Companions of Fear
They sat in Gage's car, parked on a cobblestone street in the old part of town, on the boundary of that destitute area known as the Crumble. Through the windshield, fifty yards away, they saw facing them a century old red brick building, three floors, with a banner -- blue writing on a white background -- over the front entrance, Museum of Local History. It was night already and the street was empty. Two of the four streetlamps between the car and the museum were working, casting a dim glow. Litter and leaves whirled upward in a momentary twister on the sidewalk and then dispersed.
"Local is right," said Mink. "You ever been in this place?"
Gage shook his head, sparked his lighter, and lit a joint he held between his lips.
"Me and Darlene took her nephew there one Saturday."
Smoke curled out of the corners of Gage's mouth as he tried to speak and hold his hit at the same time. "Whata they got?" he asked, passing the joint to his partner.
"Basically nothing. Three floors of old photos and a couple of lame objects. For instance, one of the displays is a beat up old photo of a guy who invented the concrete boat."
Gage opened the bottle of Count Brown's and laughed, quietly, briefly. "There's a brainstorm."
"No shit. Supposedly, officially, the concrete boat was invented by a Frenchman, but the display claims that some old character from town was really first with it back in the 1800's. Also, in the display, they have a chunk of concrete. You don't even know if it's from a boat. Looks like they grabbed a piece of the sidewalk over in the Crumble."
"A concrete boat? That's like inventing a shit doughnut."
"Supposedly concrete floats."
"Nah. Come on. Tell that to Qualo. If you remember, he's at the bottom of the bay. If what you're saying is true, instead sinking like a stone, he woulda walked on water with that special footwear we put him in."
"Touche," said Mink.
"How many entrances does the place have?"
"When I was there I wasn't casing the place, but I seem to remember the main one, we're looking at, and one on the side. The back of the place butts up against an abandoned factory. The side one lets out onto Herigen Street."
"The place closes in a half hour. We go in, each set up at an entrance and wait. Whichever one of us sees him follows and phones the other. The second guy gets the car. You got your set of keys?"
"Yeah," said Mink. "Pass the Brown, I gotta wash the taste of this philosopher weed down. This stuff is nothing like pot. Kinda tastes like turnips."
"It's not the best tasting stuff. The smell too. The car's starting to smell like ... exotic b.o."
"I thought that was you."
"At first it was, but now it's the weed. Chin said he gets it from some island in the Indian Ocean. This stuff supposedly makes you smarter. "
"We should score a pound."
"You get high enough, but then things get deep."
"Here's something I want to know," said Mink. "The Chin has always been loaded with dough. Why is he sweating two million? To us that's a lot, but I thought he was beyond that."
"He was," said Gage. "But lately, the last year or so, he's got some project going out in the woods he won't tell me about that he spent all his money on. I was there one day dropping off his dry cleaning, and he was getting a delivery of a couple of crates. I asked the delivery guy what it was and he said, "'Inert gasses.'"
"Wow. The Chin should be in the Museum of Local History."
"Yeah, in the inert gasses wing of dubious crime bosses."
"I'm kinda blasted on that stuff," said Mink, smiling.
"OK, let's go get this cat torturing mother fucker."
They left the car and walked down the block to the steps of the museum. As they ascended toward the entrance, Mink asked, "So if we see the guy do we just follow or do you want to get him in an alley and just sweat him for the location of the cat?"
"For now, we follow," said Gage. "One thing that bothers me is we're all the way on the other side of town from where March lives. She said the guy was in her neighborhood." Reaching the front door he opened it and held it for his partner.
Just inside, there was a reception desk with an older woman sitting behind it. Her hair was unusually long and pure white, her cardigan was olive green. She looked up and smiled at them. "Two dollars," she said. "But I want to let you know we close in about fifteen minutes."
Mink asked Gage if he could borrow two dollars.
"Can I get a rake off cause we're only gonna get to look around for fifteen minutes?" asked Gage. "We came all the way from France to see the concrete boat thing."
The woman shook her head and her smile became more simpering. "Four dollars, s'il vous plaît" she said.
"The U.N. will hear about this," Gage grumbled and paid for both of them.
"When you see the lights go on and off, you must make your way to the exit," she said.
They moved past the desk and into the museum proper. It was a vast area with a floor of wooden beams. Lamps hung on long poles from the high ceiling, half of them dark and the others casting a weak light, as if it was dusk indoors. The place was sturdy and dingy, once a factory in another century. Lined up along the walls of the place were the displays. Some were in glass cases, the tops smeared by children's hand prints. Some were just large pieces of oak tag hung on the wall with cut out newspaper articles glued to them. A lot of yellowing paper and odd rusted objects, rejects from some desperate old codger's garage sale.
"Two bucks for this?" said Gage. "It looks like a science fair from the high school for chuckle heads."
"I told you," said Mink.
"OK, I got this door," said Gage. "You post at the other exit. If you see the guy, buzz me. I'll do the same."
"One thing," said Mink. "Give me another look at the cat in case we run across it tonight."
Gage took the photo out of his inside jacket pocket and showed it to his partner.
"God." said Mink, "It's head's as big as a fucking couch pillow."
"You see how flat it's face is? All that crazy hair. Those are kind of human eyes. Weird creature. Cats are bad enough. I got a strong inclination to punch this one's lights out, and I don't even know it. Igbid. Sounds like something out of a grammar book."
"That's a million dollar face, brother," said Mink as he walked away.
"Be careful," whispered Gage, who walked in the opposite direction along the line of displays. Every few seconds he turned and subtly looked around the exhibition area. There was one young woman, across the way, facing the opposite wall, studying a large quilt. Every now and then she jotted something in a little notebook. No brown overcoat or black hat, though, just jeans and sneakers and a t-shirt.
Off in the direction Mink had gone, there was a middle-aged couple, probably married, moving slowly along, holding hands, talking and pointing at the displays. Otherwise, the place was empty. He checked his watch to see how many minutes before closing, looked over his shoulder again twice and then gave himself up to the exhibit in front of him. Sitting on a small wooden table was a set of top dentures -- the pink part going brown, the teeth cracked and yellow. He read the informational card that was taped to the table, hand written in fading ink.
Harl Pudgie's Denture -- A native son of Craton City, born 1883 -- died 1940. Harl Pudgie served for two years as the breakfast chef at the White House, whipping up eggs, pancakes, and waffles, for President Woodrow Wilson and his family. Wilson was on a friendly basis with the cook, calling him Pudge. The chef attested to the fact that the Commander and Chief had a weakness for scrapple. This is Harl Pudgie's actual denture.
At the bottom of the card, written in somewhat fresher magic marker, in block letters, were the words DO NOT TOUCH. Gage grimaced and said, "No problem." As he moved on to the next display, he felt his phone vibrate. He retrieved it from his jacket pocket and answered, keeping his voice low.
"I'm at the other entrance," said Mink. "Not many people around and none with brown overcoats and black hats."
"Yeah," said Gage. "If he's here, he's upstairs somewhere. We'll just wait. Shouldn't be long before they close up shop."
"Keep em peeled," said Mink and hung up.
Gage still had the phone in his hand when the lights of the museum blinked on and off. He heard the woman with the long white hair call out, "Closing time. Please make your way to the exits." He took one more long look the length and breadth of the place. When he turned to glance down the way Mink had gone, he heard, off to his right, a door creak open and close. Knowing it must be to the stairwell, he spun around and caught sight of a figure in a brown full-length overcoat and a wide brimmed black Fedora, moving swiftly toward the front entrance.
He waited a few seconds, keeping his quarry in sight, but unable to see a face. The fellow was tall with incredibly wide shoulders. Black gloves and strange looking shoes that seemed to flange wider at the toes than the heel, like a clown would wear. Gage started following as the man passed the woman at the desk and briefly touched the brim of his hat to her, a sign of parting. "Good night," she said.
As Gage passed her, the man was exiting the building. She called after, "Did you enjoy the exhibit?" but he was focused on his prey and didn't answer. He passed through the doors and was at the top of the stone steps as the man reached the sidewalk and turned left. Gage gave him a few seconds to get well ahead, so the fellow would have no idea he was being tailed. In that brief time, he brought the phone up to call Mink. With his thumb, he flipped to the screen with his partner's number, and just then the phone vibrated. He brought it to his ear.
"I got him," said Mink. "Trailing him West toward the Crumble."
"Wait a second," said Gage. "I got him, heading East."