Companions of Fear
Nestis March sat in the rocking chair, facing Chinslow, who averted his gaze.
"So, the Beautician," she said and rocked slowly.
"Yes, well...," said Chinslow and lit a cigarette.
Gage, in the folding chair, put his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor. Mink, sitting on the carpet with his back against a book case, closed his eyes.
"You recall," she said, "an enormous bald man wearing denim overalls and working in bare feet, feeding your victims into an infernal machine?"
"He calls it the Universal Grinder," said the boss. "You can throw anything in there and mulch it. He invented it. Diamond tooth gears."
"That's lovely," she said.
"I see you know something about me," said Chinslow
"You're an ignorant man and you lead a squalid life."
Mink casually brought his hand up to cover his mouth. The boss looked over at him and stared for a moment before speaking. "Be that as it may, by next Thursday, if I don't come across two million dollars, I'm a dead man. If you help me, you'll save my life. Isn't saving a life as important as catching a killer, tracking a lost kid?"
"Sanctimonious," said Nestis and adjusted her glasses. "I see it as you getting what you deserve."
"If I get what I deserve, everybody in this room is gonna get what I deserve, if you follow my drift."
"Let me tell you about the hour of your death," she said. "All you need do is ask me."
Gage looked up, said "Chin," and when he got the boss's attention shook his head.
"That's not what I want. I want the powerball number for Thursday's drawing. Five numbers from 1-59. And one number from 1-39."
Nestis laughed. "Pathetic," she said.
"Let's not make this unpleasant, Ms. March."
"You're going to kill me one way or the other."
"I've decided not to kill you if I get what I want. You'll save my life, keep your mouth shut, and I'll even throw you a million if all goes smoothly. Can you do it?"
"Oh, I can do it. Picking numbers like that is one of my strongest attributes. Other things are sometimes very murky, but winning numbers are never a problem."
"That's how you get by, isn't it?"
"I only win what I need. There's a limit I allow myself to win each month."
"The lottery, the track?" asked the boss.
"I have a bookie," she said.
"Larry or Nathan Pints?"
"Pints. Blind Larry is unreliable."
"Yeah, I know them both," said Chinslow. "You're right about the blind man, he's shifty."
"Of course, I'm right, just like I'm right about you. You're a leech. I have no intention of helping you. Now, have one of your crime slaves drive me back to my house."
The boss opened his desk drawer and pulled out a blackjack. "OK, lady, this is where the rubber hits the road, literally." He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and stepped around the desk. Waggling the short, stitched leather club in her face, he yelled "I want fucking numbers, and I want them now."
She cowered back into the rocker, bringing her hands up to protect her face as Chinslow raised the weapon over his head. She began to sob. He stopped in mid-swing, the blackjack hand dropping to his side, the other smoothing his comb-over. "Get her out of here," he said as he headed back to his chair behind the desk. "Get her the fuck out of here."
"Home?" asked Mink.
"Yeah, her new home, over at the Beautician's."
Gage stood up, and stepped over to Nestis, who was trembling. tears ran down from beneath her glasses. "I'm scared," she said to him.
"Look," he said. "I get it. But all you have to do is cough up a set of numbers, and we take you home. How easy it could be." He turned to Chinslow, and said, "Home, right?"
The boss nodded.
Mink looked over at Chin and then back to the old lady, and in that instant her tears seemed to have dried. She sat upright at the edge of the rocker. There was a vague smile on her lips. "I'll tell you what I'll do," she said to Gage. "I'll make him a deal."
"I hope it's not too impossible. You're gonna want to avoid that Universal Grinder. Last thing I'll say about it," he said and sat down on the folding chair.
"Speak," said Chinslow. He put the blackjack back into the drawer of the desk, but before closing it,pulled out a 45. "When you get to the part I don't like, I'll let you know." He pointed the gun directly at her.
Nestis March stared down the barrel, and said, "I'll give you your numbers if you'll do something for me."
The boss moved the gun in little circles. "Get on with it."
"Recently my Blue Persian was taken from me."
"I can't keep track of your boyfriends," said the Chin.
"My cat, Igbid, was kidnapped from my backyard."
"You know it didn't run away?"
"I saw it in my imagination, where dreams meet reality. There's a guy in town who's taking people's cats and torturing them. I know he has Igbid, but the dear is still alive."
"Jesus Christ," said the boss. "What the fuck do you want?"
"I want you to send these two gentlemen to rescue Igbid."
Chinslow laughed wearily.
"Come on, boss," said Gage. "I don't do pet service."
"Is that it?" asked the boss.
"I want the fellow punished," she said.
"What, like have him write five hundred times, I will not kidnap and torture people's cats?"
"I'll leave it up to this young man as to what that means," she said and pointed at Mink.
"In that case," said Gage, "the Beautician will have work after all."
"This cat dude might be the first guy to actually deserve it," said Mink.
"Well, give us an address," said Chinslow.
"I can't," she said. "It's almost as if he's blocking me somehow on a psychic level."
"Anything..." said the boss and sighed. Cigarette smoke leaked out his nostrils.
"He's dangerous," she said. "You'll find him this evening at closing time at the Museum of Local History over by the waterfront. All I see is that he'll be wearing a long brown raincoat and wearing a black hat. You've got to follow him to where he's keeping the cats."
The Chin shrugged. "What the hell," he said, "you guys can do this."
"I'll do it this time to save your ass," said Gage, "But I don't even like cats."
"Yeah, yeah," said Mink.
"And when you catch up to the guy," said Chinslow, "ice him. Whoever heard of such a thing..., torturing cats. That's fucked up."
Nestis lifted her bag onto her lap and opened it. She dug through it for a minute and said, "Hold on, I've got a photo of Igbid. You'll need it." She produced the photo and handed it to Gage, who now stood next to her.
He took it from her and looked. "Scary lookin'," he said.
Mink joined them and took a look at the cat. "Look at the size of the head on that thing."
Gage slipped the picture into his jacket pocket, and the two of them started toward the door.
"Wait," said Nestis. "There's one more thing I feel responsible to tell you."
Mink and Gage returned.
"I've seen that one of you will be killed rescuing Igbid. It's unclear which."
It got quiet.
"In that case, I'll be going home now," said Gage.
"Those odds are a little tight for me too," said Mink.
"Hold on," said Chinslow, still waving the gun around. "I can make it worth your while if you go. First off, who knows what she can really predict?"
"Things do change sometimes," said Nestis. "Rarely, but it happens."
"And I'll give you a million dollar bonus each if you get this done and the old lady's numbers comes in."
"How many cases of the Count can you buy with that?" asked Mink.
"Tempting," said Gage. "We bring back the cat, we get a million apiece?" He looked over at his partner.
We're in," said Gage.
"All set then," said Chinslow. "They bring the cat, you'll give me the numbers. Right?"
Nestis March said, "Yes. You'll have done a good deed and I'll reward you."
The boss relaxed for the first time in days. "Johnny St. Martin can suck it," he said. He smiled, stretched his arms, clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back.
"We'll see," said Nestis.
Out in the driveway, Gage said, "It's a couple weeks early for it but it smells like it's gonna snow."
The two of them looked up at the dark sky. The barest smudge of light shone to the West. Night was minutes away. They got in the car.
"What do you think of what she said?" asked Mink.
"She said a lot."
"One of us will be killed."
"That's just bullshit," said Gage.
"But the fact that we're going to the Museum of Local History to track a guy, wearing a brown raincoat and black hat isn't?"
"Do yourself a favor. Don't complicate it. Just concentrate on the million. We'll get through this in one piece."
"A quick stop at Doodles," said Mink. "We've got an hour before the museum closes."
"I scarfed a joint of the Chin's philosopher weed," said Gage.
"The tools of the trade."
They passed down Chinslow's lane, the yellow leaves in the headlights airborne on a strong wind.
Mink took out his cell phone. "I gotta call Darlene and cancel our date. She's gonna be pissed."
"Tell her you're making a million dollars tonight. That'll soothe her savage breasts."
"Savage," said Mink and smiled. He brought the phone to his ear. "Baby," he said. "Yeah, I gotta work late. I'll take you tomorrow night."
Gage could hear Darlene, her voice tinny and tiny.
"What do you mean the movie closes tonight?" said Mink. "So what, we'll catch it on the tube next year. Come on." He listened for a long time and then said, "A cinematic masterpiece?" He looked over at Gage, closed his eyes and shook his head. "Yeah, OK, love you. Yeah, goodbye."
"Disappointed?" asked Gage.
"It's got Myrtle Grotz in it," said Mink.
"You just lucked out," said Gage. " That Grotz is a bucket of lime jell-o."
"Darlene's gotta see everything she's in."
"I tell you, life's an awful lot of coming up with ways to fill the time between birth and the Universal Grinder."
"How's your love-life going?" asked Mink.
"Non-existent. I'm down with Count Brown."
"They say that for everyone in the world there's at least one soul mate. Meet that person and your life is complete."
"How do I find her?"
"Darlene explained this to me," said Mink. "She saw it on that show Image Crisis with Dr. Felicity. The secret is you have to always try to be yourself."
"I'll get on it," said Gage. "I never saw that show or heard of it, but I'll bet a half million that Dr. Felicity's a piece of ass."
"What else?" said Mink.
to be continued ...