Companions of Fear
Gage supported Mink's weight, his partner's arm slung across his shoulders, as they shuffled in tandem down the carpeted hallway of the apartment building. The light at the opposite end flickered on and off, strobing the pathetic scene.
"How come every time I come over here to Darlene's place, somebody's cooking cabbage?" asked Gage.
Mink leaned back his swollen head and opened his eyes wider than a squint. "They cook that shit 24/7," said Mink. "In the apartment you don't really smell it, but the hallway's a damn gas chamber."
"Who's eating all that cabbage?"
"When I'm feeling better I'm gonna knock on all the doors and find out. Then there's gonna be trouble."
They came to a door in the middle of the hall, apartment 3B. Gage tapped the lower door panel with the tip of his shoe. They waited. Gage tapped again. A few seconds later there was the sound of the chain being slid out of place and the knob turned. The door swept back and a young woman appeared. She wore a pair of green pajama bottoms and a red T-shirt bearing the Tenniel illustration of the hookah smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Her hair was auburn, mid-length, her eyes were green, and she had a pencil tucked behind her right ear. She shook her head and folded her arms.
"If it isn't the tinsel dicks," she said.
Gage reached up his free hand and saluted.
"What happened to the boy wonder, here?" she asked.
"He got beat up by a gang of cat torturers."
"Bring him in," she said and backed away. She closed the door once they'd entered the apartment.
Mink unhooked his arm from around his partner's shoulders and hobbled to an old upholstered easy chair. He set himself into it and groaned. "Baby, I've been rolled," he said and gave a split lipped smile.
"Keep it up," she said to him. "I'm not going with someone who's been made a gimp through their own foolishness. You better get another job instead of working for that creepy old Chinslow or we're gonna part company." She stared at him and he closed his eyes to escape her gaze.
"Where were you when this was happening? Some partner," she said turning to Gage.
He didn't respond but sat down at a card table in the middle of the room. Darlene left and came back with a plastic bag of pills, a bottle of whiskey and three glasses. She poured a glass, and then opened the plastic bag and ran her fingers through the different colored capsules. "What d'ya say? Percocet?"
"Cool," said Mink.
She handed him the drink and the pill and kissed him on the forehead. Stepping back, she took a seat at the table with Gage. He'd already poured two more glasses. He pushed one toward her.
"I'd have taken him to my place, but there's this conflict going on between Chinslow and St. Martin," he said. "I'm a little wary of St. Martin making a move before the time limit is up."
"Making a move?" asked Darlene.
"Coming after us," said Gage.
"Oh, so you brought him here? Thanks. Ice picks all around. Why don't you two get out of that stupid mess and join the real world." She took the pencil from behind her ear and laid it in the crease of a book that lay open on the table. She pushed it and a notebook off to the side.
"It's all I know," said Gage.
"Hey, I lived that life. You remember? And right now I'm three months away from my Masters degree in English and I'm teaching college classes."
Gage laughed with his eyes closed.
"Professor Gage," said Mink. "Today he will expound on the poetry of Keats."
"You're already on thin ice," she said to Mink.
Darlene reached into her pajama pants and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She tapped two out of the pack, took one and held the other toward Gage. He grabbed it between his fingers. She lit up and passed him the lighter.
"Get that ashtray behind you," she said, nodding to Gage.
He reached behind him and lifted a varnished half a coconut shell off the television set.
"OK, let's hear it," she said.
The partners, going back and forth, and sometimes talking over each other, relayed to her the story of Chinslow and the two million and Nestis March.
"Kidnapping old ladies," she said and shook her head with disgust. "Mink, if you two manage to get out of this in one piece, you better promise me, no more hoodluming or we're seriously through."
Mink put his right hand over his heart. "I promise."
"After tonight, the two of you are out of here. And don't come back till it's over. I'm not taking one the hard way because old leather face Chinslow is out of cash. He deserves to be clipped. Fucking guy is out of his mind. The powerball...," she said and laughed. "That's desperate."
"Well, the guy in the brown overcoat was actually at the museum," said Mink. "Maybe the old lady has it in her."
"You could help us," said Gage.
"Human shield?" asked Darlene.
He took the feathers out of his inner jacket pocket and laid them on the table. "This is what I found under that guy's empty overcoat. You ever see feathers like that before?"
Darlene picked one up and brought it closer to her eyes. She turned it in her hand and shook her head. "It looks like they're splattered with fresh blood, but it's actually the pattern of the feather."
Gage took a drink and a hit of his second cigarette. "That's an unusual feather," he said. "Why don't you take it over to the college and show it to a bird teacher."
"A bird teacher?" she said.
"You know," he said. "Somebody who teaches about birds. They've got classes about birds there, right?"
"He means an ornithologist," said Mink.
"Yeah." Gage nodded. "Find out what kind of bird that's from."
Darlene sighed. "OK. I'll see what I can do. I don't know if there's an ornithologist on campus, but there might be."
"If you can find out," said Mink. "And the bird is rare, we might be able to trace who's sold one recently and to who."
"To whom," said Darlene.
"Pass me another pill," said Mink.
She put her thumb to her top teeth and flicked it at him. "That's your plan? From the sounds of it, you two are already history."
"Got any ideas?" asked Gage.
"Look," she said, "the old lady claims that the guy is after cats, right? So go to the shelter and adopt a cat. Get a cheap tracking device at Radio Shack and put that on its collar. Drop the cat off somewhere in Ms. March's neighborhood and hide out. When someone snatches the cat, follow him, find Ingrid..."
"Igbid," said Mink.
"Igbid, and your problem's solved. Except, of course, for the fact that the old lady has to win your boss a 30 million dollar powerball."
Gage looked at Mink and smiled.
"Baby, you're a genius," said Mink.
"Do you think that's a good idea?" she asked.
"I like it," said Gage.
"Me too," said Mink.
"It's fucking stupid," she said. "You two are finished. I'm looking at a couple of ghosts. How can that work? It's so far- fetched."
"It could work," said Gage and he sat back in his chair, relaxed.
There was silence for a time. Mink closed his eyes and drifted off. Darlene smoked. Gage sipped his whiskey.
Eventually she leaned toward Gage, and whispering as if not quite certain Mink was asleep, said, "You've got to help me get him out of the life after this."
Gage sat stone still for a long while and then nodded. "What are you reading?" he asked.
She pulled the book back in front of her. "Emerson."
"A poet?" he asked.
"Not a great one. A philosopher," she said.
"What'd he figure out?"
"Everything is connected."
"I knew that," said Gage.
"When his first wife died, he loved her so much, a few months after she was buried he had her dug up so he could look at her."
Gage grimaced. "Kinky," he said.
Darlene lifted her gaze and shook her head. She reached for the plastic bag of pills and dug through it, coming out with a capsule that was half black and half turquoise. She popped it in her mouth and took a drink of whiskey. "You want any?" she asked.
"Gimme a pink one," he said.