its agent. Get over yourself.
9. Do not, under any circumstances, let a soul vessel fall into the hands of those from below—because that would be bad.
Do not be afraid
Everyone before you has died
You cannot stay
Any more than a baby can stay forever in the womb
Leave behind all you know
All you love
Leave behind pain and suffering
This is what Death is.
—The Book of Living and Dying (The Tibetan Book of the Dead)
1 Day of the Dead
It was a cool, quiet November day in San Francisco and Alphonse Rivera, a lean, dark man of fifty, sat behind the counter of his bookstore flipping through the Great Big Book of Death. The old-fashioned bell over the door rang and Rivera looked up as the Emperor of San Francisco, a great woolly storm cloud of a fellow, tumbled into the store followed by his faithful dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who ruffed and frisked with urgent intensity, then darted around the store like canine Secret Service agents, clearing the site in case a sly assassin or meaty pizza lurked among the stacks.
“The names must be recorded, Inspector,” the Emperor proclaimed, “lest they be forgotten!”
Rivera was not alarmed, but by habit his hand fell to his hip, where his gun used to ride. Twenty-five years a cop, the habit was part of him, but now the gun was locked in a safe in the back room. He kept an electric stun gun under the counter that in the year since he opened the store had been moved only for dusting.
“Why the names of the dead, of course,” said the Emperor. “I need a ledger.”
Rivera stood up from his stool and set his reading glasses on the counter by his book. In an instant, Bummer, the Boston terrier, and Lazarus, the golden retriever, were behind the counter with him, the former standing up on his hind legs, hopeful bug eyes raised in tribute to the treat gods, a pantheon to which he was willing to promote Rivera, for a price.
“I don’t have anything for you,” said Rivera, feeling as if he should have somehow known to have treats handy. “You guys aren’t even sup- posed to be in here. No dogs allowed.” He pointed to the sign on the door, which not only was facing the street, but was in a language Bummer did not read, which was all of them.
Lazarus, who was seated behind his companion, panting peacefully, looked away so as not to compound Rivera’s embarrassment.
“Shut up,” Rivera said to the retriever. “I know he can’t read. He can take my word for it that’s what the sign says.”
“Inspector?” The Emperor smoothed his beard and shot the lapels of his dingy tweed overcoat, composing himself to offer assistance to a citizen in need. “You know, also, that Lazarus can’t talk.”
“So far,” said Rivera. “But he looks like he has something to say.” The ex-cop sighed, reached down, and scratched Bummer between the ears.
Bummer allowed it, dropped to all fours, and chuffed. You could have been great, he thought, a hero, but now I will have to sniff a mile of heady poo to wash the scent of your failure out of my nose—oh, that feels nice. Oh, very nice. You are my new best friend.
“I’m not an inspector anymore, Your Grace.”
“Yet ‘inspector’ is a title you’ve earned by good service, and it is yours forevermore.”
“Forevermore,” Rivera repeated with a smile. The Emperor’s grandiose manner of speaking had always amused him, reminded him of some more noble, genteel time which he’d never really experienced. “I don’t mind the title following me, so much, but I had hoped I’d be able to leave all the strange happenings behind with the job.”
“You know. You were there. The creatures under the streets, the Death Merchants, the hellhounds, Charlie Asher—you don’t even know what day it is and you know—”
“It’s Tuesday,” said the Emperor. “A good man, Charlie Asher—a brave man. Gave his life for the people of our city. He will long be missed. But I am afraid the strange happenings continue.”
“No, they don’t,” said Rivera, with more authority than he felt. Move along. Moving along. That it was Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, had put him on edge already, sent him to the drawer to retrieve the Great Big Book of Death, but he would not give weight to more reminders. Acknowledge a nightmare and you give it power, someone had told him. Maybe the spooky Goth girl who used to work for Charlie Asher. “You said you needed a ledger?”
“To record the names of the dead. They came to me last night, hundreds of them, telling me to write down their names so they are not forgotten.”
“In a dream?” Rivera did not want to hear this. Not at all. It had been a year since all that had happened, since the Big Book had arrived, calling him to action, and he’d walked away. So far, so good.
“We slumbered by the restrooms at the St. Francis Yacht Club last night,” said the Emperor. “The dead came across the water, floating, like the fog. They were quite insistent.”
“They can be that way, can’t they?” said Rivera. The Emperor was a crazy old man, a sweet, generous, and sincere lunatic. Unfortunately, in the past, many of the his insane ravings had turned out to be true, and therein lay the dread that Rivera felt rising in his chest.
“The dead speak to you as well, then, Inspector?”
“I worked homicide for fifteen years, you learn to listen.”
The Emperor nodded and gave Rivera’s shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “We protect the living, but evidently we are also called to serve the dead.”
“I don’t have any ledgers, but I carry some nice blank books.”
Rivera led the Emperor to a shelf where he stocked cloth and leather-bound journals of various sizes. “How many of the dead will we be recording?” Something about dealing with the Emperor put you in a position of saying things that sounded less than sane.
“All of them,” said the Emperor.
“Of course, then you’ll need a substantial volume.” Rivera handed him a sturdy leather journal with letter-sized pages.
The Emperor took the book, flipped through it, ran his hand over the cover. He looked from the book to Rivera and tears welled in his eyes. “This will be perfect.”
“You’ll need a pen,” said Rivera.
“Pencil,” said the Emperor. “A number two pencil. They were quite specific.”
“The dead?” said Rivera.
Bummer ruffed, the subtext of which was: “Of course, the dead, you tree-bound squirrel. Haven’t you been paying attention?” Rivera had still failed to produce any treats and had ceased scratching Bummer behind the ears, so fuck him.
Lazarus whined apologetically, the subtext of which was: “Sorry, he’s been an insufferable dickweed since he was given the powers of a hellhound, but the old man likes him, so what are you going to do? Still, it wouldn’t kill you to keep some treats behind the counter for your friends.”
“Yes, the dead,” said the Emperor.
Rivera nodded. “I don’t stock pencils in the store, but I think I can help you out.” He moved back behind the counter and opened a d rawer. When the Great Big Book of Death had shown up in his mailbox, he’d bought the calendar and the pencils as it had instructed. He still had five of the pencils he’d purchased. He handed one to the Emperor, who took it, inspected the point, then dropped it into the inside pocket of his enormous overcoat, where Rivera was fairly sure he would never find it again.
“What do I owe you for the book?” asked the Emperor. He dug several crumpled bills from his coat pocket, but Rivera waved them off.
“It’s on me. In service of the city.”
“In service of the city,” repeated the Emperor, then to the troops, “Gentlemen, we are off to the library to begin our list.”
“How will you get the names?” asked Rivera.
“Well, obituaries, of course. And then perhaps a stop at the police station for a look at the missing persons reports. Someone there will help me, won’t they?”
“I’m sure they will. I’ll call ahead to the Central Station on Vallejo. But I can’t help but think you’ve got a big task ahead of you. You said you need to record all of the dead. The city has been here, what, a hundred and sixty years? That’s a lot of dead people.”
“I misspoke, Inspector. All of the dead, but with some urgency about those who passed in the last year.”
“The last year? Why?”
The Emperor shrugged. “Because they asked me to.”
“I mean why the emphasis on the last year?”
“So they won’t be forgotten.” The Emperor scratched his great, grizzly beard as he tried to remember. “Although they said lost, not forgotten. So they won’t be lost to the darkness.”
Rivera felt his mouth go dry and his face drain of blood. He opened the door for the Emperor, and the ringing bell jostled his power of speech. “Good luck, then, Your Majesty. I’ll call the desk at Central Station. They’ll expect you.”
“Many thanks.” The Emperor tucked the leather book under his arm and saluted. “Onward, men!” He led the dogs out of the shop, Bummer kicking up his back feet against the carpet as if to shed himself of the dirty business that was Alphonse Rivera.
Rivera returned to his spot behind the counter and stared at the cover of the Great Big Book of Death. A stylized skeleton grinned gleefully back at him, the bodies of five people impaled on his bony fingers and rendered in cheerful Day of the Dead colors.
Lost to the darkness? Only the last year?
Rivera had bought the pencils and the calendar as the Big Book had instructed, but then he’d done absolutely nothing else with them except put them in the drawer by the cash register. And nothing bad had happened. Nothing. He’d peacefully taken an early retirement from the force, opened the bookstore, and set about reading books, drinking coffee, and watching the Giants on the little television in the shop. Nothing bad had happened at all.
Then he noticed, just below the title on the Big Book were the words “revised edition.” Words that had not been there, he was sure, before the Emperor had come into the shop.
He pulled open the drawer, swept the pencils and office supply detritus aside, and pulled out the calendar he’d bought. Right there, in the first week of January, was a name and number, written in his handwriting. Then another, every few days to a week, until the end of the month, all in his handwriting, none of which he remembered writing.
He flipped through the pages. The entire calendar was filled. But nothing had happened. None of the ominous warnings in the Big Book had come to pass. He tossed the calendar back into the drawer and opened the Great Big Book of Death to the first page, a first page that had changed since he’d first read it.
It read: “So, you fucked up—”
“AHHHHHHHIEEEEEEEEEE!” A piercing shriek from right behind him. Rivera leapt two feet into the air and bounced off the cash register as he turned to face the source of the scream, landing with his hand on his hip, his eyes wide, and his breath short.
A woman, wraith thin, pale as blue milk, trailing black rags like tattered shrouds, stood there—right there—not six inches away from him. She smelled of moss, earth, and smoke.
“How did you get—”
“AHHHHHHHHIEEEEEEEEE!” Right in his face this time. He scrambled backward against the counter, leaning away from her in spine-cracking dread.
The wraith took a step back and grinned, revealing blue-black gums. “It’s what I do, love. Harbinger of doom, ain’t I?”
She took a deep breath as if to let loose with another scream and there was an electric sizzle as the stun gun’s electrodes found purchase through her tatters. She dropped to the floor like a pile of damp rags.
Mike Sullivan is a painter on the Golden Gate Bridge. From time to time, the ghosts of the bridge visit him. Like this one:
# # #
I was working in the Naval Investigations Service out of Chi-town when we first got word of a potential enemy propaganda operation called the “Friends of Dorothy” operating on the West Coast, probably originating in Frisco. I know, what’s Naval Investigations doing in Chicago, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean? That’s the slickness of our strategy, see: Who’s gonna suspect navy cops in the middle of Cow Town on the Prairie, am I right? Of course I am.
Anyways, we get word that new troops shipping out to the Pacific of San Fran are being approached on the down low by this Friends of Dorothy bunch, who are playing up on their pre-battle jitters, trying to cause some desertions, maybe even recruit spies for Tojo.
So the colonel looks around the office, and as I am the most baby-faced of the bunch, he decides to send me out to Frisco under cover as a new recruit to see if I can get the skinny on this Dorothy and her friends, before we got another Axis Annie or Tokyo Rose on our hands, only worse, because this Dorothy isn’t just taking a shot at our morale on the radio, she’s likely running secret operations.
I tell the colonel that despite my youthful mug, I am an expert on the ways of devious dames and I will have this Dorothy in the brig before he can say Hirohito is a bum, maybe faster. So five days later I find myself on the dog-back streets of San Fran with about a million other sailors, soldiers, and marines waiting to ship out.
Well, San Fran is getting to be known as liberty city, as this is the spot where many guys are going to see the good old U S of A for the last time ever, so in spite of restrictions and whatnot all along the Barbary Coast, every night the town is full of military guys out for one last party, looking for a drink or a dame or the occasional crap game. It’s a tradition by this time that the night before you ship out, you go up to the Top of the Mark, the night club on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel on California Street, where a guy can have a snort whilst looking at the whole city from bridge to bridge, and if he’s lucky, a good-smelling broad will take him for twirl around the dance floor and tell him that everything is going to be okay, even though most guys are suspicious that it’s not. And these are such dames as are doing this out of patriotism and the kindness of their heart, like the USO, so there’s no hanky panky or grab-assing.
So word has it, that the Friends of Dorothy are recruiting at the Top of the Mark, so I don a set of Navy whites and pea coat like a normal swabby, and stake out a spot by the doorman outside the hotel, and as guys go by, I am whispering, “Friends of Dorothy,” under my breath, like a guy selling dirty post cards or tickets to a sold-out Cubs game (which could happen when they make their run for the pennant). And before long, the cable car stops and off steps this corn-fed jarhead who is looking around and grinning at the buildings and the bay at the end of the street like he’s never seen water before, and he’s sort of wandering around on the sidewalk like he’s afraid of the doorman or something, and I gives him my hush-hush Friends of Dorothy whisper.
So Private Hayseed sidles up to me and says back, “Friends of Dorothy?”
“You’re damn skippy, marine,” says I.
And just like that the kid lights up like Christmas morning and starts pumping my hand like he’s supplying water to douse the Chicago fire, or maybe the Frisco fire, as I hear that they also have a fire, but I cannot but think that it was not a real fire as Frisco is clearly a toy town. Kid introduces himself as Eddie Boedeker Jr. from Sheep Shit, Iowa or Nebraska or one of your more square-shaped, corn-oriented states, I don’t remember. And he goes on how he is nervous and he has never done anything like this before, but he’s about to go off to war and might never come home, so he has to see — and it’s all I can do to calm the kid down and stand him up against the wall beside me like he’s just there to take in the night air and whatnot. You see, I am dressed like a sailor, and he is a marine, and although technically, swabbies and jarheads are in the same branch of the service, it’s a time-honored tradition that when they are in port they fight like rats in a barrel, which is something I should have perhaps thought of when I picked my spy duds.
So on the spot I compose a slogan of war unity so as to shore up my cover. “Fight together or lose alone, even with no-necked fucking jarheads.” I try it out on the doorman like I’m reading it off a poster and he nods, so I figure we’re good to go.
“C’mon, marine,” I says to the Private Hayseed, “I’ll buy you a drink.”
So we go up the elevator to the Top of the Mark, and I order an Old Fashioned because there’s an orange slice in it and I’m wary of scurvy, and I ask the kid what he’ll have, and he says, “Oh, I ain’t much for drinking.”
And I says, “Kid, you’re about to ship out to get your guts blown out on some God-forsaken coral turd in the Pacific and you’re not going to have a drink before you go, what are you, some kind of moron?”
And the kid provides that, no, he’s a Methodist, but his ma has a record of the Moron Tabernacle Choir singing Silent Night that she plays every Christmas and so I figure the answer is yes and I order the kid an Old Fashioned with an extra orange slice hoping it might help cure stupid as well as scurvy. But I also figure that old Eddie here is exactly the kind of dim bulb that Dorothy and her cohorts will try to go for, so I press on, pouring a couple more Old Fashioneds into him, until the kid is as pink-faced as a sunburned baby and gets a little weepy about God and country and going off to war, while I keep trying to slide in questions about Dorothy, but the kid keeps saying maybe later, and asks if maybe we can’t go hear some jazz, as he has never heard jazz except on the radio.
Well the bartender provides as there is an excellent horn player over in the Fillmore, which is only a hop on the cable car, so I flip him four bits for the tip and I drag Eddie down to the street and pour him onto the cable car, which takes us up the hill and over to the Fillmore, which is where all the blacks live now, as it used to be Jap neighborhood until they shipped them off to camps and the blacks moved in from the South to work in the ship yards bringing with them jazz and blues and no little bit of dancing.
And as we’re getting off the car, I spots some floozies standing outside the club right below a war department poster with a picture of a similar dame that says, “She’s a booby trap! They can cure VD, but not regret.”
And as we’re walking up, I says, “Hey toots, you pose for that poster?” And one of the rounder dames says, “I might have sailor, but I ain’t heard no regrets yet,” which gives me a laugh, but makes Private Eddie just look down and smile into his top button. He whispers to me on the side, “I ain’t never done anything like this before.”
I figured as much, but I say to the kid, “That’s what the Friends of Dorothy are for, kid,” just taking a shot in the dark.
And he gets a goofy grin and says, “That’s what the guy said.”
And I say, “What guy?” but by that time we’re through the door and the band is playing, the horn player going to town on the old standard Chicago, to which I remove my sailor’s hat, because it is, indeed, my kind of town. So we drink and listen to jazz and laugh at nothing much, cause the kid doesn’t want to think about where he’s going, and he doesn’t want to think about where he came from, and I can’t figure out how to get behind this Dorothy thing with the band playing. After a few snorts, the kid even lets a dame take him out on the dance floor, and because he more resembles a club-footed blind man killing roaches than a dancer, I head for the can to avoid associating with him, and on my way back, I accidently bump into a dogface, spilling his drink. And before I can apologize, when I am still on the part that despite his being a piss-ant, lame-brained, clumsy, ham-handed Army son of a bitch, that it is a total accident that I bump into him and spill his drink, he takes a swing at me. And since he grazes my chin no little, I am obliged to return his ministrations with a left to the fucking bread-basket and a right cross which sails safely across his bow. At which point, the entire 7th Infantry comes out of the woodwork, and soon I am dodging a dozen green meanies, taking hits to the engine room, the galley, as well as the bridge, and my return fire is having little to no effect on the thirty-eleven or so guys what are wailing on me. I am sinking fast, about to go down for the count. Then two of the G.I.s go flying back like they are catching cannonballs, and then two more from the other side, and through what light I can see, Private Eddie Boedeker, Jr. wades into the G.I.s like the hammer of fucking God, taking out a G.I. with every punch, and those that are not punched are grabbed by the shirt and hurled with no little urgency over tables, chairs, and various downed citizens, and it occurs to me that I have perhaps judged the kid’s dancing chops too harshly, for while he cannot put two dance steps together if you paint them on the floor, he appears to have a right-left combination that will stop a Panzer.
Before long guys from all branches of service are exchanging opinions and broken furniture and I hear the sinister chorus of M.P. whistles, as which point I grab the kid by the belt and drag him backwards through the tables and the curtain behind the stage and out into the alley, where I collapse for second to collect my thoughts and test a loose tooth and the kid bends over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath, laughing and spitting a little blood.
“So, kid,” I says. “You saved my bacon.” And I offer him a bloody-knuckled handshake.
Kid takes my hand and says, “Friends of Dorothy,” and pulls me into a big hug.
“Yeah, yeah, Friends of fucking Dorothy,” I say, slapping him on the back. “Speaking of which,” I say, pushing him off. “Let’s take a walk—“
“I gotta get back to Fort Mason,” the kid says. “It’s nearly midnight. The cable cars stop at midnight and I gotta ship out in the morning.”
“I know, kid, but Friends of Dorothy,” I says. I’m aware all of sudden that I have strayed somewhat from my mission, and that if the kid goes, I’m going to have to start all over again, although I suspect I have not exactly stumbled onto the mastermind of the diabolical Dorothy’s organization. But still.
“Look,” says the kid. “This has been swell. Really swell. I really appreciate you, you know, being a friend, but I gotta go. I aint never done nothing like this, never met anyone like you. It’s been swell.”
“Well, you know–” I says, not knowing how to bail this out. That one tooth was definitely loose.
Suddenly the kid grabs me again, gives me a big hug, then turns and runs off toward the cable car stop. He’s about a half a block away when he turns and says, “I’m going to go see the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning. Oh-six-hundred. Ain’t never seen a sunrise over the ocean. I’ll meet you there. Say good-bye.”
And I’m am tempted to point out several things, including that he will have to see the Golden Gate Bridge as he passes under it when he ships out, that we are on the West Coast and the sun doesn’t rise over the ocean, and that there is no need to run, as I can hear the bell of the cable car and it is still blocks away, but these being finer points than I want to yell up an alley when there are M.P.s still on the prowl, I say, “I’ll be there.”
“Friends of Dorothy,” the kid says with a wave.
“Friends of Dorothy,” I say back at him. Which goes to show you, right there, the difference between sailors and marines: marines are fucking stupid. Running when you don’t have to.
So next morning I’m on the bridge, crack of dawn, so hung-over I feel like if I don’t close my eyes I might bleed to death, but not having to worry about it, since my eyes are too swollen up to bleed, and I see the kid, all by himself, about halfway down the bridge, out in the fog, waving like a goddamn loony when he sees me. So I limp out to him, and when I get close he starts running at me, so I says, “No running! No goddamn running!”
But he keeps running, and now he’s got his arms out like to give me a big hug, which I am in no mood for.
So I back away and say give him an, “At ease, marine.”
And he stops, bounces on his toes like a little goddamn girl.
“I couldn’t wait to see you. I thought about you all night. I couldn’t sleep,” he says.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s good,” I say. “But about the Friends of Dorothy—“
“I’m sorry about that,” the kid says. “Really sorry. I mean, I want to, but I never did anything like that before. I mean, in Kansas nobody’s like that. I thought – I mean, if my folks –I thought I was the only one. Then this guy in boot camp told me about the Friends of Dorothy.”
That’s right. It was Kansas. Anyway, I says, “That’s it, you got to tell me about Dorothy, everything you know, Eddie.”
“But I don’t know nothing. I just, I just have these feelings—“
Then the kid grabs me, right then, and gives me a great big wet one, right on the kisser. I was so surprised I just about shit myself. So I push him off of me, you know, big flat palm to the chin, and when I get done spitting, I’m say, “What the hell was that about?”
And the kid looks like I just shot his dog. “Friends of Dorothy,” he says.
“Yeah, the Friends of Fucking Dorothy, that’s why I’m here, but what the fuck was that? You queer or something?”
And he goes, “Friends of Dorothy. Like the scarecrow. Like the tin man. Like the cowardly lion. People ain’t got anyone else like them. But Dorothy don’t care. Like you. Like us.”
“I ain’t like you kid. I got people. I got a wife and kid back in Chicago. I’d be out shooting the ass off of Tojo myself if I hadn’t blown my knee out in football in high school. I’m not Dorothy’s friend, I’m not your friend, kid.”
“Friends of Dorothy,” the kid says. “We find each other,” he says.
“Queers? That’s what this about? A bunch of fairies? Marines? Sailors? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Friends of Dorothy,” the kid wails.
“Not anymore. Naval Investigative Service. I’m taking you in, kid. You’re going in the brig, and if you ever wanna get out, you’re going to tell me everything you know about the Friends of Dorothy. Everyone you ever talked to about them. I need names, places, dates.”
“But I’m shipping out today. I ain’t never done nothing like this.”
“And you’re not going to again,” I says. “It’s time of war, kid, and being queer is a court martiable offense. You and your Friends of Dorothy are traitors. Hell, they might even shoot you. You might make it back to Kansas, but it’s going to be in chains, to Leavenworth.” Rough, I know, but I’m hung-over and annoyed that I’ve been made a sap, and I’m just trying to scare the kid so he’s easier to handle.
The kid starts shaking his head and backing away. “You can’t tell my folks. You can’t tell my Dad. It would kill him.”
“Everyone’s going to know, kid. It’s going to be in the papers, so you might as well come clean.”
Then he turns and really starts to run.
“Where you think you’re going, kid? I got the whole fleet I can send after you. A deserter. A queer traitor and deserter.”
“Friends of Dorothy,” he wails. His face is melting into a big glob of snot and tears.
“Yeah, Friends of fucking Dorothy, traitor. Let’s go, Boedeker.”
The he just starts wailing, crying it, “But Friends of Dorothy! Friends of Dorothy!” and then, again with the running, but this time for the rail, and before I can get close to him, he’s over, head first. Hit the water like a gunshot. I bet they could hear it all the way to Fort Mason.
I look down and he’s just all bent up, like a broken scarecrow, floating dead in the waves.
# # #
“That’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard,” said Mike Sullivan.
“Yeah, it was the war. Tough times.”
“So, you, did you, I mean, did you jump too?” asked Mike.
“Nah, I went back to Chicago. Heart attack in fifty-eight.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Smoked a lot, ate a lot of bratwurst, we didn’t know stuff in those days.”
“No, why are you on the bridge?”
“No idea. Guess that’s why the Spanish broad wanted me to tell you my story. You want I should fetch her?”
“Maybe that would be good,” Mike said. The ghost’s story had made him a little woozy, he couldn’t figure out if it was nausea or anxiety, but neither were to be taken lightly when you were up on the bridge.
“So long, bridge painter,” said the ghost. “And by the way, you can tell the dame that you have not been helpful in the least. I feel like I’m the only one did any talking here. No offense.”
“You’ll want to fuck off, now,” said Mike, who despite being a nice guy, had his limits, which he was very close to reaching with this particular spirit
Secondhand Souls is the sequel to A Dirty Job, so yes, it will have characters from that first book, but Mike Sullivan and his group of ghosts is kind of a fun addition, I thought.
Seconhand Souls will be released August 25, 2015.
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Well happy holidays and beyond, my fluffy puppets. My humble gift to you, a chapter and a page from the new book.
Be safe, be kind, have fun….
THE SERPENT OF VENICE
Hell and Night must bring this monstrous birth to light.
—Iago, Othello, Act I, Scene 3
Bring stirring play
To vision’s light.
On fin and tail
With fang and claw
Rend invention’s veil.
’Neath harbored ship,
Under night fisher’s torch,
And sleeping sailors slip.
To Venice, Muse!
Radiant venom convey,
Charge scribe’s driven quill
To story assay.
Of betrayal, grief and war,
Provoke, Muse, your howl
Of love’s laughter lost
and Heinous Fuckery, most foul…
They waited at the dock, the three Venetians, for the fool to arrive.
“An hour after sunset, I told him,” said the senator, a bent- backed graybeard in a rich brocade robe befitting his office. “I sent a gondola myself to fetch him.”
“Aye, he’ll be here,” said the soldier, a broad-shouldered, fit brute of forty, in leather and rough linen, full sword and fighting dagger at his belt, black bearded with a scar through his right brow that made him look ever questioning or suspicious. “He thinks himself a connoisseur, and can’t resist the temptation of your wine cellar. And when it is done, we shall have more than Carnival to celebrate.”
“And yet, I feel sad,” said the merchant. A soft-handed, fair- skinned gent who wore a fine, floppy velvet hat, and a gold signet ring the size of a small mouse, with which he sealed agreements. “I know not why.”
They could hear the distant sounds of pipes, drums, and horns from across the lagoon in Venice. Torches bounced on the shore- line near Piazza San Marco. Behind them, the senator’s estate, Villa Belmont, stood dark but for a storm lantern in an upper window,
a light by which a gondolier might steer to the private island. Out on the water, fishermen had lit torches, which bobbed like dim, drunken stars against the inky water. Even during Carnival, the city must eat.
The senator put his hand on the merchant’s shoulder. “We per- form service to God and state, a relief to conscience and heart, a cleansing that opens a pathway to our designs. Think of the boun- teous fortune that will find you, once the rat is removed from the granary.”
“But I quite like his monkey,” said the merchant.
The soldier grinned and scratched his beard to conceal his amusement. “You’ve seen to it that he comes alone?”
“It was a condition of his invitation,” said the senator. “I told him out of good Christian charity all his servants were to be dismissed to attend Carnival, as I assured him I had done with my own.”
“Shrewdly figured,” said the soldier, looking back to the vast, unlit villa. “He’ll think nothing out of order then when he sees no attendants.”
“But monkeys can be terribly hard to catch,” said the merchant. “Would you forget about the monkey,” growled the soldier.
“I told him that my daughter is terrified of monkeys, could not
be in the same room with one.”
“But she isn’t here,” said the merchant.
“The fool doesn’t know that,” said the soldier. “Our brave Mon-
tressor will cast his younger daughter as bait, even after having the eldest stolen from the hook by a blackfish.”
“The senator’s loss cuts deep enough without your barbs,” said the merchant. “Do we not pursue the same purpose? Your wit is too mean to be clever, merely crude and cruel.”
“But, sweet Antonio,” said the soldier. “I am at once clever, crude, and cruel—all assets to your endeavor. Or would you rather partner with the kindly edge of a more courtly sword?” He laid his hand on the hilt of his sword.
The merchant looked out over the water.
“I thought not,” said the soldier.
“Put on friendly faces, you two.” The senator stepped between
them and squinted into the night. “The fool’s boat approaches. There!”
Amid the fishing boats a bright lantern drifted, and slowly broke rank as the gondola moved toward them. In a moment it was glid- ing into the dock, the gondolier so precise in his handling of the oar that the black boat stopped with its rails only a handsbreadth from the dock. A louvered hatch clacked open and out of the cabin stepped a wiry little man dressed in the black-and-silver motley and mask of a harlequin. By his size, one might have thought him a boy, but the oversize codpiece and the shadow of a beard on his cheek betrayed his years.
“One lantern?” said the harlequin, hopping up onto the dock. “You couldn’t have spared an extra torch or two, Brabantio? It’s dark as night’s own nutsack out here.” He breezed by the soldier and the merchant. “Toadies,” he said, nodding to them. Then he was on his way up the path to the villa, pumping a puppet-headed jester’s scepter as he went. The senator tottered along behind him, holding the lantern high to light their way.
“It’s an auspicious night, Fortunato,” said the senator. “And I sent the servants away before nightfall so—”
“Call me Pocket,” said the fool. “Only the dge calls me Fortu- nato. Wonder that’s not his nickname for everyone, bloody bung- fingered as he is at cards.”
At the dock, the soldier again laid hand on sword hilt, saying, “By the saints, I would run my blade up through his liver right now, and lift him on it just to watch that arrogant grin wither as he twitched. Oh how I do hate the fool.”
The merchant smiled and talked through his teeth as he pressed the soldier’s sword hand down, throwing a nod toward the gondo- lier, who was standing on his boat, waiting. “As do I, in this pan-
tomime we perform for Carnival, he is our jibing clown. Ha! The Punchinello in our little puppet show, all in good fun, am I right?” The soldier looked to the boatman and forced a grin. “Quite right. All in good cheer. I play my part too well. One moment, signor. I will have your instructions.” He turned and called up the
path. “Montressor! The gondolier?”
“Pay him and tell him to go, be merry, and return at midnight.” “You heard him,” said the soldier. “Go celebrate, but not so much
that you cannot steer. I would sleep in my own bed this night. Pay him, Antonio.” The soldier turned and headed up the path.
“Me? Why is it always me?” He dug into his purse. “Very well, then.” The merchant tossed a coin to the gondolier, who snatched it out of the air and bowed his head in thanks. “Midnight then.”
“Midnight, signor,” said the gondolier, who twisted his oar, sending the gondola sliding away from the dock silent and smooth as a knife through the night.
Outside the grand entrance of the palazzo the fool paused. “What’s that above your door, Montressor?” There was a coat of arms inlaid in the marble, ensconced in shadow. The senator held up his lantern, illuminating the crest, showing the relief of a man’s foot in gold, trampling a jade serpent, even as its fangs pierced the heel.
“My family crest,” said the senator.
“Reckon they were all out of proper dragons and lions down at the crest shop so you had to settle for this toss, eh?”
“Think they’d have thrown in a fleur-de-lis,” said the fool’s puppet stick, in a voice just a note above the fool’s own. “Mon- tressor’s fucking French, innit?”
The senator whirled around to face the puppet. “Montressor is a title bestowed upon me by the doge. It means ‘my treasure’ and notes that he holds me highest in regard of the six senators of the high council. This is the crest of the family Brabantio, one our family has worn with pride for four hundred years. Do note the
motto, fool, ‘Nemo me impune lacessit.’ ” He bounced the lantern with each syllable as he read through gritted teeth. “It means, no one attacks me with impunity.”
“Well, that’s not fucking French,” said the puppet, turning to look at the fool.
“No,” said the fool. “The puppet Jones is quite fluent in fucking French,” he explained to the senator.
“But Montressor is French, right?”
“Froggy as a summer day on the Seine,” said the fool. “Thought so,” said the puppet.
“Stop talking to that puppet!” barked the senator.
“Well, you were just shouting at him,” said the fool.
“And now I’m shouting at you! You are working the puppet’s
mouth and giving it voice.”
“No!” said the puppet, his wooden jaw agape, looking to the
fool, then to the senator, then back to the fool. “This bloody toss- bobbin is running things?”
The fool nodded; the bells on his hat jingled earnestly.
The puppet turned to the senator. “Well, if you’re going to be a bastard about it, your bloody motto is nicked.”
“What?” said the senator.
“Plagiarized,” said the fool, still nodding solemnly, the bringer of sad news.
The merchant and the soldier had caught up to them and could see that their host was incensed, so they stood at the bottom of the steps, watching. The soldier’s hand fell to the hilt of his sword.
“It’s the Scottish motto, innit?” said the puppet. “Bloody Order of the Fistle.”
“It’s true,” said the fool. “Although it’s ‘Thistle,’ not Fistle, Jones, you Cockney berk.”
“What I said,” said the puppet Jones. “Piss off.”
The fool glared at the puppet, then turned back to the senator. “Same motto is inscribed over the entrance to Edinburgh Castle.”
“You must be remembering it wrong. It is in Latin.”
“Indeed,” said the fool. “And I am raised by nuns in the bosom of the church. Could speak and write Latin and Greek before I could see over the table. No, Montressor, your motto couldn’t be more Scottish if it was painted blue and smelled of burning peat and your ginger sister.”
“Stolen,” said the puppet. “Pilfered. Swiped. Filched, as it fuck- ing were. A motto most used, defiled, and besmirched.”
“Besmirched?” said the fool. “Really?”
The puppet nodded furiously on the end of his stick. The fool shrugged to the senator. “A right shite crest and a motto most be- smirched, Montressor. Let’s hope this amontillado you’ve prom- ised can comfort us in our disappointment.”
The merchant stepped up then and put his hand on the fool’s shoulder. “Then let’s waste no more time out here in the mist. To the senator’s cellar and his cask of exquisite amontillado.”
“Yes,” said the senator. He stepped through the doorway into a grand foyer, took tapers from a credenza, lit them from his lan- tern, and handed one to each of his guests. “Mind your step,” said the senator. “We’ll be going down ancient stairs to the very lowest levels of the palazzo. Some will be quite low, so, Antonio, Iago, watch your head.”
“Did he just besmirch our height?” asked the puppet.
“Can’t say,” said the fool. “I’m not entirely sure I know what ‘besmirched’ means. I’ve just been going along with you because I thought you knew what you were talking about.”
“Quiet, flea,” growled the soldier.
“That there’s a besmirchin’, ” said the puppet.
“Oh, well, yes then,” said the fool. He raised his taper high, illu-
minating a thick coat of mold on the low ceiling. “So, Montressor, is the lovely Portia waiting down here in the dark?”
“I’m afraid my youngest daughter will not be joining us. She’s gone to Florence to buy shoes.”
They entered a much wider vault now, with casks set into the walls on one side, racks of dusty bottles on the other; a long oak table and high-backed chairs ran down the middle. The senator lit lanterns around the chamber until the entire room was bathed in a warm glow that belied the dampness that permeated the cellar.
“Just as well,” said the fool. “She’s just be whingeing about the dark and the damp and how Iago reeks of squid and we’d never get any proper drinking done.”
“What?” said the soldier.
The fool leaned into Antonio and bounced his eyebrows so they showed above his black mask. “Don’t get me wrong, Portia’s a lus- cious little fuck-bubble to be sure, but prickly as a gilded hedgehog when she doesn’t get her way.”
The senator looked up with murderous fire in his eyes, then quickly looked down and shuddered, almost, it seemed, with plea- sure.
“I do not reek of squid,” said the soldier, as if overcome by a rare moment of self-consciousness. He sniffed at the shoulder of his cape, and finding no squidish aroma, returned his attention to the senator.
“If you’d be so kind as to decant the amontillado, Iago,” said the senator, “we can be about getting the opinion of this distinguished connoisseur.”
“I never said I was a connoisseur, Montressor. I just said I’d had it before and it was the mutt’s nuts.”
“The dog’s bollocks,” said the puppet, clarifying.
“When you were king of Spain, correct?” said the merchant, with a grin and a sarcastic roll of the eye toward the senator.
“I’ve had various titles,” said Fortunato. “Only fool seems con- stant.”
The soldier cradled the heavy cask under his arm as if he was strangling a bull-necked enemy and filled a delicate Murano glass pitcher with the amber liquid.
The senator said: “The wine dealer has five more casks coming from Spain. If you pronounce it genuine, I’ll buy the others and have one sent round to you in thanks.”
“Let’s have a taste, then,” said the fool. “Although, without it’s poured by a properly wanton, olive-skinned serving wench, you can’t really call it authentic, but I suppose Iago will have to suffice.”
“Won’t be the first time he’s filled that role, I’ll wager,” said the puppet Jones. “Lonely nights in the field, and whatnot.”
The soldier grinned, set the cask on the table, and with a nod from the senator poured the sherry into four heavy glass tumblers with pewter bases cast in the shape of winged lions.
“To the republic,” said the senator, raising his glass.
“To the Assumption,” said the merchant. “To Carnival!”
“To Venice,” said the soldier.
“To the delicious Desdemona,” said the fool.
And the merchant nearly choked as he looked to the senator,
who calmly drank, then lowered his glass to the table, never look- ing from the fool.
The fool swished the liquid in his cheeks, rolled his eyes at the ceiling in consideration then swallowed as if enduring an espe- cially noxious medicine. He shuddered and looked over the rim of his glass at the senator. “I’m not sure,” he said.
“Well, sit, try a bit more,” said the merchant. “Sometimes the first drink only clears the dust of the day off a man’s palate.”
The fool sat, as did the others. They all drank again. The glasses clunked down. The three looked to the fool.
“Well?” asked Iago.
“Montressor, you’ve been had,” said the fool. “This is not amon- tillado.”
“It’s not?” said the senator.
“Tastes perfect to me,” said the merchant.
“No, it’s not amontillado,” said the fool. “And I can see from
your face that you are neither surprised nor disappointed. So while we quaff this imposter—which tastes a bit of pitch, if you ask me— shall we turn to your darker purpose? The real reason we are all here.” The fool drained his glass, leaned on the table, and rolled his eyes coyly at the senator in the manner of a flirting teenage girl. “Shall we?”
The soldier and the merchant looked to the senator, who smiled. “Our darker purpose?” asked the senator.
“Tastes of pitch?” asked the merchant.
“Not to me,” said the soldier, now looking at his glass.
“Do you think me a fool?” said the fool. “Don’t answer that. I mean, do you think me foolish? An ill-formed question as well.” He looked at his hand and seemed surprised to find it at the end of his wrist, then looked back to the senator. “You brought me here to convince me to rally the doge for you, to back another holy war.”
“No,” said the senator.
“No? You don’t want a bloody war?”
“Well, yes,” said the soldier. “But that’s not why we’ve brought
“Then you wish me to entreat my friend Othello to back you all
in a Crusade, from which you all may profit. I knew it when I got the invitation.”
“Hadn’t thought about it,” said the senator. “More sherry?”
The fool adjusted his hat, and when the bells jingled he fol- lowed one around with his eyes and nearly went over backward in his chair.
Antonio, the merchant, steadied the fool, and patted his back to reassure him.
The fool pulled away, and regarded the merchant, looking him not just in the eye, but around the eyes, as if they were windows to a dark house and he was looking for someone hiding inside.
“Then you don’t want me to use my influence in France and England to back a war?”
The merchant shook his head and smiled.
“Oh balls, it’s simple revenge then?”
Antonio and Iago nodded.
The fool regarded the senator, and seemed to have difficulty
focusing on the graybeard. “Everyone knows I’m here. Many saw me board the gondola to come here.”
“And they will see a fool return,” said the senator.
“I am a favorite of the doge,” slurred the fool “He adores me.” “That is the problem,” said the senator.
In a single motion the fool leapt from his chair to the middle
of the table, reached into the small of his back, and came up with a wickedly pointed throwing dagger, which caught his eye as it flashed in his hand before him. He wobbled and shook his head as if to clear his vision.
“Poison?” he said, somewhat wistfully. “Oh, fuckstockings, I am slain—”
His eyes rolled back in his head, his knees buckled, and he fell face forward on the table with a thump and a rattle of his blade across the floor.
The three looked from the prostrate Fortunato to each other.
The soldier felt the fool’s neck for a pulse. “He’s alive, but I can remedy that.” He reached for his dagger.
“No,” said the senator. “Help me get him out of his clothes and to a deeper section of the cellar, then take your leave. You last saw him alive, and you can swear on your soul that is all you know.”
Antonio the merchant sighed. “It’s sad we must kill the little fool, who, while wildly annoying, does seem to bring mirth and merriment to those around him. Yet I suppose if there is a ducat to be made, it must be made. If a profit blossoms, so must a merchant pluck it.”
“Duty to God, profit, and the republic!” said the senator.
“Many a fool has found his end trying to resist the wind of war,” said Iago. “So shall this one.
What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m walling you up in the dungeon,” said the senator, who crouched in the arched doorway to the chamber in which I was chained to the wall.
“No you’re not,” said I.
Indeed, it appeared that he was walling me up, but I wasn’t going to concede that simply because I was chained, naked, and water was rising about my feet. Cautious I was not to instill a sense of confidence in my enemy.
“I am,” said he. “Brick by brick. The first masonry I’ve done since I was a lad, but it comes back. I was ten, I think, when I helped the mason who was building my father’s house. Not this one, of course. This house has been in the family for centuries. And I think I was less help than in his way, but alas, I learned.”
“Well, you couldn’t possibly have been more annoying then than you are now, so do get on with it.”
The senator stabbed his trowel into a bucket of mortar with such enthusiasm that he might have been spearing my liver. Then he held his lamp through the doorway into my little chamber,
which he had already bricked up to just above his knees. By the lamplight I saw I was in a passageway barely two yards wide, that sloped downward into the dark water, which was now washing about my ankles. There was a high-tide line on the wall, about the level of my chest.
“You know you’re going to die here, Fortunato?”
“Pocket,” I corrected. “You’re mad, Brabantio. Deluded, para- noid, and irritatingly grandiose.”
“You’ll die. Alone. In the dark.” He tamped down a brick with the butt of his trowel.
“Senile, probably. It comes early to the inbred or the syphilitic.”
“The crabs won’t even wait for you to stop moving before they begin to clean your bones.”
“Ha!” said I.
“What do you mean, ‘Ha’?” said Brabantio.
“You’ve played right into my hands!”
So there you go. The rest will be in stores April 22nd, 2014
Hey kids, one more event for my pals at the Capitola Book Cafe in Capitola (Santa Cruz, CA). It’s a benefit to try to save one of the coolest book stores on the planet, and I’ll be talking and signing and fun will be had. July 14th, 2012 – 2:00 PM. http://www.capitolabookcafe.com/
I was 12, and although I’d been reading voraciously since I was six, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there was someone actually telling the stories. Then I read a book called “R is for Rocket,” and before I’d finished, I picked up “S is for Space,” the “The Martian Chronicles” and so it went. Maybe because the books were of short stories, maybe because they were so masterfully crafted, but I suddenly realized that there was an artist there, behind the stories, putting them together, making me grin and shiver with fear and delight, leading me down the path of outrageous imagination to other worlds, times, and consciousnesses.Ray Bradbury made me aware of the art and craft of fiction, and soon thereafter I realized that I wanted to be that guy, the teller of stories. To this day, I will look to his stories for clues for how to better perform my craft. You need go no further than Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn”, about a lonesome sea monster that falls in love with a fog horn see Ray’s direct influence on my work. I read it a dozen times when I was writing The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove.The first time of many that I heard Ray speak, at the Santa Barbara Writer’s conference in 1982, he said, “If a writer introduces an idea, then leaves in lying there, doesn’t do anything with it, then it’s yours. It’s yours, to do with what you want!” He had a breathy, conspiratorial way of talking to an audience — a sort of, “isn’t it cool! isn’t it amazing!? aren’t we lucky!?” way of talking about writing.
Yes, Ray, it is. It is! We are!
Thanks for the sea monster, Ray. Thanks for turning on the light so I could write.
Ray Bradbury was bright champion of imagination, an inspiration and an icon. He shall be so ever after.
Mysterioius Galaxy will be taking orders for signed first edtions, which will ship after April 10th, when I’m there. Remember, only the first printing of Sacré Bleu will have color art and print. After they it will be in black and white, so jump on these if you’re not near a tour city. If you order before the 8th, these will be the color, first printings.
Signed Sacre Bleu firsts as well as other titles. (Contact store if something you want isn’t listed.) Also, international readers should order from Mysterious Galaxy, below. Their shipping is significantly less expensive for international orders. Yes, including Canada.)
International and Canadian Buyers read this note from Mysterious Galaxy:
Keep in mind that shipping charges for foreign orders are set by the system and are often adjusted down to reflect actual charges. One copy of Chris’s book to Canada is $12.95 and to most of Europe and Australia is $16.95 in a priority envelop according to the USPS website. If the charge to your country is more than $16.95 US, we will contact you.