"Can I ask you a favor?" She said in a voice as deep and smoky as a...philosophy debate...for smokers?
"You can ask, doll," I replied, pouring myself an S&K (Scotch and Kool-aid).
Kool-aid and Scotch: Because it's time to fight children.
"Dude, it really creeps me out when you call me shit like 'doll," she snapped back, crossing and uncrossing those shining porcelain ribbons she called legs.
"What's your name, sweetheart? Call me old fashioned, but I don't do favors for strangers," I motioned toward her with my drink, as if to offer her one. Though it was an empty gesture - I only had the one sippy cup, after all, and I put my name on it (because it's mine) - but it didn't matter; dames like that, they never let you do them any favors. Except when they come into your office and ask for them. Which she did. So I guess they do.
"It's me. It's Michael Swaim."
A sexy, sexy lady.
"Michael," I thought to myself, "curious name for a broad. Probably French for 'Michelle." Come to think of it, there was something out of place about her. It was as though she had only seen our culture from a distant spyglass, and now she could only dimly guess at our ways from what little she could make out. She had to be foreign-born. Or retarded.
"Where you from, gorgeous?"
"Uh...down the hall?"
Ah, I knew it. I knew she had to be from some other, far-off place. Somewhere exotic: Where men wore tuxedos to the toilet, and women like her still knew their place, which was anywhere they wanted (but mostly the kitchen). A lady like that, she's not an event, she's a situation; she unfolds over years.
Wow. That metaphor got gross in a hurry.
"Now that we're finally acquainted, Michelle," I settled into my old leather chair and propped my feet up on the desk. The dry, sweet smell of unmixed Kool-aid still dusting the air "do you mind if I call you Michelle?"
"So, so much," she instantly replied.
"That's good, Michelle. I much prefer the sound of your native tongue to the brutal grunts of English. It's a tongue I hope to become more... familiar with, over time."
"God! No! Listen, we've got a problem-"
"Hold up there, honeybucket," I held up a hand to cut her off.
"Honeybucket? Like the port-a-potties?" She was disturbed, but curious. Exactly what I wanted.
Listen, you need to trust me here: There is definitely no honey in that bucket. It is a very misleading name.
"What's with all this 'we' talk? I haven't agreed to anything yet," I walked to the window and looked out into the night. The night: The only lover that's ever stayed with me through the bad times, and the worse. The night: The only woman who's ever held me like a mother when I was too sick to stand. The night: When I was kicked and bleeding (often by horses; it's complicated,) she was always there to nurse me back to health. Her velvet envelopment was my constant companion. The night, my night - my angry, sexy, kind of slutty night.
I forget where I was going with this, but my raging erection obviously had someplace to be.
"Wh-Jesus Christ, dude! Do you have a boner?" Michelle protested, like she'd never seen one before. A girl like that, she'd probably seen more boners than the second season of Growing Pains.
"I always get hard at sunset," I explained, "I'm a man of the night. But that's neither here nor there-"
"No, I'm pretty sure it's right there," she said, averting her eyes.
"Let's not get off track," I steered her back to the matter at hand. She was obviously a flighty little bird. I'm told that's not an unusual thing to be, for birds.
"Look, the boss says somebody's been stealing office supplies. Like, to an insane degree. Eighteen cases - cases, mind you - of toner went missing this morning. He said he's gonna have to fire somebody if it doesn't stop."
That's right, Toner: Office Gold, Connecticut Tea, the Big Gritty.
"So you want me to solve this case for you. Is that it, hotpants?"
"Hotp - no, no I don't want you to 'solve' anything. I just want you to stop stealing office supplies."
"Fine. I'm on the case. I get two hundred dollars a day plus expenses - "
"I will absolutely not ever pay you anything."
"And there's one condition."
"No. The answer is no."
"When this is all over, you owe me a kiss. A broad like you, I figure you can get your hands on money without much ado. But a kiss - that'll mean something..."
When I turned around, she was already gone. From her chair. She seemed to be having trouble with the door.
"How do I...?" she made a frustrated motion at the doorknob.
"No, you twist it," I said, making a twisting motion.
"No shit you twist a doorknob. It's not budging."
"You like... you lift."
"Yeah, lift and separate...those legs!" I quipped.She seemed like an educated gam-holder; I figured she'd appreciate a good play on words. But she just threw up into her hands a little, which made the doorknob situation worse.
So I had a thief to catch and a puke-handed lady to impress. Lucky for me, I knew just the man to talk to.
Foster was an office supply manager with a nasty little nervous habit of chewing whenever he lied. I had lunch with him every day. The son of a bitch never told me a word of truth.
"A little birdy tells me some office supplies have gone missing." I said, settling onto the bench across from him. I tried to spin it backwards - to give the impression of informality - but I couldn't figure out which end of a bench was backwards. I sat cross-legged in the middle of the table instead.
There is absolutely no casual way to sit on a bench. No, not even sideways; that just makes it look like you've got hemorrhoids.
"You mean the ones you stole?" He said, lying into a Turkey sandwich.
"Nothing big before today, but it looks like somebody got a little greedy. Got in over their heads, maybe."
"Nothing big? Last month you stole a copier and rode it down the hill and into the marina. That was pretty big."
"You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
"I...yes? I just told you about it. Just now."
Playing word games with me, eh? He had a gift, this one; he could yap all day and never say a word. Luckily I had an idea or two on how to make him talk.
The tires screamed into the darkness like murder victims. The car rocked violently, swerving from lane to lane like a drunk after a three day bender. I was pretty drunk from this three day bender, but that was the car, I swear. Sometimes you forget how mad this city is, and then you get on the roads and you see it up close and personal, smell the rotten stink of insanity on her breath. The people may seem like polite, well-mannered, well-adjusted folks, but then you hit those streets and you see how miserable they really are. There's no regard for the sanctity of human life - mine, yours, their own - on these concrete rivers. Sometimes you'll turn a corner and they'll just be standing there in the middle of the road: Blank. Unaware. Waiting. Hoping. Praying for the sweet release of death. Sometimes that road is a sidewalk.
Foster's face went white when he spotted me. I looked into his eyes and smiled. He didn't smile back.
Somehow I had scored a meeting with a man they call 'The Boss.' He knew everything that went on in this town - hell, the bastard was responsible for half of it. If I was going to catch a lead anywhere, it would be here.
"We need to talk about Foster," he said, motioning for me to take a seat.
"That caught your attention, eh?" I called back, pouring myself eight fingers of S&K.
"Caught my...? You hit him with your car!"
Interrogation 101. 102 is fire.
"He talked, didn't he?" I replied laconically.
"No! He didn't talk! He's probably never going to talk again! He's in a coma!"
"Well, isn't that convenient?"
"No! It is entirely inconvenient! Talking was an integral part of his job, right up there with being conscious and not breathing through a tube."
I scoffed and got up to leave.
"Where the hell are you going?!" He was shocked; most men don't turn their backs on The Boss and live to tell about it. Probably makes standing in line a god damn bloodbath.
"Seems like you're the one that's got questions for me. If that's the case we do this on my turf, not yours. Sure, you could kill me - but I go down and I take your precious answers with me. You want to talk? You know where to find me."
The Boss and his boy sat down across from me on the scarred vinyl of the dive's age-beaten booth. A patina of scratches cut through the cheap Diner plastic like craggy canyons on some desolate, empty desert. Plus when you moved on them, sometimes it made a fart sound.
"Who's the muscle?" I asked The Boss, downing my drink in one go. I flagged the waitress for another. The headaches were killing me; I should cut back on this crap.
"This is Harold Muntz. He's with Human Resources. Normally in a situation like this, he would explain the complaints against you and what company policies they violate, but I think he's pretty much going to start from the ground up and explain the basic concept of morality and what Deadly Sins you violate."
"We've actually met before, Mr. Brockway. Every single day since we hired you, actually," Muntz's dim stare glimmered with potential violence.
"Man like that," I said, taking in an eyeful of Muntz the Mook, "seems like you only bring him around when you want to make a point."
"Why does he keep talking like that?" Muntz asked The Boss, his thick, idiot lips coating each word with stupidity before spitting them out into the air, "does think he's in a detective movie or something?"
"Ha! Yeah, really. It's like he's Sam Spade or...wait. Good god, is that it?! You think you're in a detective movie?" The Boss started yapping on about Christ knows what. Sure, I saw his mouth moving, but the words were lost - carried away as if on an ocean breeze.
Something Muntz had said had got me thinking, and now all the pieces were falling into place.
"You are not in a detective movie! You are in a Dairy Queen," The Boss seemed to be screaming about something, but I couldn't focus; my head was spinning. Everything was starting to make sense.
"You just got thrown out of the ballpit in the children's play area for fighting! You are eating a Thin Mints Blizzard with sprinkles!"
Somebody was playing me for a sucker here, and I had a pretty good idea who.
"You could not be any further, atmospherically, from a Film Noir movie! You are wearing swim-trunks and combat boots!"
What's your point?
I bolted up suddenly and, in one smooth motion, dropped Muntz with a fork to the neck before he could make a move on me.
"JESUS!!! Why?! Why did you - where do you think you're going?!" He was sputtering, out of control. A guy like The Boss isn't used to being ignored.
"I've got a theft to solve, and if that life support doesn't hold out - maybe a murder."
"But you're the murderer! You hit him with your car, remember?!"
I left The Boss there, picking pieces of Muntz out of a chicken strip basket. I think it was a four piece.
Whatever it was, it definitely had Texas Toast.
"Thought I'd find you here, Hot Pockets."
Swaim woke with a start, one hand scrambling to cover herself with the sheets.
"Wh....Brockway? This is my house, of course you'd find me here." Her voice was thick with sleep, but she took one look at my eyes came right awake. She leapt for the nightstand; she could tell I had it all figured out. Or maybe she just saw my sword.
"Looking for this?" I tried to dismantle her gun like in the movies, but that is way, way harder than it looks, so I threw it through the window instead. The glass shattered like her false pretenses. Oh man, that was a good one!
It was nothing like all that practice at home.
"Why do you have a sword?!"
"Because I figured it all out, sexy...ass," the coy nicknames were getting harder and harder to come up with. The poison must be taking effect.
Too late. I put it all together too late.
"It was easy," I continued, stumbling towards her "once I realized where I knew you from."
"The office, where we work together every day?"
"Neither of us has ever been to Cairo. I am almost positive you don't even know what country it's in."
"The museum job. You thought I could forget? Sure, you may have fooled me with your fancy accent..."
"I'm from San Diego."
"And yes, I was distracted when you flashed those pretty legs of yours, so long they could kick eternity in the face..."
"Okay, maybe I do show off my legs a little-"
"But then I remembered that necklace you wore, and it all clicked. The Japan heist."
"Egypt. Cairo's in Egypt."
"The Emperor's jewels went missing, along with this: The Sword of Omens."
"The what? From Thundercats?"
"Then things went south for you, so you came to LA to find the one man you knew couldn't resist your charms. Me."
I swung the blade recklessly into her headboard. She flinched, but she knew I couldn't do it. I brought my face within inches of hers, the sexual tension filling the air like smoke. Also, I had lit the entire downstairs on fire before coming up here, so a lot of it was probably actual smoke.
"That poison, though. I did not see that coming," I laughed a little. She played me like a sousaphone!
"What poison?" She was playing at innocence. It didn't suit her. "Why does your breath smell like Project Reports? Have you...have you been drinking copy toner?"
"I did it for yoooouuuu," The room bucked like a ship caught in stormy waters. The poison was kicking in hard. My legs felt like discount meat, my vision was fading and I'm pretty sure that leprechaun in the corner either wasn't real or, at least there's no way he was really my dog reincarnated to take vengeance upon me.
"Where's the ball?! It was in your hand the whole time! You never even threw it; you just pretended! I'll fucking cut you!"
"You got me, baby, you got me good. But not before I did it. Not before I solved the case."
"The case? You mean the office supplies? But you stole them. How did you 'solve the case' if you're the one who...ohhh, you drank all the toner. Right. I guess that's 'solved' to you"
" You remember what you promised me? One consideration," I reminded her, "a kiss...a kiss before dying."
I seized her head and held the blade to her throat. It was an empty threat and we both knew it. Well, unless I kept swerving and falling down like this; then it was actually quite likely to kill her.
"But I have man parts," she protested. I could see it in her eyes: Regret. So, she was capable of feeling after all.
"That's okay baby, we all have our man parts. I already know what yours are: Violence, greed, deception. Me? Mine's a penis."
I crushed my mouth on top of hers; there was enough talking. The last thing a man hears shouldn't be meaningless words. My last sounds were the smack of the soft, protesting lips of the woman that killed me, the ebbing static flow of a distant highway, the plaintive screech of smoke detectors, and for some reason that song that's like "in the big country/ dreams stay with yooouuu!" Man, I hadn't heard that in forever. How did that get in my head?
You can pre-order Robert's book, Everything is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead on Amazon, or find him on Twitter, Facebook and his own site, I Fight Robots, where you can play more Noir mad-libs with words like 'night' 'city' 'scream' and 'penis' (because somebody always picks 'penis').