ADVENTURE THE 24TH - TINDERBOX
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Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
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Adventure the 24th: Tinderbox
I’m a fairly brave guy – but standing knee high in a stack of corpses with only the dull glow of fluorescent; the thin roll of ice mist seeping from the edges of the freezer into the warm night air, suddenly makes me uncomfortable…like getting’ a close shave from a four-fingered deaf mute.
I’m about to suggest to Flannery that we continue our conversation somewhere with a pulse when the lonely sound of an empty glass bottle being accidentally kicked across the tile floor echoes from the main ballroom.
“Company,” I mutter under my breath.
Flan’ draws his piece.
“I hate it when they don’t call first,” he whispers.
We’re in agreement there. Uninvited or unintentional, there’s no tellin’ how much they know or have overheard.
I close and bolt the freezer on the off chance that our mystery guest doesn’t know what’s behind door number two. Flan’ takes his place behind the double doors leading from the kitchen to the ballroom. I find a heavy metal chair that could do some damage to a knee cap if I can get close enough and get ready for the showdown.
Whoever it is, they’re certainly takin’ time. We wait as the minutes fall off like hours. Then, in the glint of moonlight filtering through the round frosted portholes appears the faded fuzzy shadow of a head bobbing like a cork in the ocean. It looks strangely familiar and I motion for Flan’ to stand down. The door opens – just a cautious bit and a minute later, Inky Noir pokes his greasy dreads through its open slit.
“H-hey,” he whispers hoarsely, his tone more scared than cautious.
I’m standing right in front of him still clutching the chair. But his eyes haven’t adjusted to the black hole beyond the doors. He’s a sitting duck minus the good sense God gave a mallard for the wrong sort of hunter.
“Hey yerself,” Flannery pipes up from behind the door.
“Relax,” I tell him, switching on the beam of my flashlight and shining it under my chin for a positive I.D.
“Whoa!” Inky mutters with a half laugh.
I’ve taken the edge off his narrow margin of surprise. Now, Inky decides to do me one better.
“Is she here?” he asks, scoping the darkness.
Flan’ and I exchange perplexed glances.
“Who?” Flannery asks him.
“Your partner,” Inky replies, “Susan Maylitz.”
I’m sort’a put off.
“I thought you said you were working a solo,” I tell Flannery.
“Me too,” he agrees, giving Inky his full attention, “I don’t know a Susan Maylitz.”
Inky doesn’t believe him.
“What’s she look like?” I ask.
Inky shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Average…maybe a cut above. Five foot five. Peroxide blonde. Wearing a trench, heels and a gold anklet on her left leg.”
Flannery raises a curious brow.
“Left leg?” he asks.
Inky nods with certainty.
“He’d make a good undercover man,” I suggest.
Flannery isn’t amused.
“Obviously she made enough of an impression,” I say to Inky.
“And it doesn’t strike you as a bit peculiar?” Flannery asks Inky.
Inky thinks things over. That is, he stands there with a stare so blank even a clean sheet of eight by eleven has more clues.
“Maybe she’s workin’ the case,” Inky explains.
“Or just the room,” I tell him.
This boy’s no fool. He’s the village idiot in a town that can’t afford any more like him. In communist China they’d’a drowned him at birth. Hitler’s Germany would have been more humane and just castrated the dumb son of a bitch.
“You’ve been fooled,” says I, like the man who’s never been as naïve for lesser things.
“…and she told you to find us here?” Flannery confirms.
“Right,” says Flannery, cocking his piece.
“You’ve been set up,” I tell Inky, “And so have we.”
“Who do you suppose she is?” says Flannery.
I have my suspicions.
No, it can’t be. Not her. Not now. And why?
None of the usual suspects seems to click – motive, logic, common sense. Maybe because nothing’s made any sense in this upside down cake I’ve been getting my mitts slick into.
“No time to find out,” I reason, “Where’s your car?”
“Parked about a block from where I met you.”
We come up with a plan on the spot. I tell Flannery to get to his cruiser and radio for backup, leaving out the specifics just in case Inky’s our plant. Sure, he’s a moron. But the ol’ cliché of ‘crazy like a fox’ comes to mind. I don’t like him. Hell, I don’t trust him – that’s more to the point.
“Then get back here with the cavalry,” I conclude, “How long do you think that’ll be?”
Flan’ checks his watch. Ten minutes. He’s about to leave when another thought comes into play, smacking me upside my deductive reasoning like a stray tennis ball from center court at the Wimbledon finals.
“What about you?” Flannery asks.
“Making sure the dead don’t suddenly rise up and relocate.”
Inky goes white. Even in moonlight he turns ghost.
“Relax,” I assure him, “Nobody’s going anywhere. Besides, you don’t believe in spooks, do you?”
Flannery nods, leaving Inky and I alone with our stiff company.
. . .
I don’t say much for the first ten minutes or so – a silent truce that drives Inky wild but leaves me with a few thoughts to consider more thoroughly. True, Mico’s not a blonde. Even taking into account the time it would take to dip her mop in a bottle of Miss Clairol there hasn’t been enough for her to get from the hotel to Inky’s place. Then again, I didn’t make sure I wasn’t shadowed. Nah…it’s too ridiculous and too unlikely. On the other hand – maybe it fits…just right.
“What’s in the freezer?”
“Any guesses?” I ask.
Another long pause. Then…
“It’s a body, isn’t it?” he prods.
“Good for you,” I tell him, “Another ten easy lessons and you’ll make captain of the force.”
I forget that Inky’s got a personal investment.
“No,” I reason, “Your darling isn’t among the dearly departed. But you can probably find somebody just as good.”
Inky’s pensive and giddy. He makes a B-line for the freezer, but I’m quicker on my feet.
“What’s the big idea?” I ask.
“I got’a know for sure,” he tells me.
So I stand aside. He’s a big boy. He can handle it. Only he can’t and goes to pieces when the sight of a hundred and one stiffies greets his kisser.
I’m not the touchy feely type, but my hand instinctively covers his mouth at the sound of high heel footsteps echoing from the ballroom. I hold my breath and his and wait for them to get closer. Only they don’t. Instead I hear a funny sort of trickling noise, like a faucet’s been left running. It’s only after a long few minutes that the distinct fumes lick under the kitchen doors.
There’s a sudden vacuum of air that gets sucked under the doors. It’s followed by a deafening roar, amplified throughout those cavernous acoustics and then, a meteor-sized fireball that comes crashing down our dark hideaway. Inky dives to the left. We’re momentarily separated by a fist of flame that blows open the doors, saturating everything in burning embers. Inky’s quick on his feet.
“This way!” he shouts, directing me to a stairwell that I hadn’t made out in the dark.
“That goes up!” I holler.
But there’s no time for an alternative escape route. The kitchen is really beginning to cook; the remnants of grease on the backsplashes and ceiling turn the place into our own private crematorium. We bolt up the stairs with the inferno trailing us like a pack of hungry fire bugs. Nothing is spared in the blaze.
The stairs open onto the Billenfaire’s projection room; a dead end with small window boxes that look out onto the theatre. It’s our only escape. I take off my coat and wrap my elbow in its insular fabric before breaking one of the window boxes. The stairwell behind us acts like an open chimney, sucking up an acrid geyser of smoke that quickly fills the room. Hoisting Inky through the opening, I shove his chubby carcass through to the other side before taking a dive myself.
We’re on the balcony now, an expanse of thirty rows wrapping the full back wall of the theatre. There’s six pair of exit doors separated by moth eaten remnants of crushed velvet red curtains. One by one, I try each set of doors. Just my luck…they’re chained from the outside.
“Look,” Inky shouts.
A small figure is standing center stage and putting her whole weight behind a couple of metal garbage barrels filled with gasoline. The barrels tip, spilling their contents into the moldy orchestra pit and down the isles.
“Hey!” I holler to the figure on the stage.
More the outdoorsy type I guess - this is her big barbeque. She lights a match from the stage, tossing it into the pit. The musty remnants of popcorn stained upholstery become a tinderbox – a carpet of fire stretching its long burning fingertips in our direction. Behind that glow, I think I see the figure blow us a farewell kiss.
I must be dreaming. Am I? No time to think it over. Like a spirit from Houdini’s cavalcade of cheap disappearing acts – she’s gone - poof; in a puff of smoke.
“We’re gonna die here,” Inky surmises.
He’s wrong, but I don’t have time to argue with him. Instead I manage to tear one of the massive drapes from its metal rod. I tie one end to the balcony and toss the other over the side. Putting two and two together and coming up with at least a few extra decimal points, Inky backs into a corner.
“Are you crazy?” he screams, “Wait for your friend to come back with help.”
I survey the wreck. Everything’s going to hell – but fast. We’ve minutes at best and even that’s a stretch.
“No time!” I reason.
Inky shakes his head.
“You really are nuts!” he tells me.
“You have no idea,” I confirm, grabbing hold of the curtain and lowering myself down to ground level.
“Wait for me!”
He’s so clumsy. It’s embarrassing. He practically sails the entire length of the drop on his ass and damn near crushes me in the process. When he comes to a complete and sudden thud, one limb over a chair, his head wedged between two cup holders, I pull him to his feet and point to an extinguisher clinging behind its protective glass on the back wall. I jump a few rows, flames licking all around, and break open the security glass. We’re both surprised when it triggers the fire alarm.
I toss the container into the blazing isle. It only takes a few minutes to preheat beyond regulation temperature and explode. The well spring of foam it produces is enough to create an escape path for two. We make it into the lobby. It still hasn’t caught fire.
There I discover Flannery – lying in a pool of his own blood, one bullet hole neatly plugged through his left ear. I check for a pulse. It’s the romantic in me, I suppose. But, fueled by gusts of fresh air the firestorm leaches ahead. The wall behind us melts like sour cream in mid-July. I don’t have time to drag Flan’ to a descent burial. His’ll have to be well done.
Inky and I race out of the lobby and onto the street. There’s already a minor crowd in front. A few nobles race to our aid. Inky plays it up for all its worth, complete with a doleful panged look of survival and a limp he didn’t seem to exhibit just a few moments before. What an attention whore – but it works…for me too. The crowd comes to gawk and ask a bunch of questions. I slip almost effortlessly into the night.
I turn. A rather burley looking bugger in cook’s gear, still clutching his spatula is standing in front of me. I could deck him and make a break for it, but he’s just not worth that much effort.
“What?” I say.
“I’ve seen better days,” I admit.
He gives me a half smile.
“You wanna clean up a bit?” he asks.
He takes me to his greasy spoon just across the way – a diner the board of health overlooked.
“Can’s in the back,” he explains, breaking out some fresh china and silverware.
I wait until he’s engrossed in his work, then sneak out the back way, through the alley and down a few blocks to a cab stand.
. . .
When I get back to the hotel I find the door locked. I must’a lost my key in the excitement, so I ring several times for Mico. At first she doesn’t answer and that has me thinkin’. But then she appears, like blithe spirit with a hangover of confusion and barefoot in a negligee and paper thin housecoat.
“Has housekeeping been good to you, Angel?” I suggest.
She’s bewildered. Then again, I’m not exactly an oil painting, unless you count something by Munch. I’m covered in soot and dust, my knees soaked through in great big red blotches of Flan’s blood.
“W-what happened?” she asks.
Only there’s more, ‘how come?’ than ‘why?’ in the throb of her voice.
“Later,” I suggest, turning my attention to more pressing matters. I swagger in like I own the place and close the door behind me with all the zest of a swarthy cowhand who’s come back from the range to the girl he left blowing with the tumbleweeds. Well, just about.
I gingerly reach for Mico’s waist sash.
She hesitates, though she’s suddenly relieved, “Don’t you think of anything else?”
“Do you?” I ask.
I tip her back onto the nearby couch. She doesn’t know it, but my interests are purely investigative. She reclines into the cushions, thin little tease of a smile on her blood red lips, feet rising like a pair of checkered flags at the raceway – up and high over her head. Gentlemen…start your engines.
I tenderly reach under that light covering, grabbing hold and riding the contours of her left calf downward. My fingers snag on a gold anklet.
“You broke my heart, Angel,” I tell her, gritting my teeth with renewed venom, “Yes you did!”
I’m unprepared for her curt reply – a swift kick to the head with her right leg sends me flying over the back of the couch. Ashamed to admit it, but I topple to the ground like a new born on all fours. I’m about to recover when another hard kick to my right temple leaves me woozy and seeing double.
Coming back into focus I make out the hall door swinging open and hear the sound of those tiny little scissor legs racing toward the elevators. A moment later there’s a terrifying scream and faint echo of weight falling from a great height.
I get to my feet in a hurry, but find that my head isn’t as clear as it should be; staggering a bit, still unable to keep steady focus as I make my way out of the room and down the corridor.
The rest of the scene plays out at the end of the hall – open elevator shaft with no car in and a faded yellow ‘Danger Wet Floor’ sign propped against a nearby bucket and scrub brush. The cracked floor tiles beneath my feet are damp. Upstairs maid must’a hightailed it to the can for a smoke...maybe.
I peer down into the open shaft. Too dark. Ten to one, it’s a body at the other end. But I’m only fifty percent sure it’s Mico’s.
Eddie Mars will return in his next adventure
– Small Mercies, on March 16, 2007.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).