Companions of Fear
With his shoulders hunched up and his hands shoved into his pants pockets against the cold, Mink moved slowly along the sidewalk. He kept his head down but his eyes peering up, so that he could track his mark. The concrete of the walkway had erupted and cracked from the pressure of roots from old oaks that lined the way. That street, Wirffle, led straight into the heart of the crumble where it was as much the lives of the inhabitants as that of the sidewalks that were cracked and rotted and coming undone. The wind had picked up and dry leaves blew down from above. The street lamps were all out there and under the trees the figure he followed was a darker shadow in the night.
The man with the brown overcoat and black hat led him down two long blocks West of the museum, and Mink hoped the guy would hop into a car and drive off so he could simply get the license number and trace it through Gage's friend on the police force. No such luck, though. His quarry advanced steadily, crossing Pearl street, which was the definitive boundary between the haves and have-nothings in Craton. The windows of the houses he passed now were no longer lit. Instead they were busted out. There were old cars on what were once lawns and broken appliances gone to rust on busted porches. He thought about drawing his gun from the shoulder holster, knowing a cat torturer might be the least desperate person he could meet there.
Ever since smoking in the car, he'd had a subtle, pleasant buzz, which he figured would wear off in the cold air, but as he followed along, he thought he could feel it increasing. Count Brown's, a spliff of tobacco and grass mix were the usual refreshments he took when on the job, and he'd never found them to impede him, but this philosopher weed was suddenly coming on strong, taking his concentration and scattering it in a hundred weird directions. At one point he found he'd stopped walking and was staring up at a lighted window on the very top floor of an old building that looked like it had been shelled by artillery.
He shook his head, peered up the sidewalk and saw the shadow of his mark receding. Quickening his pace, he tried to focus, but his head was back at the lighted window. "Who could be living there?" he wondered. "A man or woman? What are they like?" Then he saw a scene in his imagination -- a young woman, standing at a stove, obviously waiting for a tea kettle to boil. She wore a dingy yellow bathrobe, had her brown hair up, and stood on the cracked linoleum in bare feet. Wrapping her arms around herself, she shivered and moved side to side. On the wall behind her was a clock with different birds at each hour of the day. It was quarter after the cardinal. A meandering tune sounded from some back room, indistinct new age pabulum, the kind of music that Mink hated. "She's lonely," he found himself saying aloud. "Abandoned." He saw a book on the kitchen table, titled The Works of Pisa Mirlanda. It had a painting on the cover of a hideous creature -- hairy and snarling with a beak and claws. There was a quote under the title, a blurb by somebody named Bridget James that read, clear as day, The pride of the proven. Then the tea whistle blew and he came back to himself.
The miasma of philosopher weed that had settled in his head suddenly cleared away and Mink looked up. In an instant, he realized that his charge must have at some time stopped walking. He had to bring himself up short so as not to plough right through the fellow. He knew, also instantly, that he was made and reached for his gun. The mark never turned around but screeched with a high pitched trill like a tea whistle giving its all. Mink got his hand on the grip and his finger on the trigger as the shadow before him spun backward, the fellow's arm clocking Mink across the side of the face. He thought he felt something soft brush against his cheek as he went down, hitting his head on the busted concrete. Dizzy as he was he lifted the gun.
The weapon was kicked away. He made a move to get up, but then that huge clown shoe, clipped him under the chin and he went down again. Fighting hard to stay conscious, he heard a car pull up. There were voices, but they didn't speak English or really any language he'd ever heard before. The sound was like burbling, like the murmurings of a rusty hinge. He was groggy and squinting into the headlights, groping around for his pistol on the concrete. Instead of the gun, his fingers passed over those enormous shoes. There were three sets of them. He looked up and saw three shadowed forms looming over him. He reached down by his ankle, lifted his pant leg and ripped away the switch blade he kept taped to his shin. Above he heard them gibberishing about him.
"Enjoy," he said, flicked the knife open and stabbed it into one of the big shoes. There was a horrific screech and then the beating commenced. They pummeled his head and kicked him in the ribs. One of them hit him with something heavy. He saw stars, tasted blood, and caught a brief glimpse of the young woman in her kitchen drinking a cup of tea before everything went black. Next he knew, he woke, grunting, a light shining in his eyes. "Shit," he said, thinking they'd not finished with him yet.
"Hell of a place to catch a nap," said a voice from behind the light. It was Gage, kneeling next to him. "Can you get up?"
"They fucking worked me over," he whispered, barely able to talk. His mouth was dry and his head was pounding. "Get that light out of my eyes."
"Come on. I'm gonna lift you into the car. You ready?"
"OK, OK, give me a second."
"Who was it?"
"I never saw them. They stayed in the dark, ducked into those overcoats and under the hats. Three of them. They had a car."
"Did you catch the number?"
He shook his head. "Let's do this," he said. Gage reached under his partner's arms and lifted. Once Mink was able to get his feet beneath him, he found he could stand on his own. "You can let go of me."
"Your eyes are fucked up, dilated, and you got blood on your chin. Otherwise you look about the same as usual."
"I got a lump on the back of my neck. They sand bagged me, the bastards. Everyone of these mother fuckers has got an appointment with the Beautician. I'm not blowing smoke."
"We'll get them," said Gage.
"Look around with that flashlight and see if you see my piece. I dropped it when they kicked me in the face."
"I already have it in my pocket."
"My knife's in one of their feet. They got big feet."
"The guy I followed did too."
"How many of these jokers are there?"
"It's like a gang or something," said Gage. "Crazy. What? They all get together and kidnap cats and torture them? Also, what's with the coordinated outfits -- the brown overcoats and hats. They must be some real douche bags." He took Mink by the shoulders and led him in the direction of the car.
"What happened with your guy?"
"Get in. We'll have a pull of Count Brown's, and I'll tell you about it. You're not gonna believe it. " They got into the car and Gage started it up and pulled away from the curb. He took his hands off the wheel momentarily and unscrewed the cap from the bottle. "Have a hit of this shit. It's good for what ails you."
Mink took the bottle and chugged it. He shivered and passed it back. "What happened?" he asked.
"Well," said Gage, "I followed the guy. He didn't seem to have a car. He was headed East. We went about four blocks and were passing these old warehouses that have been refurbished into apartments. You know where I mean, over on Ten Hill Road?"
"Darlene's mother used to live in one of them," said Mink.
"So I'm tailing the guy, no problem, when all of a sudden he turns into an alleyway between two of the buildings. It's dark as shit in there, but I don't wanta take out the flashlight cause then he'll know I'm tailing him. I thought maybe the alley went all the way through and came out the other side. I definitely had my gun out, though, in case he tried to jump me."
"Eventually I came to a brick wall. There was no way he could have passed me by. It wasn't that wide. I took out the flashlight and turned it on. On the ground, I see the brown overcoat. I pick it up. It's still warm. And underneath it were these..." Gage reached for his inside jacket pocket and pulled out three feathers, each about a foot long. He glanced briefly away from the road ahead of him and said, "Turn on the light."
Mink leaned forward and pushed the switch.
"You ever see feathers like that before?" asked Gage. They were white, speckled with a bright red.
"Is it blood?"
Gage shook his head. "That's the color of them."
"From a pretty big bird," said Mink. "So what happened to the guy?"
Gage shrugged. "He disappeared. This is one cagey cat torturer."
"From the looks of it, he's torturing birds too," said Mink.
"Sick fuck. Forget the million. I want this guy now."
"How'd you find me?"
"You must have been out for a while. I had to get back to the car and then I searched up and down every street West of the museum. I mean, who knew what came of you. No answer on the phone, and last thing you told me, you were heading into the Crumble. I didn't know what to think. When I first saw you on the sidewalk, I thought you were a dog someone hit."
"Listen, next time you come across some of that philosopher weed, keep it the hell away from me. That shit did me dirty."
"It didn't make you smarter?" asked Gage, laughing.
"Confusing," said Mink. "Really vivid but loopy and it comes on like an avalanche."
"Yeah," said Gage. "That's the best part."