some fall in love. i shatter.

A Measure of Luck (#8)

In Stories Volume 1 on April 23, 2012 at 8:28 am

I heard a muffled bang and my vision dimmed; just another lightbulb popping and my office falling into shadows.  Sheila, my office girl, had been too busy with her boyfriend to stock the supply closet.  I knew because she hadn’t handed in a receipt for reimbursement.

“Sheila!”  Nothing.  “Sheila!”  Her silhouette appeared behind the frosted glass of the office door.  She was a looker but I was trying to separate business from pleasure.

“Watcha need, Sam?”

“Look different in here?”  Her big, brown eyes drifted lazily across the floor and ceiling.

“It’s a little darker?”

“Yeah, it’s a little darker.  Another bulb has blown.  You haven’t bought anymore, have you?”

“I ain’t had a chance yet, Sam.  Been filing the agency taxes and dealing with the police paperwork for that shooting the other week.  Those things take forever.”  She was partially lying; she handled those things but they didn’t require that much time of her.

“I know, sweetheart, but only part of this job requires a certain atmosphere and I believe we’ve surpassed that point.  Those clouds outside ain’t gonna break today, meaning it ain’t getting any brighter, meaning you should go out and buy some lightbulbs.”

“You got it, Sam.  Right away.”  She turned and swung the door shut on her pencil skirt and nearly sheer blouse.  I took a snapshot of her walking away and held it in my mind, turned it around, considered calling her back in just to send her away again.  Sheila wasn’t making it easy to separate business from pleasure.

It should’ve been plenty easy though – the last time I mixed the two the poor girl ended up dead.  Some mook, fresh outta prison and gunning for me, caught her in his sights.  She took two bullets to the chest, each one meant for me.  She died right there on the sidewalk, in my arms…

But that was three years ago and Sheila had something particular to her.  She brought a lightness to my daily grayness that I was pulled towards, like a plant towards sunlight.  I found myself lingering in the front of the office near her quitting time, just in case her boyfriend was outta town and she had time for a drink.  Not that I could ask her, the dead girl in my arms saw to that, but the dead girl could’t keep me from accepting an invitation.  It never came though.

The outer office door shut behind Sheila heading to the supply shop. I reached into the desk drawer and pulled out the whiskey bottle.  It was almost noon.  The day’d been quiet, business slow, and that girl I tried so hard to forget was back on my mind.

My window looked onto an alleyway, right at the mouth where it met 21st Street.  The neighborhood had been in steady decline and at night, that alley had become a regular scene for drug deals, shakedowns, you name it..  The sounds of a scuffle filtered in but I was more concerned with my lowball.  I already felt well-worn, swirling the amber around my glass, but the PI business was in decline and it helped to play the part.  I could solve a case, but could I make a case for myself?

As I slid into my mid-day slump, a brick crashed through the window and sailed past my head before thumping against the wall.  I was at the window with my gun in hand, ready to fire it into the sky to scare off some kids, but they were already gone.  Better not to be shooting anyway, I thought, who needs the extra attention?

I turned back to the room and saw the paper tied to the brick with a familiar red and white string that I couldn’t quite place.  I read the brief note three times before the words finally hit me.  The scuffle outside now made sense and I returned to the window, leaning over the sill and past the jagged glass.  There, beside the dumpster, peeking out from the back was a slight black pump.  The same Sheila had been wearing.  I ran downstairs and outside to the alley but there was no trace of her beyond the shoe.  Everyone nearby claimed to have seen nothing.  Whoever wrote the note was serious.  I returned to the office and reread the note while fingering the string in my hand.  A few minutes later, on a hunch, I dialed an upstate phone number and hoped for a little bit of luck.

The remainder of the day passed in a blur and before I knew it, midnight loomed.  My pistol and a cigarette case that had been a gift from Sheila were on my desk.  I had spent nearly the entire day at my desk, figuring out all that I could, guessing the rest, making a few calls, formulating a plan, and making a few more calls.  Plans were essential, plans kept people from getting killed.  Too bad I barely had a minimal plan – I’d have to avoid getting killed by being ready to shoot first.

By midnight I was near the front door of the warehouse on the corner of Washington and Jackson, on the eastern edge of the city where things went from stylish to shifty, modern to menacing.  The note had instructed me to be at the location by midnight and not to be a minute late.  The streets were empty and silent but for the peeling out of a car a few blocks away.  Calling in a favor earlier in the day had resulted in me getting my hands on a copy of the floor plan of the warehouse.  There were two front and back entrances, a loading dock, and indications of a few windows punched into the walls.  They also displayed an open ground floor, a perimeter walkway on the second floor, and a pair of offices on one side.  That explained the windows.  I thought I saw a shadow move in the building across the street but I pushed it from my mind.

As I approached, the door opened and two men stepped outside one at a time, needing all the space to fit their thick frames through the doorway.  Their cheap, dark suits betrayed their low-level gang status.

“You clean?” the first one grunted.

“Find out yourself.”  His meaty hands grabbed me and shook my body as he gave the routine pat-down.  He pocketed the gun off my ankle holster and reached into the breast pockets of my jacket.

“Why you carrying a pack of smokes and a cigarette case?”

“Only three cigarettes left in the case – I’m planning ahead.”  He laughed while the other stood silently behind him, scanning the landscape.

“You might not be needing to plan for the future.”  He placed the case back in my pocket and the pack into his pocket.  “Come on, Steadman, the boss is waiting for you.”  He stepped behind and forced me along by my collar while the silent half of the pair led the way.

The warehouse was empty, lit by ancient and neglected lightbulbs that cast an aged pale yellow and gray over the space, turning us into the walking dead.  I could see the offices ahead at the top of a bare staircase and a figure standing in silhouette.  Footsteps were visible in the grime on the floor.  They were all muddled together but most importantly there weren’t many pairs and all followed the same path that we followed.  The door at the top of the stairs was closed.  The grunt ahead of me knocked and opened, the grunt behind pushed me in.

There was Sheila; her feet and hands bound to an old wooden chair, her mouth gagged, her eyes wide, her hair disheveled.  I could see bruises on her skin and only then did I take notice  of a few bruises on my captors.  I smiled for the first time since this whole mess began.

Eastside Earl stood behind a small desk, absentmindedly running a finger along a scar that ran the length of his cheek, eyes trained on me.  His suit didn’t look much better than that of the goons but it didn’t fool me – I knew his sinewy frame was more malicious and more dangerous than the two hired muscles combined.  A gangster’s figure with a psychopath’s mind.  I didn’t want to think about what he would do to Sheila if he killed me.

“Sam,” his tongue slithered, “such a pleasure to see you again.  Betcha thought it’d never happen, huh?  Well I knew, Sammy-boy, I knew, cause Eastside doesn’t go down like that.  I thoughta you every night in Lowdon, but it wasn’t just at night, no.  Breakfast, roll call, the yard, work detail; thoughta you every momenta every day and every time I thoughta everything I’d do to you once I got outta there.”

“And now you’re outta prison.”

“And now I’m out, Sammy-boy.  Paid off five guards, killed two, plus two mouthy inmates that got winda my plans.  Simple and easy -”

“- for a murderer and a scumbag,” I finished.  Eastside’s eyes glimmered like steel daggers, then his thin lips spread wide into a wicked grin.

“Simple and easy for a man who slipped up only once.  And that’s the one time you pounced.  I’ll give you that, Sammy-boy, you’ve always been tenacious and I respect a hardworkin’ man.  But only fools let respect stand in the waya reality.”  He continued running his finger along the scar like it was a tic he had acquired, or a nervous habit.  That made sense with me being in the room – I had given it to him.

“Listen, Earl, you got me pinned down – why don’t you let the girl go.  Your beef is with me, not her.”

“My beef is with her now she’s working for you.  Pretty thing too.”  Sheila’s eyes were wide with fear, they drew attention to her face and away from her almost invisibly fidgeting fingers.  Smart girl.

“Look, you wanna kill me, give it a shot, but she’s got nothing to do with this.  She doesn’t even know who you are.  Let her be.”

“Zip it, Sammy-boy!  I’m gonna kill you and then she’s gonna learn the fun parta being tied up.”  Looking around the room, there was nothing helpful; just sparse furniture and the windows on one wall.  Earl pulled a gun from the desk drawer and leveled it at me.  “Any last words?”

“At least give me the decency of one last smoke.”  Eastside hesitated, vacillating between the gangster with a code of conduct and the psychopath who wallowed in blood.  His own nicotine habit swayed him.

“Alright, one smoke, but gimme one too.”  The muscle leaned closer as I reached into my jacket pocket but there was only the cigarette case.  I flicked it open and with a shaky hand pulled free two cigarettes and a thin book of matches from Haverty’s on Lincoln.  “Light it for me,” he said as I stepped forward and offered him the unlit cigarette, “I ain’t taking my hand offa this gun.”  It took two strikes for the phosphorous to ignite and the flame danced wildly as the first cigarette burned between my lips.  I handed it to Earl and he took it swiftly like I might try to grab him.  The match burned down and the second one lit on the first try.  I tried remaining calm as the flame undulated and I put the cigarette in it’s path.  The match fell to the ground.  Earl blew a long stream of smoke towards me when the lights above suddenly swelled with incandescence.

Eastside looked up just as the lights exploded in unison, casting us into darkness and showering glass downward.  I threw an elbow backwards into the neck of the goon on my right and when I heard his knees hit the ground, I reached for where I estimated his head to be and twisted until it cracked.  Propping him up, I felt in his jacket for the pistol he had taken earlier.  Sheila was audibly working over the other goon with the chair she had freed herself from.  Earl fired a few blind shots but we were smart enough to stay low.  I crept around the desk where I could see the shiny leg of his cheap suit reflecting the little light that came in through the window.

My legs coiled beneath me, I flung the cigarette case at Eastside’s hand.  He yelped as the heavy silver collided with his knuckles.  As the gun tumbled from his fingers, I sprang forward, taking him out at the knees and kicking his gun away as it clanked on the floor.  A few punches to the face calmed him right down.

“Better than prison, Eastside?  You like this better?”

“This ain’t over, Sammy-boy.”

“Yeah it is, Eastside.  You threaten me, that’s part of the job; you threaten Sheila, that’s going too far.  So yeah, it’s over, Earl.”  I pushed my gun barrel against the underside of his chin until I felt his head push back.  When the flesh wouldn’t give anymore, I pulled the trigger.  My breathing slowed, I listened for cues to the room through the ringing but everything sounded steady.

Standing up, my eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and allowed me to survey the room.  Eastside was spattered along the westside, Goon One had his head at an awful angle, and Sheila stood over Goon Two, who lay on the ground glassy-eyed with a shard of chair leg protruding from his neck.  She was silent, I thought in shock, but it was amazement and adrenaline.  She grabbed my arms and pulled me close.

“That was incredible, Sam!  How did you pull it off?”

“Oh, it was nothing.  I checked out the real estate info for this place – it’s been empty for years, which means nobody’s been changing the lights so the bulbs were cheap and old.  All it took was an electrical surge to blow them.”

“And how did you cause an electrical surge?”

“I got my hands on the floor plan of the warehouse and saw there were two offices here on the second floor, took a lucky guess that things would go down here in view of the windows.  So then I called in a favor at People’s Energy and had a guy in the building across the street waiting for a signal.  Once he saw the signal, he made a phone call and PE sent a surge to the address, blowing the building.”

“The signal?”

“The flame and the cigarette.”

“Stop making me ask everything, Sam!  How did you know he’d go for the cigarette?”

“Cause Eastside Earl has always been a nicotine fiend and a cheap bastard; as long as I’ve known the thug he’s been bumming smokes off people no matter how much money he had.  And I knew it was Eastside from the red and white baker’s twine he used to tie the note to the brick that he threw through the window.  His mother owns a bakery downtown and he’s always used it as a fallback base of operations.  I made a call to Lowdon Penitentiary upstate – turns out he escaped five weeks ago.  I’m the one that collared him and put him away so it made sense that he was gunning for me.

“Sam, you’re the best!”

“No, Sheila, you are.”  I pulled her closer, looking down into her eyes.  “Anybody else I might not have risked my neck for.  Sheila, I… you know I’m not the emotional type but… well, there’s just something about you that makes me want to stop sticking out my neck for anybody else but you.  The thought of something happening to you, I was just, I was losing my mind.”

“Are you telling me I’ve cracked the stoney exterior of Sam Steadman?”

“… I’m just saying -”

“Shut your mouth and quit sayin’, Sam.”  She grabbed the lapels of my jacket and pulled my face down to meet hers.

Another adventure begins, I thought.


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