The Eternal Rose: The sequel to Precious Drops: a short novel
(Story takes place several months past Pandora Directive Path C, Clown Ending)
Tex slouched over the dressing room table, the clown makeup around his mouth smeared from the almost empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and decided maybe this was the day to put that gun to good use and blow the top of his head off...
His eyes were bleary and red, about the same color of the ridiculous clown nose he had yet to take off after tonight’s less than stellar performance. The tent that he had called ‘home shack home’ for the last 3 months was on its last legs. A good portion was covered in dirty silver duct tape, the ramshackle sparse furnishings, one of two old wooden folding chairs, a moldering cot with an ever more repulsive smelling pillow, and a discarded horse blanket was the ‘bedroom’ side of tent.
The dressing room side was a broken footlocker that didn’t latch, an army surplus duffle bag, and a small card table with an old lady’s makeup mirror with lights. Of course the bulbs had long burnt out, save one, and it was this meager light Tex looked at himself by, wondering how everything had gone so wrong.
He cursed at himself in the mirror. “I didn’t even get to bang Regan for God’s sake…why in the hell did you pass that up?”
A little voice inside the back of his head told him that he would have never made it out alive if he hadn’t-- that his moment of redemption would never have happened.
“Redemption….” He let the words trail off in the dark, bitterly. “Right.”
He put his face in his hands and thought again about the gun buried in the duffle bag. It had been a long time since he had held it; it was about the only thing of value he still had to his name. He had long term pawned the speeder to Rook, and he was sure the cheap bastard had sold it out from underneath him the morning he left town.
He grabbed the bottle and drained the last few swallows, and stared at it forlornly. Payday was 3 days away, and that was the last bottle. The chow tent kept his meager need for food filled, but there was going to be no getting around the night sweats and trembling that awaited him till Friday. Still, he might be able to get an advance.
The flap of his tent flew open and his foul smelling boss strode in.
“Christ Murphy…use the employee trench like everyone else…it smells like a shit heap in here.”
“You know, that’s true. But there was no trace of it until you walked in.”
Wedge Cooper, the owner of the seedy sideshow and circus, could have been a first cousin to the species of sub human he liked to call Nilo-erecuts. His wife beater T-shirt was soiled and smelly, it was the only thing he wore under his Master of Ceremonies costume every night, and it looked like it hadn’t been changed in a week. He had short man-itis, swelling of the ego, and undeservedly so, the show since he had joined up always seemed on the verge of bankruptcy.
Still, there was a good chance Tex didn’t know everything that was going on behind the scenes, and at this point, he didn’t really care. He had a hard enough time just taking care of number one, and he didn’t eat enough for number two.
Tex also realized quickly that he shouldn’t have insulted the man that he was going to have to grovel to for an advance. So he sheepishly shut his mouth, for the moment.
“Funny…you’re a funny guy Murphy. So why the hell do I have more complaints about you freaking out the kids?”
“Why do I have to be the bad guy? I’m just telling them the truth about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Vice President.”
“Well, yuk this up. This is your last night as a clown. You’re fired.”
“What?” Tex’s mouth went dry. “You’re firing me?”
“Did you shove those extra noses I gave you in your ears? Yeah you’re fired. Jeanne made the decision tonight.”
Tex decided to play an angle.
“You let your wife decide what happens in your show?”
“Shut your yap. Course I do! You think I want to sleep out with you pukes?”
He nervously scratched his black and grey overgrowth on his pockmarked cheeks.
“Besides, I got an offer for you. Off the books.”
Tex leaned back in his chair…and it almost crumpled beneath him. He quickly righted himself, but his composure was lost.
“What’s your offer?”
“I think my wife’s having an affair. I want you to find out. We got a pre-nup with some conditions. I need proof. ”
Tex beamed, the first offer of his PI skills in months. He cracked his knuckles and looked up at him.
“My services are $400 a day plus expenses.”
Wedge broke out into raucous laughter that quickly tapered into a long, lung tearing coughing fit.
“You really are a clown. $200 a day, no expenses. You get to keep your stuff here and stay for the next few days. I want to know fast. You’ve got 5 days, and if I think you’re jerking me around--I take a couple of teeth from your smart ass mouth.”
He tossed 3 c notes to the ground. “Here’s your freaking advance. Whadda you say?”
Tex quickly snatched the money like a drowning man to a life vest, the DT’s safely avoided for a good long while.
“Well I’ll do a little preliminary work. I should have a final answer to you by tomorrow night. I do believe though, that we’ll be doing business.”
“That’s the most namby pamby way of saying yes I’ve ever heard, but I’ll take it Murphy. I don’t want word of this getting out, she’s got friends here. I have no idea who’s she’s boinking; whether it’s one of the carnies or a mark. But I want pictures…in flagentre, if you know what I mean. “He tossed him a digital camera, Electronic Shack blue light special.
He paused again, and looked at Tex with a wink. “Unless she’s doing another chick….then I want video of it”
Tex went to stand.
“Nah, don’t get up. It doesn’t look like you’d make it two dozen steps. Sleep it off, and I’ll see you tomorrow.
He left the tent, and Tex went to wondering how he could turn the cash into liquid treasure. His mind was racing, and didn’t notice that someone was knocking at his tent flap. Wiggling the fabric was more like it.
“Hey…hey….you in there?”
Tex stopped. Now dead cold sober. He knew that voice. He hadn’t heard it in months. Tears immediately sprang to his eyes. He looked down at himself, ashamed, and pulled off his nose, grabbed a rag from the floor and wiped off his makeup as fast as he could, all while trying to keep his voice from cracking. He failed.
He was missing the paper hat and the apron, his hair was neatly combed, but the sight of his old friend made Tex’s throat catch.
“Is that you Moiph?”
“Sad to say…but yes.” Tex could barely meet his eyes.
“My goodness, they haven’t been feeding you right. You’re awfully scrawny there pal.”
Tex fought hard to keep from crying. He’d abandoned Louie, snuck out without even a good-bye and there he was, thinking about feeding him. He was a thousand miles from San Francisco, hadn’t told anyone where he was headed, but Louie had tracked him down.
“How in the heck did you find me?”
Louie shrugged non-committally. “You know, I put some feelers out. I had a few friends out east. It doesn’t really matter. Important thing is, that you’re ok.”
“If you can call this ok.” Tex revisited his earlier thoughts about the gun, and shuddered, thinking about how poor Louie would have felt to come across his sorry remains…just a little too late…and forced himself to banish the idea from his mind.
“Truth is Moiph, Chelsea is looking for you. She needs you. But don’t tell her I tracked you down, you know how hard it is for her to ask for help.”
Tex perked up.
“Don’t get any ideas. She told me about the blow up you guys had in the Fuchsia Flamingo, and too be honest, I don’t blame her. You did her wrong. She deserved better than that.”
The thought of how he behaved that night made him flinch. The overwhelming need for Jack Daniels came rushing in--and the monkey that had climbed on his back hard these last few months started screeching in his ear.
“What does she need? My heart ground into smaller pieces?”
Louie looked taken aback. “Jeez…you don’t act like the old friend I know. Her friend in Phoenix is gone, Chelsea thinks something bad might have happened to her.”
“Why me? Why not the police department?”
“She’s a mutant Murph, they don’t care about us. They took 10 minutes, filed a report, and nothing. She’s at her wits end. And more than that, her newsstand? They want to sell it back to her, for 3 times the price. She’s broke and desperate.”
Tex pondered it. How much had he changed since he hit the path of broken dreams? Part of him didn’t want to know. Going back to a life he left behind with no money and no prospects…
The 3 one hundred dollar bills looked at him, and his urge to drink away all the confusion in his mind overwhelmed him.
“Louie….my brain is a little fried right now.”
Louie sensed the brush off and got up from the worn olive green army cot. He stood awkwardly, unsure how to talk to this semi-stranger that used to be one of his best friends. He didn’t know how to reach out and comfort him…didn’t know if that’s what Tex really needed.
“Well, I understand. I’m sure this was quite the surprise.”
“To say the least.” Tex exhaled with a sigh of relief, sensing Louie was backing away.
“Listen, I’m staying the night at a motel, a few miles from here. The blue lady.” He straightened the rust colored button down shirt, and kicked some nonexistent dust from his brown leather shoes. “I’m in room 17. Take some time to sleep on it, think it over. Checkout’s at noon. If I don’t hear from you by then, I’ll know what you’ve decided.”
“Thanks, you’re a real pal.”
Tex had yet to stand, and Louie noticed. There was a lot of strength behind the mutant’s kind eyes, and he hoped that there was still some left in his old friend. There was doubt in his mind though. Tex was taller than the owner of the Brew and Stew, but right now, Louie looked like the bigger man.
Louie extended his beefy hand, and his other well muscled arm came around to cuff Tex’s shoulder. As he shook it, he took the time to look into his friends eyes one last time.
“I sure hope to hear from you. But whatever happens, you take care of yourself ok?”
Tex could barely meet his friend’s steady gaze. ”Will do.”
And with that, Louie ducked at his head, exiting the tent, leaving Tex behind.
His shoulders dropped in a sodden heap as his exhale, part groan, rattled out. He threw the ridiculous rainbow clown wig aside over handed, with a fierceness he didn’t know he had. But there was no satisfying clunk against the wall, only the soft whisper of fabric. He looked at the empty bottle, but decided he really didn’t want to clean up the residual mess that would result.
The silence fell around him-- so disquieting that he had to drum his leg just to sense some sort of movement around him. He looked over what his life had become…aimless, lonely and found it wanting. Seriously wanting.
Still, there was the night to decide on what to do. He picked up the cheap silver plastic digital camera, and turned it on. The batteries were fully charged and there was plenty of room on the memory card, but there was a pitifully minimal zoom lens on it. He was going to have to be reasonably close to the action to get anything concrete. He only hoped that Jeanne like to play patty-cake with the lights on, cause if he had to use the flash, there would only be one shot before he ran.
He had been fired upon before in a similar situation. The heavily muscled and hairy man jumping off the naked woman; grabbing his sidearm, and making a beeline for Tex. The memory of that thing pointed at him, well…that and the gun, was burned painfully in his subconscious. It was something Tex never wanted to encounter again.
He stripped off the clown suit, tossing it in the footlocker. The whole idea of this case took him slightly by surprise. Jeanne had seemed like a quiet lady of quality. Most of the people he had come to know here wondered what she saw in the dirty little man.
Still, it wasn’t in him right now to figure out women, lord knows he’d had little to no success in that department in the past anyway. He decided to take a walk out to the midway and beyond, maybe to the owners RV, just to see what he could see.
The night broke into life around him as he walked away from his tent and onto the fairway. The marks had left for the night, but the carnies were still up and about, resetting for the next day, or drinking heavily, laughing and catcalls abounded.
Tex waved at familiar faces that gestured to him, and dodged the juggling master, who at the moment had six flaming torches in the air. The juggler’s long dreadlocks seemed to skirt disaster, barely missing a passing torch. A gold tooth flashed from the front of his wide smile, and his copper skin shone by the firelight as his hands deftly worked, tossing.
“How you doing clown man? Looks like you’re on a mission.” He spoke in a southern Louisianan drawl, more than a touch of Creole in his blood.
“Actually, I’m looking for Wedge. I have some questions for him.”
The Creole shook his head laughing. “Yea, I’ve seen him, over by the hooch tent. But he’s in no mood for the likes of you, I’m sure.”
Tex watched him distractedly as he extinguished his torches one by one.
“Would you like to hang out with us for a little while? My wife loves to hear your wild stories, plus she makes a much better stew than the gruel they serve here. We could crack out the bottle, maybe a little extra something….you know.”
He made a gesture with his hand up to his mouth pulling on the dregs of a joint, but Tex passed it up.
“Thanks for the offer; I hope you’ll give me a rain check on that.”
He nodded. “Go find your man. Later.” He gathered his torches, and pointed in the direction of where the boss was.
Tex walked past ‘sucker row’; the wheels of chance, shooting range and milk bottle games. In his time here he learned about uneven darts, weighted bottles, and electrical magnets that could be turned off and on by foot pedal allowing a 6 year old in front of a crowd to knock over and win, and suck the money from the men who wanted to show off to their girlfriends. The smell of sawdust and cotton candy permeated the air, but there was a deeper, underlying presence of desperation, like vomit that had been quickly covered, but not fully washed away.
He ducked into a small alley where there was almost no light, and made his way toward the less reputable section of the carnival. There were no true sideshow freak tents; after the radiation of WW3, mutations were rampant, and what was once novelty walked on the streets every day. But palm readers, tarot card shacks, and crystal balls abounded, along with women that for a little more money would do a little more than just dance.
As Tex approached the area, what he saw out of the corner of his eye disgusted him. Wedge had up in his arms a giggling and squirming girl that couldn’t have been more than 18. She was obviously drunk, her eyes dazed and unfocused. Wedge looked lecherously down at her, and was walking her toward a dark alley, where more than once Tex had come across people in the act….
He quickly grabbed the camera and shot a few pictures, cursing the poor light.
Fairly certain he had captured the moment, he wondered how best to deal with what he had. Should he show them to Jeanne, or blackmail Wedge for more money and his job back? It’s obvious Wedge had thought Tex was drunk and out of it for the night, or he wouldn’t have taken such a risk.
After pondering it for a few minutes, he decided to pay Jeanne a visit. Whether he showed her the pictures or not, he was hoping to get a little bearing, clear his head, maybe even a reason on why he was being canned.
He made his way over to the trailer that belonged to the owners, and knocked. Jeanne’s voice beckoned him inside, her leg was acting up tonight, could he please let himself in?
He ducked his head as he entered the cramped but tidy trailer. A hundred years or more of carnival memorabilia decorated the walls, magicians with piercing eyes, PT Barnum flyers, and a huge, striking picture of a full grown elephant that had been hung, dead, from a crane. Tex didn’t know what to take in first. After he looked all around, Jeanne offered him a seat in a rich hand carved wooden chair next to her own.
Tex fidgeted, not sure what to say or do. Jeanne level gaze, her calm green eyes with flecks of gold around the edge, held Tex’s for a moment.
“I know why you’re here.” She perched daintily or her soft floral chair, white with pink roses interwoven in the fabric. She seemed older than her years. Everyone had mentioned she was in her early 50’s, but the frailness in how she carried herself, the paper thin skin that draped in wrinkles, reminded him of his grandmother before she passed away at 85. But her eyes were very alert, and they smiled like a teenager. Her hair was pure white, pulled into a long braid that went all the way down her back. Jeanne was slender, and she dressed simply, pale button down shirt dressed in lace with tiny buttons that must have been murder on her arthritic, knobby fingers. Her skirt green and flowing, and simple tan sandals adorned her tiny feet. No one had any idea how or why she ever got married to such a slime ball.
“I know what’s on that camera, and I appreciate you wanting to share that information with me, but it doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t understand. Your husband paid me to find out who you were sleeping with, while he was doing that on the side….”
“Tex honey, there is no one that has more suspicions than someone who is hiding something themselves. Didn’t your years as a PI tell you that? Aren’t your instincts whispering in your ear?”
Her hand reached up to brush a small wisp of hair from her eyes.
“Don’t you think it was slightly odd that you were fired the very same night that your past moved back into your present? When I saw your friend in the audience tonight, I knew I had to force my hand. Cut your ties here, get you back to thinking like a PI. I planted a seed in Wedge’s mind. Draw him to you—knowing it would lead you here to me.”
“How much do you actually know about me?”
She smiled sadly, shaking her head slowly, as if talking to a wayward six year old child.
“Too much, I’m afraid. And now that your friend has come and gone, I’m certain the others will not be far behind. I hoped you would have moved on before they found you, but I guess such things are left to others higher up than myself.”
She leaned forward, taking Tex’s large hands in her fragile ones. He could see the delicate blue veins flowing into her wrists.
“You have to leave tonight. There are things, and people that cannot be found just yet. Not all the pieces have fallen into place, and many who play a part are still unaware of it.”
Tex looked flustered. “What the hell are you talking about? Why does it always seem like people won’t give me a straight answer?”
She sat back, releasing his hands, shoulders dropping as if a sandbag had fallen on them. “Listen to your dreams. Do you have waking dreams?”
His eyes closed, trying to remember. “My dreams... I don’t remember them. Only disjointed images and sounds that make no sense.”
She nodded her head, closing her eyes. “You drown them in the bottle you keep by your side every night. But that is your choice. And your choice is an albatross around your neck, and a veil over your eyes.” She leaned forward again.
“Are you a spiritual man?”
“Only in the 120 proof category.” His attempt at frivolity was poorly received.
“Then this may all be wasted. But I have to tell you, before you go, there are many lives that will be lost if you don’t lift the fog around you. There have been some already, yes?”
Tex’s chest sunk like a hammer wrapped in gauze struck him full on. He achingly remembered watching Emily’s life being choked out of her without a drop of mercy, while he watched on, acting too late to save her.
And poor geeky little Archie Ellis, whose only crime was being a little too close to a dangerous truth. A simple vid-phone call or visit could have saved his life, but Tex didn’t think to act, wrapped up in other things, his focus misguided. And Thomas Malloy, he had brought his killer right to his door. He mashed his hands up to his temples, grinding them, willing his brain to shut down. He couldn’t let himself think anymore about any of it, or he just might act on the thought that hounded him.
“For both our sakes, and for the secrets I must hide for now, you have to go back. Someone in India you met not too long ago has a part to play here. And a woman who you were led to believe betrayed you and murdered another. There are others that I don’t know about, and I’m thankful. The less I know the better. It seems to have worked for you quite well.”
Tex didn’t know if he’d just been insulted or not.
Jeanne reached her hand down to the small purse that lay on the floor by her chair. She grabbed the overflowing wallet, and unwrapped a gigantic wad of cash. Her eyes narrowed in focus, and she brought her fingertip to her tongue as she counted out the hundreds, in an alarming number. All Tex could do was sit back and watch amazed as she held more in her hands than he had since the Moon Child reward.
She gathered a few piles and handed them slowly to Tex, explaining each one.
“$8000 from the woman in your past you thought only used you. $1600 current and back pay. And $400 for tonight’s work. Add that to your advance, and it should be right. Don’t sell yourself short again. Pick your fee and stick with it. No matter what. Because, and trust me in this Tex, in spite of yourself, your results are worth much, much more. “
She sat back again, this time with a contented sigh.
“I guess I’ll drop the mysterious and cryptic talk now, and send you on your way.” Jeanne paused and smiled softly.
“I liked watching you, you know. When you weren’t drunk out there….you had a way to you that set folks at ease. Some people that I knew were scared of clowns, took right to you. You’ve got some gifts, that’s for sure. Let’s hope you unbury them in time to do some good. Whoops, there’s that cryptic talk again.”
She laughed and the years fell away, and she looked young again for the briefest of moments.
“I wish you well.” She smiled haltingly.
“I’m afraid I can’t offer you a ride, but I can tell you this. The road leads 3 miles south. At the fork, take the one on the left, and you’ll find the Blue Lady a stretch or two after that. ”
Tex was beside himself. All he could see was the huge mound of money sitting in his hands. Her words floated in his head, and he told himself to remember as much as he could.
He kneeled beside her, putting the money away, and quietly held her hand. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Quit making me blush, you charmer. Just get out of here and get back to what you were meant to do. Life is not a game Tex. We don’t get many second chances. Take this one. And…”
Her eyes locked with his for a single moment.
“….put those thoughts you had earlier tonight right out of your mind. You’ll do no one any good by turning that gun on yourself. And with your luck, you’d miss anyway. “ She tapped his hands, gesturing for him to go.
There was no quip, no smartass comment in his head. He could only stand silently, dumbfounded, and go.
“Keep the camera, I’m sure you’ll need it again at some point. And good luck to you. “
Tex looked back at her one more time, and left, closing the door behind him.
The night had quieted, and the full white moon glowed on him reproachfully, lighting the path back to his meager tent.
In silence he gathered a few things, and changed his clothes. He held his gun in his hand for a brief moment before putting it back into the rucksack with the other items he decided to bring with him. He looked at the familiar bottle and sighed, turning away from it. He lifted the flap for the final time, and walked away without a backward glance, into the night.
The last forty minutes of walking had invigorated him, only the sounds of his footfalls crunching on the gravel road to keep him company, but it was pleasant. The duffle bag pulled at one shoulder, as he saw the neon light beckoning to him in the distance.
A purple silhouette of a very busty woman loomed ahead, and he picked up his pace a bit, knowing he was almost there. He saw Louie’s gas powered vintage Camaro in the parking lot and he shook his head, laughing a little, as he finally reached the motel.
The rusty air conditioner chugged loudly from outside the window, blowing hot air in his face as he approached the white painted door with the tarnished brass number 17 adorning the face.
The lamp above cast a sickly shadow over him, but it was ok--the first time he had felt ok in a long while. He worried at the hour, but he knew that Louie was a short sleeper like him, and a night owl too, so he rapped his knuckles on the door, and stepped back, dressed in jeans, shabby shoes, and his trench coat, slightly rumpled, was back on. It hung much more loosely than he expected, but the fedora, like a constant friend, was a spot on fit.
The door creaked opened, and the both of them stared at each other for a moment. The connections that they thought might be lost between them forever clicked back immediately. They both broke out into huge grins, and Louie grabbed him in a huge bear hug, clapping onto his back like a madman, pulling him into the room.
“I brewed a big pot of coffee, just in case. Let me pull it off the hotplate, and we’ll catch up.”
The door closed behind them, and something outside in the grander scheme of the universe, slipped into a cog that turned the world is the right direction. He had moved back onto the correct path, for the moment, in spite of himself.
Louie had managed to make a few calls while Tex slept in the passenger seat. They traveled through the heat of the day, and Louie was glad that he had invested in the self regulating UV glass in the old girl. The view inside the windshield was a muted grey and black, in stark contrast to the unforgiving brightness that really lay outside.
He held his bladder as much as he could, having to pull over only twice to gas up and use the bathroom. Tex lay fast asleep, not so much as a twitch when he got out and back in the car. He was secretly glad at the welcome home group he had gathered together. And, he was very happy that Tex got some money back in his pocket. They spent a good part of the night talking about what had been happening the last few months and Louie gave Tex all of the information he'd been able to drag from Chelsea. Tex was ready to help, but both of them entertained few hopes of a happy ending.
The afternoon deepened, and twilight was fast approaching when they reached Old San Francisco.
Tex had decided on what to do to help Chelsea, so there was one stop to make before they headed back to the Brew and Stew. When they arrived at the first destination Louie shook Tex, rousing him from his troubled dreams.
“We’re here.” Louie passed him a cold bottle of water, and Tex drained it, wincing at the stabbing pain in his head. “Do you want me to come in and help you, you know, haggle?”
“Nah, I got it. If I’m not back in two hours, you know my shrewd negotiating skills have failed me.”
Ninety minutes later a very flushed face Tex knocked on the driver's side of Louie’s car.
“Well, did you get it?”
Tex looked glum. “Yes, but it set me further back than I had expected.” He sighed, staring off into the distance. “I know it’s the right thing to do, but easy come, easy go.”
“I’m proud of you Murph. You know you always got a person to fall back on. You’ll never go hungry with me around.”
Tex’s head dropped back on the bucket seat resigned. “I’m going to need a little of your magic Columbian bean juice. Cause I am dragging.”
“No problem. We’re heading back to my place right now.”
They rode in silence, and parked in the back alley behind the Brew.
The lights were on, and they walked inside to see Rook and Clint seated at the bar.
“Well, well, well, the prodigal son returns.” Rook sneered in his nasal little voice.
“Good to see you too, you little weasel.” Tex punched Rook in the arm before grabbing a stool between the two of them.
“Guess you’ll be wanting your old speeder back.” His eyes peered over his reading glasses. “You do still have your pawn ticket?”
“I might have left it in my other pants.” He tapped his khaki’s pockets with a twisted grin. Tex was quietly thrilled, and a little touched that after all this time Rook had kept his speeder safe. He regretted his thoughts about the little miser, though he knew he’d never live it down if he told him so.
Clint chimed in. “Things are doing pretty well at the chocolate shack, after I started a franchise. The ninth store goes live in a few days, I only wished I’d asked more in fees. Or a percentage of the actual chocolate. Still, my Chocolate banana surprise got written up in Gourmet magazine as one of the best desserts of the year.”
Clint shrugged. “Enough about me. I heard Nilo hasn’t rented out your old apartment yet at the Ritz. I don’t even think the rat knows you’re gone. Are you usually more than 4 months behind in your rent? He was sniffing around here a few days ago looking for you. Rook and me, we didn’t say nothing.”
Louie broke in. “We figure if you got the past due rent, you can slip in no problem.”
Tex was surprised at how easily he settled back into chatter with his friends. Louie offered him a drink, and he took one shot of bourbon, no more. It wasn’t that he actually wanted it at this point, but he needed it to calm his nerves and keep withdrawal at bay. After that, it was Louie’s 'Nectar from the Gods' and a Lucky Strike to finish it off.
After a good hour or two of talk, in which Tex got more information about Chelsea’s friend from the newspaper and Rook, he begged off, calling it quits for the evening. There was still one more place to visit before he snuck back into the Ritz…and he wasn’t getting anymore courage as the night went on.
The rain beat down in heavy sheets as he crossed over the street to her apartment. The light post cast a black, wet sheen on the road. His heart was tied in knots, and his fedora dripped water down the back of his trench coat , making his already tense muscles, tighter with anxiety and cold. He hit the entryway, and trudged up the stairs, surprised that he didn’t have to stop to catch his breath.
“Less of you to tote around, Captain Obvious.” He muttered to himself quietly.
He wondered if he was really up to this yet. The last 36 hours had turned his world upside down. Was he ready to handle what could be a very messy confrontation? Would time make this any easier?
Tex stopped at Chelsea’s front door. There was part of him that couldn’t bring his hand up to knock. He raised it quietly, and paused again. He simply held his curled fist up against the door, leaning on it, his head pressed against the wood with a heavy heart. He had no idea if he could ever rebuild the bridge that he blew to pieces with his indifference and impatience. The keys in his pocket, won after a long fight and most of his money, weighed on him. Would she see it as an act of kindness, or atonement?
No other way to find out. It was time to face the demons of his past actions and in his own mind. The day he knew Chelsea had left because of him, the day he watched Emily die, and Regan too. The day he realized that being a selfish, arrogant bastard cost him everything, including his self respect. It was time to see if he could dig himself out of hell, one piece a time. He summoned up the deepest breath he could, and released it slowly, letting go of the nervous twitch in his stomach. He stood back, straightened as much as he could, and knocked on the door, wincing at the echoing sound it made down the hallway.
There was only silence for the longest time, and he wondered if all of this was for naught. But he heard the chain slide through the lock, and braced himself.
He didn’t prepare a smile, for he wasn’t sure what he was going to find.
Chelsea’s face was puffy from crying, her hair unwashed and fallen around her in disarray. She was wearing a green terrycloth robe, and in one hand was a water glass, filled halfway with something he didn’t think was just cranberry juice. She was the most amazing thing he had ever seen.
But her eyes held him, and what he saw worried him. She seemed to be a sad reflection of himself, at least how he had been only a handful of hours ago. Her eyes were unwavering, but held only despair in them, as if she had taunted the devil to do his worst to her, and he had obliged. He had hoped to see fire, anger, or surprise…not this emptiness.
“I’m so sorry, Chelsea.” He reached out to touch her free hand, and she held his woodenly.
“Come inside.” She walked into the apartment, beckoning him to join her. Dirty dishes were stacked precariously in the sink, the countertops littered with empty containers of ice cream and bags of chips. Clothing was strewn on the backs of chairs and the sofa. The TV looked like it had been going strong for a week without a break. The coffee table was full of papers, handwritten notes, and ghostly white circles where mugs upon mugs of coffee, and drinks had been forgotten.
She sat stiffly on the couch, seemingly unaware of her surroundings.
Tex hazarded to touch her sleeve, and her eyes dropped to watch him touch her. She made no move to stop him, but Tex felt incredibly uncomfortable, so after the briefest of contact, he brought his hand back in his lap. His other reached to remove the fedora, and he tossed it on the table in front of them. They both watched it without speaking.
After what seemed like the longest and most awkward stretch of time they had ever spent together, Tex grabbed the remote control and shut the TV off. He instantly regretted it. The silence between them felt like a living presence, a huge white elephant right in front of them. It had to be broken.
“It’s been a really hard time on you, Chelsea. I am so sorry for everything I did to cause this.”
She buried her face in her hands.
“The truth is, everything went wrong after I left.” She shook her head, fresh tears falling down her cheeks. “It’s like I lost faith in everything. Myself, you. And then Tracy disappeared. “
She grabbed a soiled tissue and wiped her eyes.
“I looked as hard as I could, posted fliers all over Phoenix. Talked to everyone I could. After a while, I just couldn’t hope anymore. I prayed nothing had happened to her, but I had only been there two weeks before she came up missing. I didn’t know what else to do.”
She blew her nose in the tissue, looking everywhere but at her friend beside her.
“So eventually, I came home. But it didn’t feel like home anymore. You were gone, I couldn’t get the news stand back, the money I saved slowly drained away. And I just can’t go out there Tex, I can’t. I don’t want to leave the house. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
She leaned into his chest and let loose her sobbing.
“I’m so scared that she’s dead. Part of me knows that she is. And I don’t know why. Would she have gone missing if I hadn’t moved down there? ”
He strained to hear her voice, muffled into his shirt and trench coat. He listened closely.
“And you were gone. The one friend I could turn to, someone that might be able to help, and no one had heard anything from you. It was like you disappeared too.”
She hiccoughed, her voice shaky and trembling.
“We left on such ugly terms. I couldn’t bear the fact that I might not ever see you again, and that our angry words were all we had to remember.”
Tex hugged her tightly to his chest, and held her.
“Never. You are the best thing that ever happened to this asinine PI, and it took me going to hell and back a few times before that sunk into my knobby skull.”
He held her silently while her crying tapered down, both thinking about the mistakes they had made.
When she quieted, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. He handed them to her, questioning in his eyes.
“Look at all familiar?”
She paused, motionless. She jingled them, looking at one after the other. “The back stock cabinet, the front cases, Tex how did you get these?” She sat up ever so slightly, and it made Tex smile. Every penny spent well worth it, to get a little of his old friend back.
“I got a bit of a windfall, and I was looking to diversify.” The smart-aleck was hiding in the wings, but he pushed him back.
“No, hell, Chelsea, I’m not going to lie. Someone paid me for a case I thought was long abandoned. Someone showed me a great kindness, and I thought the best thing to do with it, was bring you back to the neighborhood, for good.”
He winked, and smiled, unable to resist a little quip.
“But this does mean I get the first issue of Playbub right off the rack each month, before Nilo starts pawing all over it .”
Chelsea laughed and swatted him. “You’re such a pervert.”
Tex laughed back with her, a little more life returning to him. “Tall, dark and perverted, coming up. You know it makes you crazy.”
He reached out to hold her again, and this time she accepted it warmly. She put her head back on his chest, feeling his heart accelerate with her touch on him.
A sense of tension, contained desire came between both of them, and they stayed connected, still, wondering how the rest of the evening would unfold.
Tex reached down and took her chin in his hand, brought her face up to his.
“I promise to find out what happened to your friend. No matter what. You have my word. I’ll leave in the morning.” She gently touched the scruff on his cheeks.
“So that gives us tonight.” Her eyes locked with Tex’s, and she stared at him, the thinly veiled invitation out in the open.
Never in his life did he want to kiss her more than he did right then. It wasn’t just desire, that was there, yes, but he felt a closeness to her that he had never felt with anyone else in his past.
He was torn on what to do.
Chelsea’s pale face was turned up towards him, open, wanting. Her tousled and tangled blonde hair fell into her forehead, and he brushed it away tenderly with his free hand.
She made the decision for him. Her arms came up and around, pushing him to the end of the couch, moving him, turning him so his back was against the armrest, his legs splayed across the cushions, slightly bent so his feet wouldn’t dangle over the other side.
Chelsea moved closer, facing him now, adjusting the robe up to her knees. She brought her left arm behind his head, burying her slender fingers in the thatch of hair at the nape of his neck. His skin jumped at the electricity in her touch. She could sense his paralysis, smiling, and gently took his hand and wrapped it around her waist. Tex’s eyes closed for an instance, sensing the warmth underneath the terrycloth, and she took that moment to lean into him, their lips meeting.
His heart hammered, and behind his closed eyes he could see white stars, lightheadedness took him. He didn’t dare move or breathe, or do anything to break the spell. But he returned her kiss, once and twice, and brought her closer so he could fully embrace her.
Her mouth next to his ear, she whispered quietly, sounds hushed by the rain beating outside against the window.
With those words spoken she pulled back and watched his face carefully. Her brow furrowed, careful to detect anything he might try to hide.
A simple smile crossed Tex’s face and he kissed her one more time before settling her down next to him, laying on her side. Her head rest against his button down shirt, arm and leg draped across him. She snuggled closer, and closed her eyes.
Tex kicked off his sneakers as quietly as he could, watching Chelsea slowly drift off into sleep. His arms wrapped warmly around her body, and he felt her slowly relax, breathing deep and regular. A slight twitch of her calf caught his attention, but she settled down, nuzzling deeper, falling still.
Occasionally his eye would wander to the window, the deep red glow from a blinking neon sign somewhere outside, reflecting the raindrops that were cutting tracks down the glass.
And after a while…he slept.
The sound of bacon grease splattering on the stove top roused Chelsea from her dozing. Rubbing her closed fists against her eyes, clearing her head, she opened her sparkling blues to see the living room table in front of her free of clutter and spotless, and from the other side of the apartment, the subtle whooshing sounds of her washer and dryer.
“You know how to do laundry?” Chelsea’s tone was incredulous. She stretched her arms up over her head, and then beside her, chasing away the fog from her brain.
Tex jumped slightly, surprised to see her awake, grin creeping from the corners of his lips. A tiny pale yellow apron, obviously Chelsea’s, adorned his white long sleeved button down and khaki’s.
“You wound me Ms. Bando.” He barely pulled off the crestfallen face. “Stuff it till you can’t put anything else in, and run it on cold.”
“I know you’re just kidding.” she teased, taking in his profile from her vantage point on the sofa.
“Actually, yes. Everyone knows that you really put it on hot.”
“Good lord, I’m scared to even think about it.”
Tex dismissed her scoffing, and piled three plates, heaping with breakfast on an ancient metal Alf TV tray. He managed to negotiate the glasses of orange juice, mugs of coffee, and plates piled high with scrambled eggs, crisp and savory bacon, triangles of wheat toast dripping with half melted squares of butter slowly soaking through, and fried potatoes, rich and redolent with peppers and onions.
“Hope you like scrambled. All my attempts at eggs, especially omelets, and over easy end up that way.”
“There’s enough here to feed a boy scout troop.” She smiled and grabbed a plate, steadying it on her lap, took her glinting silver fork, and heaped a large mouthful in. She chased it down with a swallow of coffee, prepared with sugar and cream, just how she liked it. That fact was not overlooked by her.
Tex shrugged self-deprecatingly. “It doesn’t hold a candle to Armageddon blend, but not too bad.”
Chelsea took a huge swallow before responding.
“I’ve eaten nothing but frozen or canned food for I don’t know how long. It’s tastes amazing.” She went right back, spearing a huge slice of crisped green pepper with her fork full of potatoes, chasing the puddle of butter to sweeten the deal.
Tex laughed ruefully, thinking of the days and days he went without anything but Jack Daniels.
“One of the few moments of revelations I ever had, is just knowing how much good food tastes when you’re hungry. The most simple pleasure in life.”
Chelsea nodded, and they ate in silence. The only sounds were the clinking of glasses, the metal rapping of utensils against each other, and the wisp of toast being smeared against
the plates, now almost empty. Both of their bellies full and warm for the first time in days.
Tex pushed back his plate happily, and reached into his pants pocket, grabbing his smooshed pack of Luckies.
He offered her the red and white box, she politely shook her head, and he tapped out a wilted cigarette. Pulling out his lighter from the other pocket, he lit and exhaled a happy cloud of smoke, grabbing the ashtray over to his side of the coffee table. Chelsea took in the whole room for the first time, and was shocked. The papers were organized, all the trash gathered and gone. No dishes in the sink, the counters absolutely sparkled. She felt ashamed for a moment, letting Tex see her so out of sorts, but she had pulled him drunk and almost unconscious from the gutter, so maybe they were about even.
“Tex….what did you do to my ‘kiss the cook’ apron??” she laughed and pulled at the tiny piece of masking tape, strategically placed.
“A guy can dream, can’t he?” He shrugged his shoulders with a sheepish grin, glad that she had taken his jibe in good spirits. He kissed her on the forehead before settling back, resisting the urge to loosen his belt, denying his full tummy any more room.
After he finished his smoke, he gathered up the feeble remains from their feast, and loaded them into the empty dishwasher.
“So what’s your plan?” The fact that her friend was still nowhere to be found was never far from her thoughts. Her brow furrowed as she thought about all the time spent walking down the isolated streets in the early evening, tacking up sign after sign, and all the passersbys she harangued, hoping desperately to find someone, anyone, who could help her.
Tex perked up, happy to have some sort of plan in the works. He coiffed up his fedora, placing it jauntily on his head, in his best Sam Spade impersonation, tipping the rim down into his eyes.
‘Well, I thought I’d go by and say hi to Mac. See if he’s got any last little bits of information I can use. Rook, Louie, Clint and I had a powwow yesterday before I headed over here.
“Can I give you any money?” Chelsea thought of the rapidly diminishing stockpile of her funds, but she would have handed it over all of it cheerfully to him, in a moment.
“Nah.” He waved his hand nonchalantly. “I’ve got enough to get me going. And with any luck, I’ll find her quickly. I could be back here in just a few days.”
She released a deep sigh, her head pointed to the ground. She pulled at her hair absentmindedly, chewing at the blonde frayed ends, distracted.
“I hope so. I hope everything’s ok.” She straightened up, and stood, tightening the sash around her robe, and ambled over closer to him. Standing tall, she didn’t even reach up midway to his chest, but she hugged him, the tapping of his heart in her ear comforting her.
“I really appreciate this Tex, honey.”
“A damsel in distress, a missing woman, and a place without rain where folks aren’t trying to constantly shoot me…sounds like a fun vacation.” He sobered up, and gave her another squeeze. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
He looked down at his wrist watch with a start, and made his way closer to the door.
“I’d better get going if I want to reach Mac before his last doughnut buzz burns off.” He gathered up his trench coat and kissed her chastely on the cheek before turning to the door.
“Let me know how things are going.” She combed her fingers down her robe, with a movement that pulled Tex’s attention away from the case and back to the curves of her body.
Calm down, Murphy boy, he thought to himself. With a wink and some resolve he chanced one last hug before twisting the knob, leaving her behind. This time their parting was on sweet terms, and the possibility of sweeter terms to come.
The trip to the San Francisco Police Department was fairly uneventful. His speeder needed a bit of a tune up, it chokingly lurched if it gained more than the smallest bit of altitude at one time. Still, it had been in hock for several months, not that he was up on his 6 month, 10 thousand mile checkups. The last time the speeder had seen a mechanic was before Tex pulled it off the lot, and as long as it still managed to get him from place to place, there were better things to spend his money on.
Like a quick dozen of Mac’s favorite crullers. The oily mess dripped through the paper sack rolled in his hand, making Tex slightly nauseous after the wonderful breakfast he had digesting in his stomach caught whiff of the flour and grease monstrosities. But he hadn’t seen Mac in awhile, and he’d come for the sole purpose of shaking him down for information and maybe some leads, so he figured he’d better have some culinary foreplay ready.
The sun was oppressively hot, the morning smog almost burned away. It would be a humid scorcher by noon time. He wished the standard PI uniform had been short sleeve button downs and flip flops, but filed that away under, maybe someday, and tricked a little old lady out of the only parking spot next to the SFPD building, cutting her off after a feint to the right.
She flipped him the 1 finger salute, and he tsk tsk’d her, pulling on the heavy wooden doors of the building, letting the cool, but stale breeze flow over him.
The cop shop smelled like rancid coffee, 2000 year old stogie smoke, and the lingering aroma of the drunk tank below them in the basement. He waved off-handedly to a few officers that had tossed him in said tank, but that was ancient history. The desks were scuffed wood or standard metal issued finery. The halls were bustling with pale, scrawny hookers, furtive pushers, and the assorted rag tag sleaze found in any police department. He took the stairs up to Mac’s office, and was surprised to see a different name plate on the door. It wasn’t covered in dust or grime, so it must have been recent. The stenciled gold lettering read, Leslie Harold, detective.
Tex rapped his knuckles on the door quietly, prepared for no one to answer, but a brusque, yet feminine voice beckoned him in.
The office was neat and tidy. Green flowering plants, mums in white and yellow, were in the back corners, the blinds pulled open, letting in the bright daylight. The desk held a few silver digital photograph frames, cycling through scenes with kids, soccer teams and landscapes. The blotter and in/out box were organized, the only hint that a fastidious person didn’t occupy the space was the open spiral bound notebook, littered with doodles, idle questions written haphazardly in the margins, and scratching outs a plenty. The furniture was a fine dark cherry, obviously her own and brought to the station.
“Can I help you?” She gazed at Tex with a question in her eyes, the light flashing over her half moon reading glasses.
She was a looker. Long raven color hair fell down her back, pulled away from her heart shaped face. Her complexion was freckled, and tan, without makeup, her build slight but athletic. Her eyes were polished jade, and to the point. She didn’t look like a daydreamer, or someone that would doodle aimlessly. He couldn’t made out her lower body, but guessed that her legs were as shapely as everything else he could see.
He cleared his throat. “Umm, I was looking for Mac Malden. This is…or was his office.”
“Yes. Mac’s gone.”
Tex tilted his fedora back on the crown of his head, taking the available seat in front of her desk.
“Gone? How do you mean gone?” His cool exterior slipping a bit.
“I mean gone. I shouldn’t really be giving you any details, since you obviously don’t know.” She straightened up, business-like mannerisms falling into place.
He decided to play the old friend angle. “Mac and I go way back. Helped him get through a real messy divorce, we worked together on a few cases.”
She softened slightly, noting Tex’s distress, and his poor attempt at playing it nonchalant.
“Word is he got transferred to a plum assignment. Somewhere nice and remote. I think the phrase bantered about was ‘a tropical island with a tribe of beautiful young women.’”
“Not a bad place to be, all things considered.” she closed the notebook in front of her. “Sure beats this norm vs. mutant volcano that’s building here in San Fran.”
Tex saw his angle to wheedle in for information. He relayed as many details about the case in Phoenix as possible, playing heavily into the mutant angle, and the lack of help that the local police had given Chelsea.
“That’s a damn shame. “ She shook her head in disgust. “I got out of the beat with my last partner due to his constant “goyle” comments.”
She reopened her notebook to a fresh, and unspoiled page. She wrote down most of Tex’s comments from memory, and passed him one of her business cards, a simple crisp white card with navy lettering.
“I’ll get in touch with the person in charge of the case in Arizona, let them give you access to whatever they’ve got. Call me when you get in town.”
“Thanks for the help.” Tex was grateful to get as much help as he had to someone that was a total stranger to him. “If there’s anything I can offer you…” he held up the clunky bag of pastries, and she waved them away with a start.
“No. No thank you. I don’t think you’ve got anything I’m interested in.”
A finger rapped on the door, an obviously hurried aide poked his head in, and spoke to Leslie.
“Um…detective, your wife is on line one for you.”
“Case in point.” She shuffled some papers, and Tex took this as his sign to move on.
He got up and walked towards the door. With his back turned, her voice spoke out to him again.
He turned back, face impassive.
“Listen. Mac did tell me a few things about you before he left. How best to help you when he was gone.”
He let her continue. She twisted the gold necklace at her throat. She took another business card from her desk, and wrote a few words on the back in matching blue letters.
“He didn’t tell me his name, or how he could help you. But you’re going down to Phoenix anyway, right?’
“If you’ve got a speeder, it’s not that far out of your way.”
“How will I know when I find the right guy?” Tex wasn’t one to not follow up on a lead, but wasn’t sure it was promising.
“Mac told me that he’d know you.”
Tex palmed the card and positioned his fedora back on his head, nodding his thanks to her.
“Better get that phone call.” he spoke as he walked out of her office, and back to his speeder. A long drive awaited him.
It was dark before he reached the establishment scrawled on the back of the business card. It was a bar, but it was no Louie’s. It seemed to be 2 or 3 stories and had a huge bank of windows facing the street. Actually the entryway did look a lot like Louie’s, truth be told.
He paid the membership cover charge and began to explore the bar in greater detail. The downstairs had several pool tables and game machines. Sports memorabilia and neon lights decorated the warm wooden walls. There were plenty of nooks and crannies with tables and bar stools for people to gather together privately, but no one took any notice of him. He idly played at the empty foosball table, simulating a World Cup victory, without the head butting. He kept looking out his peripheral vision at the patrons, waiting for anyone to make eye contact. The bottom floor seemed to be a wash.
The main floor looked like the standard Irish pub, complete with carved pillars, and the good looking blonde cocktail servers dressed in black roamed around the tables, passing out drinks on small trays.
The upstairs took him by surprise. A glass enclosed patio had a majestic domed ceiling where you could gaze up to see the night stars. This part of the US had been spared the oppressive cloud of radiation, Tex was able to find several constellations in the skies. Glancing back down, his eyes swimming, he caught sight of someone staring at him from across the room.
He sauntered over to the table where the figure sat, a portable computer open and palely lit in front of him. Tex assumed he’d use his height as a “mano e mano” tactic to assert the pecking order. The gentleman stood up to greet him, and Tex realized that he had almost nothing in height on this guy, and that if in a fight, Tex would probably be used to mop up his own blood spilled on the floor.
But the gentleman, as startled as he first appeared, was friendly and invited Tex to grab a chair. He waved the waitress down and ordered 2 beers and two shots of scotch. He powered down his computer and looked at Tex with a raised eyebrow. Questioning, but interested.
Tex waited till the drinks arrived, and they both tossed down their shots, rapidly, slamming the tiny glasses back on the table. Both reached for the thin necked bottles and sipped the light amber liquid, wondering who would break the silence first.
It was Tex.
“Someone from the San Francisco police Department mentioned that you might be able to help me.”
He shifted back into his chair, and regarded Tex with amusement.
“Tell me about your case.”
After Tex spelled out the majority of the details, the stranger paused, taking it all in.
He fidgeted for a moment, not entirely sure how to proceed. How much to tell him.
He decided to take the straightforward, but secretive route.
“If this were any other case, honestly, I might be able to help you. Throw you a bone, or drop a clue maybe. Figure out how to rework an angle to get you on the right track.” He took a swig on his beer, dropping the level an inch or two, and spent a few moments studying the bottle in front of him.
“But this one…..it’s out of my hands. I hope it’s the only dead end you get. The police angle sounds promising, a spring board that might lead you deeper into the case. But I don’t know, and as I said, it’s out of my hands.”
He leaned over and winked at him.
“My guess is though, at some point, you’re going to get laid.”
He chuckled and rounded up the power cable on his laptop, tucking everything away in his soft sided briefcase. He tossed some bills on the table, and Tex stood, sensing that this conversation was just about over.
“Thanks for the drink. “
“Oh it was my pleasure. Good luck on the case.” He clapped Tex on the back of the shoulder.
Sensing that the only path was back to the speeder, and into Phoenix, he left the remainder of the beer on the table, hoping that with good time, he could make it to a hotel to get a decent night’s sleep.
Tex worked the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, comfortably sprawled in a worn out avocado green chair while waiting for the detective assigned to the case to buzz him into the office. He’d been there for the last 45 minutes and was down to just a few blanks to fill in. Six letter word, 2015 director, music software 1990’s. Darned if he knew. Ended in E. No help there.
Instead of the normal drunks and lost souls he normally saw in the San Francisco police department, there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of mutants lingering. Either being booked, or in the lobby, waiting to speak to the counter person. He surreptitiously watched an argument, now turning heated, at the front desk. The matronly, but business like woman manning the front desk, didn’t even attempt to hide her distain for the mutant addressing her. His mutation was harsher than many he’d seen, he made Beek look like Maddox Pitt, but Tex was appalled at the unveiled contempt she emanated.
The mutants face burned fire engine red, then purple, and what looked to be a small size bladder on his face slowly inflated with an oozing pus that Tex quietly hoped would be reabsorbed instead of being splattered against the officer and the surrounding area. His hands flew in the hair, gestures more frantic. The only move the receptionist made was to become more still, shaking her head slowly, preparing to reach a button that would bring in back-up, most likely to tote the offending man away.
For the rest of the story, please visit the fan fiction section in the forum. sorry...