Men Are Trouble - Chapter 4

I tried Kate’s call again, but when all I got was the sidekick I biked across town to 44 East Washington Avenue. The Poison Society turned out to be a jump joint; the sign said it opened at nine pm. There was no bell on the front door, but I knocked hard enough to wake Marilyn Monroe. No answer. I went around to the back and tried again. If Kate was in there, she wasn’t entertaining visitors.

A sidekick search turned up an open McDonald’s on Wallingford, a ten-minute ride. The only other customers were a couple of twists with bound breasts and identical acid-green vinyl masks. One of them crouched on the floor beside the other, begging for chicken nuggets. A bot took my order for the 29¢ combo meal—it was all bots behind the counter. By law, there was supposed to be a human running the place, but if she was on the premises, she was nowhere to be seen. I thought about calling City Hall to complain, but the egg rolls arrived crispy and the McLatte was nicely scalded. Besides, I didn’t need to watch the cops haul the poor jane in charge out of whatever hole she had fallen into.

A couple of hardcase tommys in army surplus fatigues had strutted in just after me. They ate with their heads bowed over their plastic trays so the fries didn’t have too far to travel. Their collapsible titanium nightsticks lay on the table in plain sight. One of them was not quite as wide as a bus. The other was nothing special, except that when I glanced up from my sidekick, she was giving me a freeze-dried stare. I waggled my shiny fingernails at her and screwed my cutest smile onto my face. She scowled, said something to her partner and went back to the trough.

My sidekick chirped. It was my pal Julie Epstein, who worked Self-Endangerment/Missing Persons out of the second precinct.

“You busy, Fay?”

“Yeah, the Queen of Cleveland just lost her glass slipper and I’m on the case.”

“Well, I’m about to roll through your neighborhood. Want to do lunch?”

I aimed the sidekick at the empties on my table. “Just finishing.”

“Where are you?”

“McD’s on Wallingford.”

“Yeah? How are the ribs?”

“Couldn’t say. But the egg rolls are triple dee.”

“That the place where the owner is a junkliner? We’ve had complaints. Bots run everything?”

“No, I can see her now. She’s shortchanging some beat cop.”

She gave me the laugh. “Got the coroner’s on the Rashmi Jones. Cyanide induced hypoxia.”

“You didn’t by any chance show the mom pix of the scene?”

“Hell no. Talk about cruel and unusual.” She frowned. “Why?”

“I was just with her. She seemed like maybe she suspected her kid wrestled with the reaper.”

“We didn’t tell her. By the way, we don’t really care if you call your client, but next time how about trying us first?”

“That’s cop law. Me, I follow PI law.”

“Where did you steal that line from, Chinatown?”

“It’s got better dialogue than Dragnet.” I swirled the last of my latte in the cup. “You calling a motive on the Rashmi Jones?”

“Not yet. What do you like?” She ticked off the fingers of her left hand. “Family? School? Money? Broke a fingernail? Cloudy day?”

“Pregnancy? Just a hunch.”

“You think she was seeded? We’ll check that. But that’s no reason to kill yourself.”

“They’ve all got reasons. Only none of them makes sense.”

She frowned. “Hey, don’t get all invested on me here.”

“Tell me, Julie, do you think I’m doing a pretend job?”

“Whoa, Fay.” Her chuckle had a sharp edge. “Maybe it’s time you and Sharifa took a vacation.”

“Yeah.” I let that pass. “It’s just that some granny called me a fluff.”

“Grannies.” She snorted in disgust. “Well, you’re no cop, that’s for sure. But we do appreciate the help. Yeah, I’d say what you do is real. As real as anything in this cocked world.”

“Thanks, flatfoot. Now that you’ve made things all better, I’ll just click off. My latte is getting cold and you’re missing so damn many persons.”

“Think about that vacation, shamus. Bye.”

As I put my sidekick away, I realized that the tommys were waiting for me. They’d been rattling ice in their cups and folding McWrappers for the past ten minutes. I probably didn’t need their brand of trouble. The smart move would be to bolt for the door and leave my bike for now; I could lose them on foot. But then I hadn’t made a smart move since April. The big one was talking into her sidekick when I sauntered over to them.

“What can I do for you ladies?” I said.

The big one pocketed the sidekick. Her partner started to come out of her seat but the big one stretched an arm like a telephone pole to restrain her.

“Do we know you?” The partner had close-set eyes and a beak nose; her black hair was short and stiff as a brush. She was wearing a black tee under her fatigue jacket and black leather combat boots. Probably had steel toes. “No,” she continued, “I don’t think we do.”

“Then let’s get introductions out of the way,” I said. “I’m Fay Hardaway. And you are. . . ?”

They gave me less than nothing.

I sat down. “Thanks,” I said. “Don’t mind if I do.”

The big one leaned back in her chair and eyed me as if I was dessert. “Sure you’re not making a mistake, missy?”

“Why, because you’re rough, tough, and take no guff?”

“You’re funny.” She smirked. “I like that. People who meet us are usually so very sad. My name is Alix.” She held out her hand and we shook. “Pleased to know you.”

The customary way to shake hands is to hold on for four, maybe five seconds, squeeze goodbye, then loosen the grip. Maybe big Alix wasn’t familiar with our customs—she wasn’t letting go.

I wasn’t going to let a little thing like a missing hand intimidate me. “Oh, then I do know you,” I said. We were in the McDonald’s on Wallingford Street—a public place. I’d just been talking to my pal the cop. I was so damn sure that I was safe, I decided to take my shot. “That would make the girlfriend here Elaine. Or is it Gratiana?”

“Alix.” The beak panicked. “Now we’ve got to take her.”

Alix sighed, then yanked on my arm. She might have been pulling a tissue from a box for all the effort she expended. I slid halfway across the table as the beak whipped her nightstick to full extension. I lunged away from her and she caught me just a glancing blow above the ear but then Alix stuck a popper into my face and spattered me with knockout spray. I saw a billion stars and breathed the vacuum of deep space for maybe two seconds before everything went black.

Big Ben chimed between my ears. I could feel it deep in my molars, in the jelly of my eyes. It was the first thing I had felt since World War II. Wait a minute, was I alive during World War II? No, but I had seen the movie. When I wiggled my toes, Big Ben chimed again. I realized that the reason it hurt so much was that the human head didn’t really contain enough space to hang a bell of that size. As I took inventory of body parts, the chiming became less intense. By the time I knew I was all there, it was just the sting of blood in my veins.

I was laid out on a surface that was hard but not cold. Wood. A bench. The place I was in was huge and dim but not dark. The high ceiling was in shadow. There was a hint of smoke in the air. Lights flickered. Candles. That was a clue, but I was still too groggy to understand what the mystery was. I knew I needed to remember something, but there was a hole where the memory was supposed to be. I reached back and touched just above my ear. The tip of my finger came away dark and sticky.

A voice solved the mystery for me. “I’m sorry that my people overreacted. If you want to press charges, I’ve instructed Gratiana and Alix to surrender to the police.”

It came back to me then. It always does. McDonald’s. Big Alix. A long handshake. That would make this a church. I sat up. When the world stopped spinning, I saw a vast marble altar awash in light with a crucifix the size of a Cessna hanging behind it.

“I hope you’re not in too much pain, Miss Hardaway.” The voice came from the pew behind me. A fortyish woman in a black suit and a Roman collar was on the kneeler. She was wearing a large silver ring on the fourth finger of her left hand.

“I’ve felt worse.”

“That’s too bad. Do you make a habit of getting into trouble?” She looked concerned that I might be making some bad life choices. She had soft eyes and a kindly face. Her short hair was the color of ashes. She was someone I could tell my guilty secrets to, so I could sleep at night. She would speak to Christ the Man himself on my behalf, book me into the penthouse suite in heaven.

“Am I in trouble?”

She nodded gravely. “We all are. The devils are destroying us, Miss Hardaway. They plant their seed not only in our bodies, but our minds and our souls.”

“Please, call me Fay. I’m sure we’re going to be just the very best of friends.” I leaned toward her. “I’m sorry, I can’t read your name tag.”

“I’m not wearing one.” She smiled. “I’m Father Elaine Horváth.”

We looked at each other.

“Have you ever considered suicide, Fay?” said Father Elaine.

“Not really. It’s usually a bad career move.”

“Very good. But you must know that since the devils came and changed everything, almost a billion women have despaired and taken their lives.”

“You know, I think I did hear something about that. Come on, lady, what’s this about?”

“It is the tragedy of our times that there are any number of good reasons to kill oneself. It takes courage to go on living with the world the way it is. Rashmi Jones was a troubled young woman. She lacked that courage. That doesn’t make her a bad person, just a dead one.”

I patted my pocket, looking for my sidekick. Still there. I pulled it out and pressed record. I didn’t ask for permission. “So I should mind my own business?”

“That would be a bad career move in your profession. How old are you, Fay?”


“Then you were born of a virgin.” She leaned back, slid off the kneeler and onto the pew. “Seeded by the devils. I’m old enough to have had a father, Fay. I actually remember him a little. A very little.”

“Don’t start.” I spun out of the pew into the aisle. I hated cock nostalgia. This granny had me chewing aluminum foil; I would have spat it at Christ himself if he had dared come down off his cross. “You want to know one reason why my generation jumps out of windows and sucks on cyanide? It’s because twists like you make us feel guilty about how we came to be. You want to call me devil’s spawn, go ahead. Enjoy yourself. Live it up. Because we’re just waiting for you old bitches to die off. Someday this foolish church is going to dry up and blow away and you know what? We’ll go dancing that night, because we’ll be a hell of a lot happier without you to remind us of what you lost and who we can never be.”

She seemed perversely pleased by my show of emotion. “You’re an angry woman, Fay.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m kind to children and small animals.”

“What is that anger doing to your soul? Many young people find solace in Christ.”

“Like Alix and Gratiana?”

She folded her hands; the silver ring shone dully. “As I said, they have offered to turn themselves . . .”

“Keep them. I’m done with them.” I was cooling off fast. I paused, considering my next move. Then I sat down on the pew next to Father Elaine, showed her my sidekick and made sure she saw me pause the recording. Our eyes met. We understood each other. “Did you marry Kate Vermeil and Rashmi Jones yesterday?”

She didn’t hesitate. “I performed the ceremony. I never filed the documents.”

“Do you know why Rashmi killed herself ?”

“Not exactly.” She held my gaze. “I understand she left a note.”

“Yeah, the note. I found it on her sidekick. She wrote, ‘Life is too hard to handle and I can’t handle it so I’ve got to go now. I love you Mom sorry.’ A little generic for a would-be writer, wouldn’t you say? And the thing is, there’s nothing in the note about Kate. I didn’t even know she existed until this morning. Now I have a problem with that. The cops would have the same problem if I gave it to them.”

“But you haven’t.”

“Not yet.”

She thought about that for a while.

“My understanding,” said Father Elaine at last, “is that Kate and Rashmi had a disagreement shortly after the ceremony.” She was tiptoeing around words as if one of them might wake up and start screaming. “I don’t know exactly what it was about. Rashmi left, Kate stayed here. Someone was with her all yesterday afternoon and all last night.”

“Because you thought she might need an alibi?”

She let that pass. “Kate was upset when she heard the news. She blames herself, although I am certain she is without blame.”

“She’s here now?”

“No.” Father Elaine shrugged. “I sent her away when I learned you were looking for her.”

“And you want me to stop.”

“You are being needlessly cruel, you know. The poor girl is grieving.”

“Another poor girl is dead.” I reached into my pocket for my penlight. “Can I see your ring?”

That puzzled her. She extended her left hand and I shone the light on it. Her skin was freckled but soft, the nails flawless. She would not be getting them done at a dump like the Adagio Spa.

“What do these letters mean?” I asked. “IHS?”

“In hoc signo vinces. ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ The emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky with those words written in fire on it. This was just before a major battle. He had his soldiers paint the cross on their shields and then he won the day against a superior force.”

“Cute.” I snapped the light off. “What’s it mean to you?”

“The Bride of God herself gave this to me.” Her face lit up, as if she were listening to an angelic chorus chant her name. “In recognition of my special vocation. You see, Fay, our Church has no intention of drying up and blowing away. Long after my generation is gone, believers will continue to gather in Christ’s name. And someday they’ll finish the work we have begun. Someday they will exorcise the devils.”

If she knew how loopy that sounded, she didn’t show it. “Okay, here’s the way it is,” I said. “Forget Kate Vermeil. I only wanted to find her so she could lead me to you. A devil named Seeren hired me to look for a certain party wearing a ring like yours. It wants a meeting.”

“With me?” Father Elaine went pale. “What for?”

“I just find them.” I enjoyed watching her squirm. “I don’t ask why.”

She folded her hands as if to pray, then leaned her head against them and closed her eyes. She sat like that for almost a minute. I decided to let her brood, not that I had much choice. The fiery pit of hell could’ve opened up and she wouldn’t have noticed.

Finally, she shivered and sat up. “I have to find out how much they know.” She gazed up at the enormous crucifix. “I’ll see this devil, but on one condition: you guarantee my safety.”

“Sure.” I couldn’t help myself; I laughed. The sound echoed, profaning the silence. “Just how am I supposed to do that? They disappeared half the population of Earth without breaking a sweat.”

“You have their confidence,” she said. “And mine.”

A vast and absurd peace had settled over her; she was seeing the world through the gauze of faith. She was a fool if she thought I could go up against the devils. Maybe she believed Christ the Man would swoop down from heaven to protect her, but then he hadn’t been seen around the old neighborhood much of late. Or maybe she had projected herself into the mind of the martyrs who would embrace the sword, kiss the ax that would take their heads. I reminded myself that her delusions were none of my business.

Besides, I needed the money. And suddenly I just had to get out of that big, empty church.

“My office is at 35 Market,” I said. “Third floor. I’ll try to set something up for six tonight.” I stood. “Look, if they want to take you, you’re probably gone. But I’ll record everything and squawk as loud as I can.”

“I believe you will,” she said, her face aglow.