City of Rust is my attempt at a full length mystery/thriller novel, a post-apocalyptic noir in a world that has seen an invasion from beyond the confines of Earth, and has just barely survived.
Flame danced wildly; it began in a sudden spark and flash, then calmed to a steady flame, steady like a belly dancer at the end of her shift, the frantic beat of her hips calmed to a more relaxed rhythm. I moved the lit match to the tip of the soggy cigarette that hung from my lips, then stopped. I shook the flame out as I remembered that it was a self-lighting brand, just drag hard on it and voila! Instant cancer. Which reminded me of the second reason I didn’t need the match: I had given up smoking.
“Of all the weeks to quit,” I muttered to myself, and stuffed the butt back into its pack, a crumpled pack of New Luckies! That had been sitting in my coat pocket for over a week now.
“You quit almost a month ago, Blake,” a lilting voice chided me deep in my ear canal. I ignored her.
It had been a long night already, and was shaping up to be an even longer one. I checked my watch, an anachronism sitting upon my wrist, the arms ticking away slowly, counting down the time I had left upon this little orb that we like to call home. Two-thirty, the indigo arms glowed softly. I sighed, which got me to coughing.
“God-damned ash,” I wheezed. Air was filled with it. Still.
“I told you that you should have worn your filter tonight, Blake,” the same voice voice returned. “We’ve got alerts all down the east coast for air quality safety. But of course, you never listen.” She sighed, which I noticed didn’t get her to coughing.
“Yeah yeah, I know, Sam. I figured smoking for over a decade woulda gotten me used to this crap, though.” I slowed my breathing, an attempt to calm my lungs. She was right, I shoulda listened. Shoulda worn my filter mask. You never know what kind of crap you’re breathing in. Or who you’re breathing in. It was depressing. And depending on what kind of mood you were in, nausea inducing.
“So what’s the sitch, Big Daddy?” Sam said, her voice dropping into a sultry tone.
“Dammit Sam, I told you not to call me that!”
“What? You don’t want me to call you Daddy?” she giggled, unable to keep up the seductive voice.
“That’s exactly what I don’t want you calling me, Sam.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes for a second. “What did we say about using codenames?”
“Well, you said that I could never call you Mother Goose. You didn’t say anything about codenames period!”
“I said no more— fine, whatever. No more codenames!” I almost shouted, but barely restrained myself when I remembered what I was doing. What did she think she was doing, pushing my buttons at a time like this? Trying to get me to blow my cover? “Let’s just try to act professional for a change, alright?”
“Oh, that’s rich. I’m the one who’s not acting professional?” I could practically hear her lips droop in a pout. “Well, Mister O’Connor, must I remind you that I actually had a firm lock on our target at fifteen hundred this afternoon, and you were still asleep in bed? Now, if I only had a ration card for every time I was more professional than…”
“Alright! Neither of us are professionals and we should immediately close up shop and open up a daycare center or something we’re a little more qualified for, instead of unfairly representing ourselves to the public as private investigators.”
“Professional private dicks, you mean. Gumshoes, peepers, shamuses with nothing left to lose—“
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, though I tried to keep it as inaudible as possible. Didn’t want to feed her ego, after all. “You’ve been reading too many of those detective books from the twentieth, haven’t you?”
“Gives me something to aspire to. I like to think of them as textbooks, personally.” She laughed to herself, and I could hear her relax, probably putting her feet up on her desk and miming smoking a cigarette. “‘Sides, I got them from your desk. Anyways, sorry about the ‘Big Daddy’ thing, Blake. You know how I sometimes get carried away.” She cleared her throat, probably setting her fleet flat on the ground below her desk, and grew more serious. “Now, back to the job at hand.”
Right, my job. I used to love reading Chandler when I was a kid, more than Sam loves him and his compatriots. But once I started up my own business, I really started hating those old books with a passion. Almost as much as I hate my job sometimes. Ah, to be a real Continental Op gone blood simple with a small town to clean up. But that wasn’t my bag. That wasn’t New York. And that wasn’t this case.
It was April, late April, and I had spent the night freezing my ass off outside of a motel-turned-brothel waiting to get a shot of some housewife’s husband leaving the room where he had spent the past hour blowing their savings on some thrills.
“Well, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s nothing new to report on my end of the line. Target is still in, ahem, well, he’s still busy. No visual contact yet.” I checked my watch again, and stifled a yawn. It was well past time for this guy to have gotten his jollies and begun the long walk of shame home. All I needed was a positive visual ID and I could hand the reports over to Mrs. Phillers and cash the check she’d promised. Maybe even eat some hot food for a change.
“What’s your assessment, Blake?” she asked, all business now that she’d had her fun.
“I dunno, the guy’s taking long enough. Maybe he’s into some of that weird stuff you hear so much about. Y’know, chains, whips, elaborate roleplaying scenarios…”
“Or maybe he just likes to cuddle? Pays the girl to listen to him complain about his obviously overbearing wife (though correct she may be, and generous with her checkbook) and her completely dreadful choices in lipstick.”
“Seems like a lot of money for that. Don’t most people just get a shrink?”
She chuckled softly. “Um, not anymore. Any sex worker is a whole hell of a lot cheaper than any psychologist. Do you have any idea how many active psychologists are still working in the greater New York region?”
“Uh, I dunno, a couple hundred?” I guessed. I didn’t really care, but Sam liked to talk, so I let her. Even if I didn’t want to know, she’d tell me anyways.
“Close. Forty, and thirty-four of them are tapped for exclusive military and ex-military use. The other six, well, aren’t exactly within Mr. Philler’s financial capabilities.”
“Really? Hm, I guess that makes sense.”
“Yup,” she said, and paused. Probably for dramatic effect. Or maybe she was actually lulling something over in her head before speaking. “Y’know, Blake, you are ex-millitary. I think that there are about thirty-six psychologists that would be more than happy to hep you out with any psychological issues you might be—“
“Oh sure, and put you out of a job? Thanks Sam, but I think I’ll stick with pouring out all my problems to you whenever I’ve had a few too many to drink.”
“So… you’re either equating my to a psychologist, which I can deal with. Or a prostitute? Yeah, thanks for that comparison, Mr. O’Connor.”
“Actually, I think a prostitute would be cheaper, Sam. Maybe I should just see what the going rates are.”
“Har har. You’re hilarious. But I don’t think you’ll be replacing me anytime soon. I doubt you’ll find any pro’s that will give you the kind of action I do for my rate.”
We both chuckled at that, but I’ll admit it, it was an uncomfortable moment. I moved past it as quickly as I could without making it even more uncomfortable. “Anything else going—“
“There’s been another firebombing, actually. Just happened, over at 8th and James. Call went out about ninety-seconds ago.”
I pulled my jacket closer, trying to relax my body and keep it from shivering so much. It was damned cold for April, though it was always damned cold nowadays. Damned nuclear winter.
“How far out are the jakes?” I asked.
“Hard to say, their response time isn’t exactly great these days,” she paused for a moment. I could hear the soft sound of her thumb between her lips, a subtle scratching noise as she chewed on the nail. “Sounds like the first firefighters on the scene are about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes out.”
“Jesus, remind me not to take my shoes off when I go to bed,” I muttered, and glanced in the direction of 8th and James. There was no way I could actually see the flames from my vantage point, but I could imagine the fire licking at the walls of the overcrowded matchbox that some wacko had lit up. It seemed like it was becoming a daily thing now. But it didn’t do me any good to dwell on how shitty things were. “We had better response times in the middle of the fight.”
“Yeah, well, that’s war-time for you.”
“And of course our john picks the one brothel in the city without a Starbucks across the street.”
“Starbucks?” Sam asked, confusion clear in her tone. “Like, the coffee chain? Why would there be—“
“I know, Sam. It’s just a joke,” I smiled at that, and blew out my breath in a haze of hot air. “Before your time, really, but before the Big One there was a Starbucks on just about every corner in this city. I mean, got to be that you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting—“
Suddenly my pocket began to buzz. I jumped a little at the sudden source of irritation, but quickly realized the cause and reached in to my coat to withdraw the lump of plastic. I flipped the cell phone open and looked at the screen, the light causing me to wince just a little despite the low brightness setting it was at.
“Without hitting what? I’m assuming you were going to say a Starbucks, but you’re being all dramatic now; I’m starting to second guess myself.”
“Hm? Oh, yeah, we’d throw rocks at coffee shops all the time when I was a kid,” I answered, barely paying attention to the conversation. My focus was on my old, crappy cell phone, and what the text scrawled across the tiny screen was saying. “Sam, we’re going to have to finish this up another time, something’s come up.”
“Wait, what? Another time?” the squeak of her office chair was sudden as she jolted upright in it. “Blake, you’ve been working this for almost two weeks! This is it, then we get payed! Then I get payed! You can’t just—“
“Sorry, kid, you’re just going to see if you can get it off a security camera or something. Something important has come up. I’ll call you.” And before she could form a protest into words, I cut the connection and turned the radio off.
Getting payed was important, and I felt guilty as hell for not being able to pay her tonight like I had promised, but something in this shithole of a country were just more important.
A man’s word still had meaning to some, and I was one of those rare individuals to be dumb enough to still stand by his.