August 6th, 2012
Companions of Fear
Gage pulled up to the sidewalk in front of 539 Gardenia Street -- a modest brick house on a little piece of property. There were dying chrysanthemums in the hanging baskets, and just outside the front door, a Halloween flag with a silhouette witch flying across an orange moon. On the garage side of the house a weeping willow swayed in the wind. Mink flipped open his sunglasses and put them on. Gage pulled on his leather gloves.
They got out of the car and walked a concrete path to concrete steps that led to a concrete porch. The day was sliding into late afternoon. The temperature had dropped considerably.
"You got the skeleton?" asked Gage.
Mink took out a key ring, sized up the lock and singled out a key. He reached down and took the doorknob in his hand, but as he was bringing the key up to insert it, he twisted the knob and the door opened. He took a quick step back and drew his revolver. Gage already had his gun out.
Mink was the first one into the house. He went forward in a crouch and quickly turned to the right and the left to check for an ambush. The place was quiet and smelled like boiled cabbage. "Funky," he whispered. Gage followed directly, and, once in, held his gun with both hands, pointed at the ceiling. He stood still for a moment and looked around. In the room to the right off the entrance, he saw green velvet furniture with white doilies and wooden wall shelves, holding displays of bones, the skulls of small animals, large glass jars of what looked to be peach jam. As he moved sideways through the parlor, his partner headed along a dark hallway leading to the back of the house. Gage made his way quickly to a closed in porch off the main room and checked it. Then he slipped back past the stairway to look in the kitchen and a couple of bathrooms.
At the end of the hall, Mink found three closed doors. The first was to a linen closet full of towels and sheets. An herb scent in there was overwhelming. He shut it up quickly, without a sound. He stepped across the hallway as carefully as possible. His boot creaked a floor board and he waited and listened. When he heard nothing but Gage's heavy breathing from the kitchen, he went to the closed door and opened it and then took cover just outside against the wall. He reached in and found the light switch. In that room there was a long table and a chair on wheels. There were four computers on the table and three other pieces of hardware he'd never seen before. Otherwise, the room was empty. When he stepped back out into the hallway, he saw that Gage had already entered the last of the rooms. The light was on inside. A moment later, he joined his partner.
"She must be upstairs," Mink whispered.
"You think she's hiding?"
"Well, if she's here, she's being awfully quiet, unless she's asleep."
Gage took the lead. They went to the stairs and slowly ascended. The second floor had only two rooms, one to the left and one to the right. Since it was closer, Gage chose the room to the left. They approached it and Mink tried the doorknob. "It's locked," he said, and started fishing again for the key ring.
"Fuck that," said Gage and aimed his gun at the lock.
Before he could pull the trigger, they heard from the other end of the upstairs hall a woman's voice. She said, "I'm in here, fellas."
They turned and took aim at the door on the other side of the stairs.
"It's a trap," said Gage.
"Come on out," said Mink.
There was no reply.
"Ms. March, we just want you to take a little ride with us. We don't mean you any harm," called Gage.
Total silence. Mink turned and looked at his partner. "Now what?"
"We'll wait her out."
"I'll give you fifty bucks if you bum rush the room," said Mink.
"I'll give you fifty if you do it."
"I'm broke. You're on." Mink strode forward his gun at arm's length, aimed directly in front of him. He grabbed the knob and pushed the door in. He sensed a figure to his right, turned quickly and almost fired.
Nestis March, looking small as a lawn statue, sat atop her bed on a white quilt with a blue and gold star pattern. Her legs folded Indian style beneath her long green dress, she smiled up at Mink, and adjusted her eyeglasses with her middle finger. Next to her was a little travelling bag. She wore an embroidered jacket, a floral design on suede, a green hat that could have been Robin Hood's, and a pair of olive, velvet gloves. She wore her white hair in two pig tails. Seeing she was unarmed, Mink put away his gun. Gage didn't.
"I've been waiting for you," she said. She nodded to Mink. "You take my bag," She pointed at his partner. "This one looks unwell."
"OK, Grandma, let's go," said Gage.
She hopped onto the floor and led the way.
"I guess I don't have to tell you where we're taking you," said Gage.
"To visit a desperate man," she said.
"If all goes smoothly nothing's gonna happen to you."
"Tell it to the Beautician," she said.
Mink laughed and Gage lightly slapped him in the back of the head.
They descended the stairs and Mink told her to hold up at the front door. "Listen, when we get outside, you need to be quiet or we'll have to knock you out."
"Do you think I'll need an umbrella?" she said.
"If you don't know that how should I?" he said.
"Alright, let's move," said Gage and holstered his gun. Mink went first, followed by Nestis March. Gage closed the front door behind them and scanned the street to see if anyone was watching. He didn't see a soul. "Put her in the back and get in with her," he said to Mink, and then went around the car to get behind the wheel.
When the doors were closed, and he was pulling away from the curb, he looked at her in the rearview mirror and said, "Smart. Just keep it that way and all will be smooth."
"You two are the sorriest thugs I've ever seen," said Nestis. She had a very clear and precise manner of speech.
"Me?" said Mink.
"Especially you," she said. "Really, sun glasses on an overcast day?"
"That's my disguise."
"Your friend behind the wheel is about to tell me to "clam up," she said.
"Did you read his mind?"
"No, I just know dimwits when I meet them."
"You don't have to make it to see Mr. Chinslow, " said Gage. "We wouldn't mind a bit."
"Threatening an old woman?"
"Just drive," said Mink. "I'll take care of her."
"I'll fuckin take care of her," said Gage.
"Your threats are as weak as your knees," she said.
"That's a good one," said Mink.
"Shut up," she said. "Your hair's a disgrace."
Gage laughed and drove hunched over the wheel.
Mink reached into the front seat, and retrieved the bottle of Count Brown's. He held it out in front of Nestis and sloshed the contents around. "Do you want a hit?"
"I wouldn't drink that swill if I was dying of thirst," she said.
"It tastes like lemon," said Mink.
"But only for a while," Gage called over his shoulder.
"Count Brown's Short Days," said Mink. "Have a taste." He unscrewed the bottle.
"I smell the lemon," she said.
"What does it make you think of?"
"Someone's piss in a paper cup."
"Ms. March, you're a Romantic."
"I have friends in law enforcement," she said. "Friends in the FBI."
"Well, it's good to have friends," said Gage.
She took the bottle from Mink, closed her eyes and took a short swig. As it passed down her throat, she shivered. "Skanky," she said.
"What did it remind you of?" asked Mink.
"A drunken, sweaty encounter in the dark back room of a bowling alley."
"Beautiful," said Mink.
"That was a good one," said Gage. "What's it like when you see the future?"
"I could tell you the day each of you is going to die. I see the dates on the pages of a desk calendar, clear as day, right now. But you have to ask me to tell you. If you do, I will."
"Get the fuck outa here with that," said Gage. "Now you can just shut up for the rest of the trip."
"I wasn't gonna ask her," said Mink.
"It wasn't you I was worried about," said Gage.
Nestis March laughed briefly, high pitched.
They drove a few blocks in total silence, until Mink said, "How'd you find that kid that was buried last year?"
"The parents gave me a shirt the boy had worn but that hadn't been washed. I can still smell it. Large red and white, horizontal stripes. I kept that with me night and day. Three days later, while I was sitting in the Jiffy Lube, waiting on my car, I saw the whole thing, relived every horrifying moment of it."
"You smelled it?" asked Mink.
"I smelled it in my imagination and then found the spot where its scent connected the dream world and the physical world."
"Did you get that, Gage?" asked Mink.
"Yeah, I smelled it in my imagination."
Gage turned into Chinslow's long driveway and they passed down a tree-lined lane covered with yellow leaves.
"This is his place," she said. "He's never going to let me go. Which one of you is going to put a bullet in me?"
"Not me," said Mink.
"Me either," said Gage and glanced in the rearview mirror. Ms. March was beginning to sweat. He smiled.
They got out of the car and headed for the house. Again, Mink first with Nestis in the middle. Gage had his gun in hand.
"Beautiful gardens," said the old lady.
"The Chin likes his gardens," said Mink.
Just outside Chinslow's den , Gage held up the parade, and told Nestis to have a seat on a bench in the hallway. "Keep an eye on her," he said to Mink, and then opened the door and slipped in.
Chinslow was asleep, his arms sprawled across his desk top, his face flat on one side, softly snoring. Gage read the evidence -- a half bottle of Count Brown's Long Nights and scattered shreds of the philosopher weed. There was a freshly rolled joint on the desk, and he swept it up and put it in his jacket pocket with the extra clip. He stepped around the desk and pushed Chinslow to an upright position. Tapping him on the cheeks, he said, "Come on, Chinny, that psychic broad is here to make you a millionaire."
Chinslow spluttered to consciousness like a man lost at sea clawing his way to shore.
"Sipping the Brown?" said Gage.
The boss shook his head. He stuck his tongue out, gagged, and swallowed hard. "That raisin taste really stays with you," he said.
"It's liquid shit is what it is," said Chinslow. "You have Nestis March?" He patted down his failing hair, tugged at the rumpled blue jacket, and then rubbed his face with both hands.
"She's right outside. Mink's keeping an eye on her."
"Did she make any trouble?"
"She was waiting for us."
"That's great," said Chinslow. "What's she like?"
"She's got this feisty shtick going, but I can see it's starting to fall apart. She already knows about the Beautician. She's seen it or so she claims."
"That's gonna put a crimp in the negotiations," said the boss, "I should have considered it."
"Then just decide to let her live," said Gage. "She gives you the number, you win 30 million. Let her go. With that much dough you can buy your way out of any trouble you get in."
"We'll see," said Chinslow. He lit a cigarette and told Gage to bring her in.
"If she offers to tell you the day you're gonna die, don't take her up on it," Gage said over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
"Do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?" said Chinslow. He swept the pile of ashes off the desktop onto the carpet and made a point of aiming for the ashtray.