Chronic Symptoms

by Sean MacKendrick

 

The cold wet mud sucked at Mary’s feet as she trudged towards the doors of the Dog’s Head. Effluvia seeped into the holes of her shoes and squelched between her toes. The hem of her skirt was gathered in a bunch in a failing attempt to keep it out of the sewage. Fever burned in her lungs in sharp contrast to the cold mud.

Leaning against the outside wall, Mary removed her left shoe and began scooping out the mud and filth with her fingers. A young man was watching her from across the street. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and made a move as if to start her way, only to stop and shift again. Mary did her best to smile at him as she cleaned the inside of her shoe. The mud stank of cold urine this close to the tavern. The shoe slipped from her numbing fingers, falling with a soft plop back into the muck. The man watched her, not meeting her eyes, looking ready to take a step. She wouldn’t be able to approach him, he would come to her on his own or not at all. Mary sighed and bent down to pick up her shoe. By the time she put it back on and straightened, he was gone. Just another back running away from her. Mary sighed again, wiping the filth off her hands against the wall.

Evening clouds were already soaking up the last of the daylight when she entered the tavern, dusky and thick with the mixed smells of old ale and human rot. Mary fixed her smile into place and approached the nearest table.

“Enjoying this fine day, gentlemen?” The room suddenly tilted and Mary grabbed the edge of the table for support.

“Yes, fine,” said the older man at the opposite end of the table. The other two men stared into their drinks. “Thank you.”

Mary tried to laugh and choked on a dry cough. “A fine day like this, you’ll want a fine day to…” She swallowed, careful not to wince, and tried again. “You’ll want a fine way to end it, surely?” The man glanced at her hands clutching the table edge, saying nothing.

“Thank you,” he answered finally. “I believe we shall be leaving for home.” His two companions stood without a word and headed towards the door.

“And where is home, love?” Mary smiled more broadly. “Not as close as a short walk upstairs, I wager.”

“No,” said the man. Mary couldn’t understand what he was saying, exactly. Was he interested? Saying, no, he wasn’t going home? No, he was already hurrying away to catch up with his companions. She sat in one of the newly vacant chairs for a moment, trying to catch her breath, feeling the swollen lumps under her arm with one hand, the tenderness under her jaw with the other. When she realized a young man at a nearby table was staring at her, she dropped her hands and jerked up out of the chair. The room tilted again, and Mary found herself steadied by the massive arms of the owner of the Dog’s Head.

“Mary,” Bruce rumbled, shaking his head. She smiled at the broad face frowning down at her, this time the smile coming easily. “I did ask you not to come in tonight.”

“Bruce, my Bruce.” Mary regained her footing and patted his shoulder. “All I needed was a rest. Now, I’d go for another laying down, if there’s any a man would care to join me…” She tried to find the face that had just been watching her, but everyone was carefully looking elsewhere and she couldn’t seem to remember where the man had been sitting, or what his features had been.

Bruce swept her hair aside and glared at her neck, releasing her and stepping away. “By god, Mary, look at yourself.” Mary ran her fingers along her jaw line and chuckled. “I’d rather be looking at the beautiful young man you do have in here this evening.” She spoke loudly. “Young men, I mean.” Still no one else would meet her eyes. Bruce grabbed a polished mug and shoved it into her hands.

“Look at yourself,” he repeated. In the milky reflection she could see the darkness of the lumps even in the dim candlelight. He hissed, “You need to leave immediately or they’ll paint a red cross on my door and shut us all in. You included.”

Mary dropped the mug. “Just a bruise,” she muttered. “Some of the younger ones get a bit rough. I don’t mind.” As Bruce bent to pick up the mug, her legs gave out and Mary fell to her knees. Bruce grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. Her head lolled from front to back.

“Boy!” Mary brought her head upright and placed her hand over Bruce’s. “Find a doctor, boy!” Bruce’s youngest dashed out the door. Mary couldn’t find the strength to thank him. Everything swirled into blackness.

* * * * *

The room she awoke to was little more than a small box with no furnishings beyond the simple pallet she found herself on, a small bench in the corner, and a curtain covering the entrance. In a bowl by the pallet, Mary was grateful to discover water. She tried to sit up and quickly fell back as the bile rose in her throat. She dipped a hand into the bowl and dribbled most of it on herself as she sucked at the moisture on her fingers. It did little to abate the dry fire smoldering in her mouth, but her senses were returning all the same.

As her head cleared a little, she began to remember, and realized she was in one of the rooms above the tavern hall where she so often worked before the Pest returned and scared so many customers away. She scooped another palm’s worth of water into her mouth, managing to get most of it to her mouth this time, and rested a damp hand on her face.

There were thudding footsteps in the corridor. Mary sat up, trying to ignore the sickly way the water sloshed in her stomach and how the room wobbled around her. Bruce swept the curtain aside and stared in, wordless. The forced casual expression on Mary’s face began to falter as he stared, until she realized his eyes must still be adjusting to the darkness.

“You’re awake.” Bruce sounded surprised.

Mary laughed and waved a dismissive gesture. “It was only a nap I needed.” It was impossible to read his expression with the light behind him. “My big strong Bruce, always saving me.”

Bruce mumbled something to the floor and cleared his throat. “I sent the boy to find the doctor. He said one would be by and tend to you today.”

“If you insist.” Mary flopped back on the pallet, trying not to grimace as the sudden motion sent her stomach into a spin. “I do suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a man look me over.” It didn’t sound quite as lewd as she had hoped. It sounded pathetic.

Bruce stepped back into the hall. “I do. Insist, that is. The doctor will be by soon. Rest until then.” He left Mary to her darkness.

Although sleep came back almost immediately, it was fitful. The sounds of people shouting in the streets gave way to thundering rain, drumming on the roof and gurgling over the eaves to the alley below. Somewhere in the dark room a trickle of rainwater was dripping onto the floor. Mary was startled awake several times by a crash of thunder, unsure how long she had been asleep each time. Had she been here for more than a day? Was there a half-eaten trencher with a scrap of meat waiting beside the bowl of water at one point, or had she only imagined that? Was that hunger in her belly or fever twisting her insides?

And then she awoke to find that the rain had stopped. Mary tried to feel the time of day, wondering if it was in the early hours or very late. No weather or conversation was reaching her any more. She decided it was late. That’s when all the customers would be gone. Bruce would probably be waiting for her to come keep him company as he cleaned.

Yet even in the quiet, she did not hear the slight man enter the room. He was waiting for her when she sat up, watching her from just inside the door.

“You give me quite a start, sir,” Mary said. Her throat was not quite as raw as it had been before sleeping for… however long it had been.

The man was still, and silent except for the sound of his breathing. “Are you Mary?” Even his voice was slight, not much above a whisper.

“Indeed I am.” Mary stood, deciding at the last minute not to try a curtsey, rested or no. “Are you the doctor, then?”

The man nodded after a moment. “Yes,” he said, his voice louder now. “Yes, I’m the doctor. I’m here to make you better.” His accent was curiously flat and carefully enunciated. Mary had never heard one like it before.

“Well then, let’s let you have a look at me, yes?”

The man nodded again. He removed a bag slung over his shoulder and opened it with a loud tearing sound. “You are having fever and swelling, correct?”

“Aye. Nothing a bit of a bleeding wouldn’t fix, I’d wager.”

“No!” The man looked up from his bag and stepped closer to Mary. He smelled warm and clean. “No, bleeding is not a solution.”

“But,” Mary said, “I was bled not a year ago when I had similar fevers and was cured in a moment.”

The man sighed. “Look, I need you to trust me on this. Please sit down and I’ll… Do you mind if we have some light in here?”

“I believe Bruce has some candles downstairs he wouldn’t mind letting us use. I’ll go ask him.”

“No need, I have one here. Please, do sit down.” The man pulled something out of his bag and put it on the bench in the corner. It burned with impossible brightness.

“Do you not have a mask, doctor?” Mary blinked in the sudden light. The doctor was olive skinned, with a head of tight black curls. He was grinning. His teeth were as white as a child’s.

He took her hand and sat next to her. “My name is Michael, Mary. You can call me Michael. And no, I don’t have a mask. It’s OK, I’ve been… I have taken precautions against the… the Pest.”

Mary couldn’t understand how he could stay warm in such odd, thin clothing. The gray fabric shimmered in the bright light, thin enough that she could see the shape of his arms. His hand was warm, and soft, and dry. She let it go reluctantly as he dug into his bag, also made of some odd thin material.

“I know the current thinking is that blood makes you warm and too warm means too much blood, but it’s actually a lot—a lot—more complicated than that.” He pulled two small vials out of the bag. “First we need to get you eating right. Have you eaten lately?”

Mary’s stomach churned at the thought. “There might have been some food not long ago, I can’t remember for certain. I am sure I can vomit if need be.”

The doctor popped covers off the vials and shook a few white granules out of each. “Emetics? Are the doctors making you vomit? Of course they are,” he continued without waiting for her to answer. “No, that’s not what you want to do. Here, swallow these.” He dumped three of the small white pieces into her hand and gestured to the water bowl. “Please.”

They tasted bitter when she washed them down with a long drink of water. Michael dug through his bag again as she swallowed. “Now, you should get some more rest. Your stomach should settle soon enough.”

“Please, no more rest for now,” protested Mary. “I’ve been resting for more than long enough now.”

Two shiny bars came out of the bag, crinkling in his grip. “It’s only for a little while longer, I promise.” The doctor unwrapped one of the bars and bit into it. He held out the other and nodded to it. “When you wake up again you’ll be hungry, and you can eat this. Trust me, you’ll quite enjoy it. What I gave you will help you sleep and not feel nauseated any longer. Nauseous? No, nauseated,” he muttered to himself. “Always get those mixed up.”

“Are you sure you don’t wish to bleed me, doctor?”

“It’s Michael. Just Michael. Please. Lay back and I’ll keep you company.”

Mary did. She closed her eyes. “When Father kept me company, he would tell me stories until I slept. Will you do the same?”

Michael was looking at something attached to his wrist. “What? I don’t know any stories.”

“It was only a tease, doctor. Men do sometimes tell me stories when I’m in bed with them, though.”

It was quiet for long enough that Mary wondered if she was alone. Her eyes were heavy though, and it felt so good to have them closed, she couldn’t bring herself to open them and see if he was still with her.

“I’ve got a story,” Michael said suddenly. His voice was quiet again.

“Oh, good,” slurred Mary. “What is this story?”

“It’s a story about…” There was a creak as he shifted in the bench and scooted it closer. “It’s a story about how medicine will work one day. See, there are very, very tiny little things that we will soon know about. As small to a flea as a flea is to a dog, or rat. Actually, that brings me to a particular point about fleas. It’s about how you got sick, and how the sickness got here. After a while, people are going to be blaming the rats, but that’s not it, not exactly. You see…”

Mary found the strength to open her eyes and saw that he was staring at her. “Yes, doctor? I see what?” Her face felt numb and distant.

“Can I tell you a different story, Mary?” His grin was gone now.

“You can do anything to me you wish,” she said, not at all feeling the ease she was pretending. After all the dangerous men in her life, why did this small man make her feel so nervous?

Michael stood and paced the room. He rubbed his palms together in small, rapid circles. “Do you ever dream about things that could have been? Things that might have happened? No, I see that’s a confusing question. What I mean is this.” He sat back down on the pallet suddenly and leaned towards Mary, breathing audibly through his nose. His eyes were wide.

“Imagine if you could see how things would have turned out if you had done something differently. Turned left on the street and run into a stranger you become friends with, instead of turned right and not run into anyone?”

There was no sound other than his breathing. “Why would I want to see that, sir?”

“Because if you could do it on a big enough scale, just imagine how useful that would be! Politics, or economics.” He held out his left hand, palm up. “Either you try giving money to rich people, expecting them to spend the money,” Michael continued, holding out his other hand, “or you give money to the poor, expecting them to invest it. Which one is better? Which one results in a better system?” He clapped both hands together. “Why not see how both would turn out? Or, oh, a better example, whether to plant a particular crop or different one?”

“That’s a fun dream, to be sure.”

Michael took another bite of his food bar and chewed noisily. “See, there are certain places where choices have different possible outcomes. Each one of those creates different possibilities.”

Mary closed her eyes again. Surprisingly, sleep was tugging at her mind once more. “That would be many possibilities.”

“Exactly!” Michael laughed. “It would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to check them all out. You would need a lot of people to dig through all those points and sort out the data. Now imagine you are one of those people, and you could travel to all those different possibilities for that research. If you found something in one of them, something outside of the parameters you were sent there for, what would you do?”

She started to murmur a reply, but Michael didn’t seem to be looking for an answer.

“Imagine you saw the person you’d run into by turning whichever direction I said, and you knew you could make that happen, you’d sure do that, wouldn’t you? I mean, if it was someone you’d like to meet. Mary, pretend I found that person! She only exists in one of the three hundred possibilities I went to, and I found her in the last one. And it took a hell of a long time but I tracked back that possibility to an ancestor way back here, one particular version who didn’t get treated by a doctor and lived long enough to give birth some ten months after the fact. I could track down that point in the possibility matrix if I tried hard enough.”

There was a rustle and a shift in weight. Mary could feel Michael sitting again, watching her. “In this dream you’re imagining,” she said, “you can change the choice?”

“Look, you need to not see any other doctors for a while. You are one of the rare cases that would fully recover on your own. Can you do that?”

Mary glanced at Michael’s wrist. “You are glowing.”

He jerked his sleeve back from his wrist. A metallic cuff was blinking red. Michael jumped up.

“No way could they find me already. Damn it. Wait. OK. OK, look.” He tripped over his bag and grabbed it wildly. “It’s very important you don’t see another doctor, please?”

Mary didn’t know what to say. Her head was swimming. Everything felt heavy.

Michael pulled a needle out of his bag, attached to a clear vial, and a tiny jar of faint yellow liquid. He stuck the needle through the top of the jar and began drawing out some of the liquid. “OK, this will help ward off infection but isn’t for sure. You don’t need to be bled. A doctor will come in and want to cut your buboes, where you’re swelling. Do not let him! There are germs all over—”

The air crackled and opened to disgorge another man into the room, much larger and landing in a crouch.

The two men froze. Michael with the needle in his hand, the second man tensed and looking ready to pounce. Michael nodded towards Mary, his eyes locked on the new arrival. “Please, don’t stop me. I love her.”

“Jesus, Mikhail,” the second man said.

“No, no, listen.”

“There are absolutely no alterations allowed this far back! Are you trying to collapse the entire freaking matrix?”

“All she needs is ten months. The Great Fire is going to take care of things after that.”

“You know it doesn’t matter if she dies then, it matters if she dies now. No offspring. You are way out of bounds on this one.”

“Mary?” Michael spoke without shifting his eyes to her. “Take this syringe.” He slowly reached towards her.

The larger man lunged forward and knocked the object out of Michael’s hand. He grabbed Michael by the wrist and threw him to the floor, twisting his wrist behind his back.

“No! Mary, grab it and stick it into your shoulder and press down on the plunger.” Mary watched as the larger man smashed the vial under his foot and Michael screamed.

“She’s my wife when she exists! Don’t you understand?”

The larger man pulled a blinking disk from a hip pocket and slapped it on Michael’s back. Michael turned enough under the man’s grip to look at Mary. “Don’t let the doctor bleed you!” he said. “Stay away from doctors for a year! The knife is dirty, don’t let the knife—” Michael popped out of existence with a crackling thump.

The man stood and faced Mary for the first time. As he touched a device on his wrist similar to the one Michael had worn, he looked her in the eye. He whispered something that could have been, “I’m sorry.”

As soon as he was gone, sound slammed back into the room. Rain thundered down over Mary’s head.

* * * * *

“Are you awake?” Bruce and a doctor wearing a bird mask were at her bedside. Mary nodded. The rain had subsided again, with the last remaining water still draining down the gutters outside.

There were candles in the room, flickering over the walls. The light was very dim. “There were two men here, trying to save me. Or, one of them was.” She couldn’t quite find the spot on the floor where the vial had broken. If there was a stain or a shard left behind it was invisible in the dim light.

“There were no men.” Dark shadows bruised the areas under Bruce’s eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days. “I’ve been outside the room the entire time.”

Hunger gnawed at Mary’s insides. She realized her fever was gone, or at least substantially lessened. Where was that shiny food he had offered her?

The doctor took off his mask and held a strongly perfumed handkerchief to his nose. “You may be suffering from your fever, and imagining your dreams to be real,” he said. He set his heavy cloak aside and rummaged through the folds.

“It wasn’t a dream, I’m sure of it.” Her stomach growled. “Do you have anything to eat? The man said I should eat something when I woke.”

The doctor pulled a long dagger from his cloak. “Eating is the last thing you need right now, my dear. We want to drain the troublesome heat from your body and heal you.”

“I’m sure that he said I should eat. I’m so hungry,” Mary said. “Is that knife to bleed me?”

The doctor picked up the empty water bowl and sat next to Mary. “Yes, we’ll remove the excess and have you up and about.”

Mary stared at the dagger glinting in the candlelight. “Can you make sure the knife is clean? I’m sure that was important to the man. He said diseases are on it, I think…”

Bruce sighed. The doctor smiled and wiped the knife with his handkerchief. “I assure you, no disease has ever been carried on a blade.” He positioned the bowl under her neck and held the blade against her throat. It was ice cold. “Shall we begin?”

 

Ruby Reds and Baby Blues

by Sean MacKendrick

 

Saturday morning, and the sun was shining brightly. There was hardly a cloud present to dampen the rays of light gushing from the robin-egg blue heavens down to the smooth tanned shoulders of the pedestrians making their way along the off-white Plasticrete walks twisting in gentle curves through the city. The sunlight glinted off the silvery multitude of spotless windows covering the skyscrapers along the streets where a few quiet, clean and efficient electric cars whispered along, coated with polish that further reflected the perfect sunlight until the whole city was awash with so much light you’d think God himself was beaming down on the happy populous.

There were birds chirping, of course, singing their tributes to the perfection surrounding them. Sparrows in the green trees and geese in the blue sky and ducks in the blue pond and on the green grass around the pond that sat like a mirror in the middle of the park on the opposite side of the building where I made my home and workplace, where lovers sat on soft blankets with their picnic baskets, feeding each other fresh strawberries purchased from the friendly street merchants and listened to the birds and to the laughter of children running barefoot in the park and to the old man playing his wooden flute at the pond’s edge. There was no sound from the streets, hadn’t been since the city traffic grid was fully computerized a couple years ago to synchronize the movement of vehicles and cutting out any need for shouting and gesturing and honking and making the walking public stay on their toes and try to avoid the sweeping scythe of the grim reaper for one more day. All that was gone, and you could hear the birds and laughter and music waft through the fresh quiet air that breezed softly through the city. Birds and children singing and lovers smiling and the fresh air soaking all the stress and care out of the world leaving only joy and peace and calm serene contentment. That’s the world outside my building. It’s like this every day.

All of which I mention to explain why I’ve had my windows blacked out and sound proofed for years. A private dick can’t have constant good weather and cheer running rampant through his atmosphere when he’s entertaining a client. A customer expects the works when they step into the Lone Eye detective agency and shovel out a few hundred greenbacks to yours truly, and the works is exactly what they get. You won’t see none of that phony “It’s my pleasure to help you and please enjoy this cool beverage while you bask in the glory of the day” garbage when you ask Trigger Steel, P.I., to find the guy that bumped off your Aunt Trudy. It’s a dark and gloomy office I work in, and that suits customer and crime fighter alike just fine, thank you.

Case in point: the dame I been working over verbally and visually all morning is looking at me right now with those big baby blues of hers, and she’s doing it through a curtain of tears. No way she’s looking for someone to flash a big white smile at her and tell her to relax, they’ll find the murderer. Nosir. I keep my pearly whites locked up out of sight behind my lips the whole time, so she knows I’m just as cheesed as she is at a society that would produce a member capable of murdering a friend of the stunning example of bosomy perfection sitting on the other side of my desk. And I sit her where she can see the 3-Deo screen on my wall and look all she wants at the night-rain effects pelting down on the images hustling across the dirty artificial streets with their hair all matted down in their faces. And look she does.

But I only bring this up to set the stage. This story should really start at the beginning, as all good stories do. So now let me begin in earnest the story I call (Note to self: Think of a good name for this case. Incorporate the word “Bloody” if at all possible.)

It was early. Too early. An hour when all the decent folk are asleep. I was celebrating yet another case closed with my long-time companion Jim Beam when the motion sensors registered movement in the hall and buzzed a warning. I grabbed my Plastisteel Saturday Night Special model and slipped it into the holster under my charcoal-grey raincoat. A guy can make quite a few enemies when he puts scum behind bars at a regular pace like myself, especially when he steps on a few toes in the process, and the waffle tread of my size 12 has been pressed into more than one set of toenail polish.

A figure stepped into view on the opposite side of the dirty frosted glass on my outside door. I tugged down my battered fedora and set my features in their best scowl. The door crept open slowly, with a distinct non-squeak, I noticed with dismay. Something to fix when the next meal ticket pays off. My landlord thinks he’s doing me a favor, always fixing my door. I needed to pick up a new batch of old rusty hinges.

I release the grip on my Saturday Night Special as two globes walked in, so round and perfect Magellan would have dropped to his knees and begged for permission to be the first to circumnavigate them, had he been sitting in my chair. Their owner stepped through the door a full second later.

She was tall, blonde and had enough curves in her possession to make a figure eight turn green with jealousy. She barely wore a black dress. The fabric seemed to be struggling for all its might to cover the beauty queen with its meager surface area. The hem sat a few inches below her belt while the top plunged down in a tasteful fashion to stop just shy of her belly button. The whole getup was so tight you could count her freckles through the silky fabric.

She paused in the doorway to look at me briefly with her big blue eyes and tried to stop the tremble in her ruby red lips, which had apparently been stung by some damned lucky bee in the recent past. Then she stepped forward and tripped the light beam I have set up for just such an occasion, and a lonely trumpet sighed out some muted notes from my stereo speakers in response. She paused once again to look for the source of the music, then set forward again with so much sway in her walk I heard a fizzle and smelled smoke as a motion sensor blew a fuse trying to track all the movement in the room. I was vaguely surprised that there was no thumping drum accompaniment. That kind of walk usually carries one.

“I hear you’re the kind of guy that solves problems, Mr. Steel,” she said when the trek from door to desk ended, much too soon for my taste.

I pulled the brim of my Fedora down another notch to make sure my eyes were properly shaded from the dirty light bulb I keep swinging slowly from my ceiling, and leaned back in my chair. After an appropriate pause I leaned forward again and nodded. “You might say that, doll face,” I said, letting the artificial Plastipaper cigarette surgically implanted on the surface of my lower lip bob as I spoke. “You just might say that. When you spend as much time chasing trouble as I do, you can’t help but learn a thing or two about problem-solving.”

I flicked the brim of my hat with my thumb to lift it up, so she could see me narrow my eyes thoughtfully before I continued. “Seems to me that anyone asking a question like that probably has a reason for asking. Could it be that you have the kind of problem that needs special attention like maybe I could provide?”

The leggy hourglass of a prospective client bit her luscious ruby lip with perfect teeth so white I could see the swinging light bulb above slump in shame at the amount of light they reflected while her pendulous walk carried her over to my 3-Deo screen. She stared at the buzzing neon hologram flickering on the side of the fake building next door, reading “MOTEL, va ancy”. I rumpled my raincoat a little more while her back was turned, and turned up the control under my desk to give the room a touch more haze. A puff of smoke floated from the ashtray-shaped smoke puffer on my desk while Dollface sighed at the false window. She turned just enough to say, “There’s been a murder.”

I suppose she thought that would shock me, to hear that someone could get bumped off their mortal coil in this day and age of happy citizenry and high-tech safety, but I solve a murder case a week, and that’s during the slow times. She could have told me the world was round for all the shock I felt. I said, “It’ll cost ya two hundred a day, plus expenses. If I feel like taking the case.”

That got her to turn around entirely. She looked at me in surprise with her bedroom eyes roofed by the kind of eyebrows Michelangelo neglected to paint on the Mona Lisa. “But you haven’t even heard the story yet, Mr. Steel,” she breathed. It was a good thing she had so much room for her lungs; her voice was so breathy she was probably losing a liter of air for every word she spoke.

I smirked and took a long pretend drag on my artificial cigarette. “I just wanted you to know what you were in for before you got started. If you want cheap, don’t even waste your time forming those plump puckerers into another syllable, because my price tag is as firm as those headlights of yours. If you want good then sit right down and spill the cat out of its bag of beans. You want cheap you’re in the wrong place, sister. So go ahead and pick which item in this room has more appeal to you, the door or the chair.” She didn’t hesitate one second before gliding across my hardwood floor and planted herself into the green Plastivinyl chair opposite my little desk. She seemed to have a little trouble sitting still, probably because her legs were too smooth to offer any sort of friction with the chair to keep her in one place.

“Well, let’s get started then,” she sighed. Her batting eyelashes were long enough to knock a few papers of my desk with the resultant breeze. She swallowed heavily once before continuing. “It’s my grandfather. He’s been murdered.” I took out my battered notepad and scribbled Grandfather = dead on it. It’s a move that a client usually finds reassuring. Shows I’m paying attention.

“He was visiting us for a week, just a friendly visit while he was on the East Coast.” A tear dropped from her cheek and ran down her cleavage. “He lives in Kansas, Mr. Steel, and doesn’t get much of a chance to see the family, what with his business and—”

“Just hold it right there,” I interrupted gruffly. “Let’s take this one step and a time. First of all, my mother calls me Mr. Steel. You can call me Trigger. And second, I need a name to call you by, too.”

“Bambi Smith,” Bambi said, smiling for the first time. She ran her velvety tongue over her lips, which somehow pouted even as they smiled, and said, “You can call me Bambi.”

“That’ll work just fine, Bambi. Now let’s get back to the case at hand. You said ‘visiting us’. Just who is it exactly that the old guy was paying a visit to?”

“Well, let’s see.” Bambi gazed at the perforated tiles in my ceiling and tapped the desk with one rounded red nail. “There’s my sister Candy, her husband Englebert and their son Peter, and myself.”

I wrote the names down in my notebook. “All of you live in the same house?”

“It’s a big house, Mr. Steel.”

“I’ve asked you to call me Trigger. If this house is so big, you must have some kind of help to keep the place up.”

Bambi shook her head, working loose a strand of woven gold that made up her hair. “Not really. Just the autoservants.”

“Mm-hm.” I scribbled a little more in my notepad, a doodle of a bunny in a top hat, just moving the pencil to maintain Bambi’s interest. “Cleaner, cook, the usual package?”

“Yes. We’ve got a Maid XLc and a Butler 3200. And a dog, named Spot.” Bambi grimaced. “It seemed like a clever name at the time.”

I wrote the three new names down in my notebook and pondered the suspect list as I had it so far. Two years ago I had surgery to stop my facial hair at three days length so I could scratch my whiskers thoughtfully at times such as this. I slowly did so as I spun the mental wheels. After a while I scratched off the dog’s name as a possible suspect. “How old is this boy Peter?”

“Two months.”

I scratched off Peter’s name as well.

“This granddaddy of yours,” I muttered. “Rich?” Of course he was. There are certain rules a good mystery case must abide by. But a little confirmation always looks good.

Bambi nodded. “Yes, he is. He was, I mean.” Her lips trembled, and she sighed heavily. Her lips stopped trembling, her chest stopped a half minute later. “The whole family is rich. Except for Englebert, maybe.”

I glared at my notepad, pondering. The bunny stared back, mockingly. I normally aim for one small page worth of names and doodles as my meter. Too much info and I run the risk of solving the case before I’m properly dragged into it by the proper intrigue and noir. Two possible lines left to fill in, but that seemed like enough. At any rate, I was running low on metaphors. Gathering up the baggie of cigarette butts I keep ready for traveling with me to crime scenes, I muttered, “Let’s take a walk, sister.”

Bambi looked up at me with those baby blues, questioning. “Nothing left to do but visit the sight itself,” I growled. Bambi sighed, and I had to lean back to give her room to inflate.

The sun greeted us with its normal infuriating brand of cheery goodness as we stepped free of the building, darkening my mood another notch. I pulled Bambi quickly to the safety of my car, where the severely tinted windows keep the fiendish solar glow at bay. Once in I opened up the ashtray to expose the old cigarette butts, which Bambi was kind enough to notice. I started the motor, wincing at the quiet hum the car gave off as it idled. One more thing to look into, when the clams come in from the successful and stylish completion of my passenger’s mystery. Fortunately I always have a backup. I started the misfiring sound effects, and pumped in some burning oil fumes from the spare canister of smells for good measure.

Back in the day, a man in my position could afford to waste a little more time on the set up. A case like this, maybe I could have sent her away twice before allowing Ms. Smith to lure me into her bosomy embrace, at which point I could play the proper reluctant hero and begrudgingly accept the challenge. Nowadays, with everything so backwards, the Feds barge their way in immediately. Wait a good hour, and you’ll probably miss out on your chance.

Pulling up to the house, I saw it was a mansion, of course, resplendent with a dark wrought iron gate to keep riffraff like me out. Bambi pushed it open and sauntered to the door. Being at least two-thirds leg, she made it in a few steps. I hurried to catch up. Bambi pushed the door open when I reached her. I dug out a cigarette butt and threw it on the step, grinding it under my heel before entering. We paused in the lobby to give me time to pull out my notebook and scribble something official in it. To let Bambi know she was getting her money’s worth, I took several minutes to scowl at various objects and scratch my whiskers. I even went so far as to chew on my pencil while glaring suspiciously at an umbrella stand, a move I reserve for select clientele.

“Any clues here?” Bambi asked with a quaver when I turned from the canister. I smirked and slapped the notepad shut.

“There may be, Dollface. There just may be. Where did this dastardly deed take place?”

Bambi nodded towards the stairs. “In the guest bedroom.”

She led the way, struggling against the fabric of her dress, which afforded little room to move. As she grabbed the banister, the varnish oozed underneath her warm grip. A few stitches burst as she sashayed, sending shrapnels of thread in every direction. I tipped down my battered fedora to protect my eyes, steadying myself against the wind generated by her swaying posterior.

We were already too late. The bedroom was crawling with Feds. I recognized one snake in particular and snuck up behind him. As he turned I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him against a wall. “What’s the deal, Kirker? Not enough satisfaction failing at your own cases, now you gotta butt into my gig?”

Kirker gasped in fear, thinking he was dealing with the devil himself. He wasn’t, quite. I’m not as easy going. “Christ, Percy, what are you doing here? I thought they took your license away.”

I twisted the end of my fake cigarette, which spat out smoke dutifully, billowing into Kirker’s face. “Don’t need a license to find the truth, Kirker. Why not stand back and let a pro show you how it’s done?” I let him go to dig out another cigarette butt and grind it into the floor. “By the way, the name’s Trigger, pal, not Percy. You’ve got me mixed with some other sap.”

“Whatever. Anyway, we’re done. There was no foul play, of course,” he sighed at me. “The old guy’s heart failed.”

I turned to Bambi, who was misty eyed with awe watching a real man like myself in action. “Maybe that’s what someone wants you to think, Kirker. Ms. Smith here thinks different.”

Bambi nodded and sighed, knocking down a few of the Feds in the room during inhalation.

“Nope,” Kirker said, looking through a sheaf of plastipapers. “Full enzymatic profile, biochemical analysis, genetic sweep… no intruders or suspicious physiological condition. Heart attack.”

“You trust your fancy schmancy technology, Kirker,” I growled as I glared at each of the Feds in turn. “I’ve got a different kind of tool. It’s called instinct, Kirker. A man in my profession learns to trust his gut.”

“Whatever you say, Percy.”

“Trigger, Kirker. The name is Trigger Steel. I think someone in the family fixed Pops an arsenic omelet for breakfast. And I think it was Candy.”

Kirker looked through his report. “Who’s Candy? There’s no Candy in my records. Will you please back off and let us finish up here?”

I smirked. “Probably because she wanted it that way. Candy doesn’t want to be noticed. And why would that be?”

“Because she doesn’t exist? Go away, please?”

“Because she killed Pops, that’s why.” I nodded to Bambi. “Something Ms. Smith told me earlier gave me the clue I needed. Seems her husband Englebert is less then successful in financial respects. Set herself up as a recipient to Granddaddy’s fortune, then slipped him a terminal Mickey. Nice and neat.”

“Who’s Englebert?” Kirker sighed, fearing my inevitable solvation of the case.

“That’s right,” Bambi said from the doorway. Her chin dropped to rest on the platform of cleavage just underneath it. “Candy was in the will…”

“We did a full genetic sweep of the house, Percy. No DNA but the victim and the lady right here. Heart attack.”

I scowled. Everything fell into place in my mind like the pieces of a well-oiled jigsaw puzzle. “No, Kirker, that’s just what someone wanted you to think. Someone in this room.”

“He was 106 years old, Percy!” Kirker shouted in desperation, trying to stave off my crime-solving geniusness. “His heart was way overdue to give out!”

“How did you know Candy was on Granddaddy’s will, Bambi?” I asked quietly. “Unless, perhaps, you saw the will yourself. Maybe while checking to see what your cut was, just before you bought him a one-way ticket to Never Ever Land.”

Bambi broke under the relentless pressure of my gritty questioning. “It’s true!” she wailed, shaking with sobs. Everyone in the room grabbed for something to support them while the air shook with her tremors. “I killed him, and tried to pin it on Candy! I wanted to hire a detective to make sure I had a convincing story to tell.”

“You made just one mistake, Dollface,” I said gruffly. “You hired Trigger Steel to solve the case. And Trigger Steel always does just that.” I checked my watch. Solved the case in a less than thirty minutes, and still had time for a brief bout of intrigue. Not bad, Trigger.

“City monitors put you at lunch in a deli four miles from here when the heart attack occurred, Ms. Smith,” Kirker said. “I think you’re innocent.”

“No one’s innocent in this life, Kirker,” I said while fixing Bambi with a withering glare. “No one.”

“He’s right, Mr. Kirker,” Bambi sobbed. “He’s right.”

Kirker looked back and forth between us, gumshoe and goddess. “You’re as delusional as he is, aren’t you, Ms. Smith? You actually enjoy all this detective pulp nonsense?”

“Just take her away, boys,” I said. “She’s got a date with a judge and an electric chair.”

Bambi kissed me suddenly, mashing herself against me. “I’m sorry, Trigger,” she sobbed.

“You call me Mr. Steel.”

“Or call him Percy Slechthauser, since that’s his name,” Kirker muttered, ever the sore loser. “I’ll take her away, but only so she can get some help. God knows we don’t need more of your type.” He escorted Bambi to her destiny.

As for me, I left the Federal boys to clean things up. Let them get the kudos. I had a promise to keep to an old friend who was waiting patiently in a flask back at the office.

Behind my desk once more, Jim and I got intimate while I marked a folder “Bambi” and stuck it in the Case Solved file cabinet. I no sooner sat back down at my desk than a pair of stiletto heels walked into my office, carrying a set of legs genetically engineered for those heels. The owner of the gams stopped just short of my desk, and two dark pools of chocolate milk posing as eyes stared at me from under a long wavy curtain of raven hair. “I hear you solve problems, Mr. Steel,” the slightly pouted lips breathed.

“You might say that, Angel,” I said between pulls on my flask. “You just might say exactly that.”