Companions of Fear
Gage cut the wheel and the car pulled into the parking lot at Doodle's. He put it in park but didn't turn it off. Instead he looked over at Mink and said, "The one thing I want to know is what happened to that guy I chased into the alley? Where'd he go? I had my flashlight."
"I don't know," said his partner. "But if I find him, I'm gonna ventilate him. His friends did River Dance on me. There's gonna be plenty of payback."
Gage turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed twice and turned off. "We'll get them. Are you going to be OK?"
Mink nodded. "What are we getting?"
"What else? The Count."
"Get 3. I need medication."
"Will do," said Gage. He got out of the car.
"Give my best to Doodle," said Mink.
The door closed and Gage walked across the parking lot to the liquor store. A jingle bell sounded over his head as he entered. The cramped place smelled like cigarettes and there were dusty bottles everywhere. The grimy windows filtered the daylight. A short man with a shock of white hair and a face like a ruddy weasel stood up from his seat behind the counter.
"If it isn't the walking tombstone," he said.
"Hey, Doodle," said Gage.
"Where's your other half?"
"He's out in the car. Got beat up last night. He needs to get a bag on."
"Don't we all," said the little man. He came around from behind the counter and approached Gage. "You two connoisseurs are in for a treat today."
"You gonna spot us a bottle cause we're such good customers?"
"Forget that shit," said Doodle. He hacked into the back of his cigarette hand till Gage thought the little guy was headed down for the count. When he recovered he said, "I got something new in that you guys are gonna go for."
"Loose women?" asked Gage, who followed the owner toward the back wall of the store.
"Here you go," said Doodle, grabbing a bottle shelved right next to the row of Long Nights. "The Count's outdone himself this time." He turned the quart so that Gage could see the label. "Sudden Afternoons."
"A new one," said Gage. "What's the taste?"
"Passion fruit and endive."
"What's passion fruit?"
"Like guavas and shit."
"Why is it Sudden Afternoon?"
"Well," said Doodle and paused to draw on his cigarette, "they already got the day and night. Where else are they gonna go?"
Gage nodded. "I take it the sudden part has to do with your need to hit the can after you drink it."
"Nah, come on. All the young people drink this stuff. It's got 5% more alcohol than the other two and also some kind of chemicals that give you energy."
"In that case," said Gage, "give us three bottles."
As he waited at the counter for Doodle to ring up and bag his purchase, his cell rang. He answered it.
"Gage," said a man's voice.
"Chin. What's up?"
"Where's my powerball cat?"
"We're working on it. We've got some leads but we've got a little ways to go."
"Get there," said Chinslow. "I'm tired of entertaining Nostradamus's granny here on my last week alive. She's a pain in the ass. Never lets up. Get back here with the cat before I plug her."
"Chill, Chin, we're on it. Do me a favor and ask Ms. March if she can cook us up another clue. Anything."
"I'm doomed," said Chinslow.
"We got some days left. We'll get the cat. You'll get your number. St. Martin'll get his cash, and we'll get our bonus."
"I want results," said the boss and hung up.
Gage took the bag of bottles from Doodle, wished him a sudden afternoon, and went back out into the parking lot. Mink had the windows rolled down and the radio blasting. He rested in his seat, eyes closed, leaning in a twisted position against the door, one arm dangling out of the window with a burning cigarette between two fingers. The clown trapped in the bottle on the billboard watched over him.
Gage got in the car. "Hey, are you gonna be OK or should I take you back to Darlenes?"
Mink's eyes fluttered open and he slowly sat forward, wincing with pain. "Just open the first bottle and pass it over to me. I need some relief."
"You should have taken some pills from your girl friend."
"I took a mouthful before we left this morning. I just need a chaser."
Gage handed his partner one of the bottles. "Check it out," he said, showing off the label the way Doodle had for him.
Mink squinted and read aloud. "Sudden Afternoons."
"Passion Fruit and Endive. The Count's latest creation."
"I can feel my asshole puckering."
"Higher alcohol percentage and something that gives you energy," said Gage as he turned off the radio.
Mink shrugged. "Cool." He unscrewed the cap, lifted the bottle and took a big swig. "Wow," he cried and wiped his mouth.
"Let me put it this way. Remember that homeless guy who lived behind the dumpster at the burger joint?"
"What burger joint?"
"The one over by The Crumble. You know, Burger Witch."
"Oh that guy. Yeah."
"Well, if you put a handkerchief under his armpit for a week and then came back and got it and rung it out over a glass, that's the taste. Plus endive, whatever the fuck that is."
"It's supposed to taste like guava."
"You ever taste a guava?"
Gage shook his head. "Oh well," he said. He lifted a bottle for himself out of the bag and opened it. He took a long drink. "Carbonated swamp water," he said.
A few moments of silence passed in which the partners drank and stared at the giant clown. "What's the plan?" Mink finally asked.
"I swear, I think we should go with what Darlene came up with. We get a cat, we rig it with a tracking device, and we use it as bait."
"I liked it too," said Mink. "Sometimes she's smarter than she realizes."
"This shit's pretty strong."
"I know, I'm already half loaded and I got a whole half a bottle left."
"Where do we get a cat?"
"The first question is what kind of cat do we get? I've been thinking about this since Darlene mentioned it. You would think that a guy who's into torturing cats would want a big one, more cat torturing bang for your buck."
"Makes sense," said Gage.
"Or... is he into the torturing because the cats are helpless, in which case, a kitten would be his ultimate pleasure."
"It's creepy. I'm gonna have to plug this dude, whoever he is."
"So we figure that out and get the cat and then we're gonna need a cat box for the back of your car, a collar, the pet tracking device, cat litter and some food to keep the thing alive."
"So what, we go to a shelter?"
"A shelter'll take too long. They'll check our ID and shit and we'll have to wait like four or five days."
"Not a pet store," said Gage.
"It's not that hard. We just have to go back by the drive-thru at Cootcher Fried Chicken. I see stray cats back there all the time. We get some chicken, lure its ass over and nab it."
"That sounds good enough."
"Before we get the cat, we should head over to The People's Warehouse. We can get all the shit we need there cheap. They've got two football fields worth of pet supplies."
"You'll have to go in. I never go in that place," said Gage.
"It's gives me a bad vibe. It's too, uh..., vast to actually be any good. Man, I'm looped."
"Must be the fuckin endive," said Mink cause I'm seeing like two of you right now. Jeez."
Gage started the car and was about to put it in gear when his cell rang. He answered, took a sip, and put it on speaker phone.
"You there?" said the boss.
The partners looked at each other and laughed silently.
"Yeah," said Gage.
"Nestis came up with something for you."
"You're on a first name basis with her, Chin?" asked Mink. "Sounds hot."
"Shut up," said Chinslow. "She told me to tell you to remember pudgie."
Gage laughed out loud.
"You think it's funny?" yelled Chinslow.
"Come on, boss. Pudgie? What the fuck?"
"That's what she said."
"That's a thin lead," said Mink.
"Well, that's what she's got so far. I told her to keep mesmerizing or whatever the hell she does. She said she's gonna try cause she wants that cat back."
"Pudgie it is," said Gage. "Call me if she gives you anything more substantial."
"Hurry guys," said Chinslow. "I can't take much more of her."
"We're all over it," said Mink.
Gage clicked his phone off and the two broke out laughing. "This gets crazier by the minute," said Gage.
"Who could forget pudgie?" said Mink as leaned forward and poked his finger around in the car ashtray.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for this," he said and held up the roach from the joint of Philosopher weed they smoked in front of the museum the night before. "This'll be the exquisite capper on my high. The pain has fled."
They sat in silence, drinking Sudden Afternoon, toking weed and burning their fingertips. Gage opened the third bottle and started the car. He put it in gear and backed up. Just when he had the car aimed at the parking lot exit and had put it in drive, he said. "You know, I do remember Pudgie."
"Is this a sexual confession?" asked Mink.
"There was a display at the museum last night that I saw while killing time. A set of dentures from this guy who had been the breakfast chef at the White House. Harl Pudgie. I think the Philosopher weed helped me remember."
"What about him?"
"I don't know. He's dead and his cracked old teeth are in the museum."
"Which president?" asked Mink.
"The hell with that for now. Let's go over to Cootchers and get a cat."
Gage pulled out into traffic, almost got hit by a UPS truck and almost hit a green convertible. "These chuckle heads don't know how to drive," he said and passed the third bottle of Sudden Afternoon to his partner.
"You might be too messed up to drive."
"I'm wasted but I have a lot of energy."