PART TWO – cul-de-sac
The entrance of night and the foggy scent of cigarette smoke slipped on like a painful toothache over the cul-de-sac. It scratched at the edges then consumed the street whole. Each sharp inhale was met with a thick smog, the stench of wet wood and night fall. They streamed in through flared wet nostrils, peaking and peeling in past the flow of fresh and crusted blood. The red dripped down to his lips and to the cigarette that swished up and down while he paced angrily. It dripped down to his dress shirt and further down to his pleated pants. His tie was twisted and tucked but smeared with the first wave of blood that had broken free minutes earlier. Joe was used to nosebleeds. As a child he’d wake in the morning to a bloody pillow and a face of painfully dry dark red. As a nuisance to the community he was often the puny, pudgy target of bullies and assortments of future criminals. Mostly he found it common to expect it in mundane situations. A walk home. A casual read of the paper. The shower. Now the culprit was brutality. Though being an asshole helped.
“He got you real good, didn’t he?” Natalia had the voice of angels being murdered. Her pitch was always too high, her words always sing-song, and no matter what she had to say it nearly always came out sounding like it had been tortured before shooting past her thin, pasty lips. Her singing was unique, exquisite but he thought her speaking voice was one worthy of nightmares. His body became rigid at her touch to his shoulder. He shrugged her off. She didn’t catch the hint. She never did. The entire family seemed to escape hints and clues. Instead they infested a place, swooped in with their glorious belligerent selves, and consumed the whole lot of one another’s prides and joys. She slipped next to him and grimaced when she saw his face.
“Just a scratch.” He mumbled, nearly dropping the cigarette. He clasped it shut with pursed lips and pulled it in with his teeth. It was the one precious thing in his possession today. That bloody cigarette. “How’s your dad’s hand?” Joe walked to the edge of the path and took a seat on the sidewalk. “Been told a couple times that punching my face is like punching a brick wall. Hope he fared well and all.” He snarled.
“He’s got it wrapped in a bag of peas, Joe. He’s sorry. He won’t apologize or nothing but I promise, he’s sorry for it.”
“Sorry because she’s dead most likely.”
“You’re all sorry because she’s dead. If there’s one thing he’s sorry about, it’s punching the pretty face of an orphan, ain’t it? And Aunty Moira… so goddamn sorry, she’s besides herself counting down to that will. You know she thinks my mother left her something. The only thing that woman ever owned were vinyl records and cat statues.”
“And Grandma’s ring. That’s what she wants. Just the ring really. Grandma gave it to her for her wedding ’cause she was the first, now Moira wants to give it to her Lucy… who probably won’t ever marry. The girl never leaves the house. I’d be surprised if she even meets a squirrel at this rate, let alone a man.”
“You’d be surprised.” Joe began to crush the remains of multicolored shattered glass at his feet. He assumed they were a collection of broken bottles, all smeared together after weeks and months. He thought of his father and quickly stood as Cousin Natalia started to prepare herself to sit next to him. She straightened up and watched him, then slipped her hands in under his coat and hugged him. He looked past her, over her head, to the door. He expected his father to stumble out, belligerent of course, drunk and with a paper bag drenched with the smell of whiskey in one hand. His eyes were always wet and wild, like a scared dog drunk with rabies. Instead Uncle Daniel stood at the door with the sullen, affected eyes of a man mourning. “I’m leaving.”
“Back to the hotel.”
“I think you should stay. Get cleaned up a bit and think about it. It’d be nice to have family in for a few days and you’re my favorite cousin after all, it took a funeral to get you here so we might as well -”
“I’m not set for sitting around while everyone pretends to mourn someone they don’t give a shit about. She’s dead. Where’s all the partying and rejoicing? Where are the drinks and the- the party tricks, huh? Come on, where’s the damn celebration?”
“Just because we don’t act the way you want us to doesn’t mean we’re psychopaths. No one’s enjoying any of this.”
“Come on, she was a bitch. Right at the end she was like one of those fucking beetles, eating everyone’s flesh, sneaking and clasping down at all our fucking edges, just peeling little inches away. I get it. She was a fucking terror and no one’s sad to see her gone but don’t pretend like I oughta be here for the lot of you.”
“We are mourning her, Joe. What’s going on here? Are you mourning her?”
“Of course.” He mumbled before going into a coughing spell. Soon a slippery blood clot-mucus object propelled out from his mouth. He spat twice and brought the cigarette back to his lips before pointing at the house with a wince. “I’m the only one mourning her. I’m the only one who fucking knew her.”
“Joe just come back in the house, we’ll ta-”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Not heading in that death zone again. You’re a boring miserable bunch.” He spoke through laughter and the desperate sucking of smoke and waste from the cigarette. Joe walked away from the house, waving lazily at Natalia who stood and stare.
“Where are you going?” She called out.
“You can’t just walk off to the hotel looking like a bloody mess, Joe. You’re insane.”
“I’ve done far worse shit, go inside Naty. You might catch some sense while you’re out here.”
PART THREE- assumptions and cheap goods
“You want to know what I do all day?” He snorted.
“Go ahead, Joe.” A pot-bellied giant bellowed from afar in the corner of the office. His small beady eyes glared out from round spectacles. He scratched his bushy chin, rubbed at the back of his ear then coughed up before smirking.
“Quite a lot, Mister Issa.” His tongue flicked out over the top of his coffee mug, then curled up to greet the now luke warm tea. He mumbled something and the assistant laughed.
“Josiah Rudolf. Joe Rudolf. Joe Ralph.” Mister Issa hissed at him. He tapped the wood desk with his knuckles and snickered at the young man, “You sit around watching nature documents and pornography, and not even the good kinds, the old ones. You watch the shit people have to transfer from VHS to DVD and I swear to Vishnu, you’ve got the VHS at home. Bet you’ve got that type of TV that comes with a VHS slot and those color coded input/outputs. Ain’t that it? Ain’t that the case, Joe.”
Joe leaned back from his desk and watched curiously. Issa was the only man who knew anything about him, and it was fortunately such a low amount that he wasn’t bothered or concerned. The worst of it was simply that he understood him on a level that Joe found uncomfortable and cumbersome.
“A man’s entitled to have his choice of cheap goods.” Joe finished his tea. An opened book laid in front of him, spread out with post its assigned to chapters and highlighted notes. He squeezed the hard front cover and lifted it to close the book but his eyes were trapped and his movements frozen. It settled in mid air, poking out, with Joe watching the man and waiting for his next unfortunate observation.
“Don’t act so scared, it’s nothing serious I’m talking about. I don’t mind that you’re queer.”
“Mind saying what you mean then?” Joe asked with a light sigh.
“That client. Jack. And his sister Amy. Friends of yours?”
“What I meant, Mister Issa is that it might be best if you were direct.”
“I’m not an old fart, Joe. I know what you meant. And I’m telling ya that if you don’t start being careful, whatever it is that’s going on behind that sick mind of yours might go ahead and explode somewhere.”
“Jack’s a close friend. Nothing shady-”
“Looks to me that both are close friends, way too close if you know what I-”
“I never know what you mean Issa, it’s all one clusterfuck pile of confusion after the other-” His annoyance for Mister Issa was beginning to show. His eyes diverted down to the open page of the book. It was the dedication page. To my loving sister Amy and my best friend Joe.
“You’ve got some twisted shit going on and it has to do with that book he gave you.”
“What are you asking, Issa. I’m done singing along to your bullshit. We’ve got that Montgomery case and Belmont, hell the whole fucking corner of Saxon Street too-”
“I may not have been a good cop but I’m a great private eye, best you have -”
“You’re the only one I have-”
“Well best you’ve ever had then. Either way, I’m damn good at my job and I know what’s up and I can tell when shit’s gonna hit the fan so do us both a favor and lay the bull to the corner and level with me. That Amy girl, she’s got a nasty sort of thing for you, you can tell it from her eyes. And she’s pregnant, about to pop but I can tell it ain’t yours ’cause you can’t so much as look at her without a foul look. Can’t imagine that’s the closest you’d get to the girl. But that brother of hers, the kid with the bad haircut, you love him I can tell. Love him enough to take that Amy’s case.”
“It’s not hers and you should stick to investigating the cases I put on your desk instead of coming up with wild stories about my life.”
“Look, I said I don’t care about you being queer. My concern is I haven’t heard one damn thing about your past and suddenly some old friends pop up and you wet yourself over one and begrudgingly promise to look after the other. Ya know, her husband… she married real well that Amy, it’s too bad she’s dumb as a brick and too conniving and self centered to see it. She’s gonna get screwed over and you’ll be the one holding the bag, kid. You and this firm of yours. And I ain’t too keen on working for a failing firm is what I’m saying here.”
Joe smiled. He always smiled when he won. He had the tendency, the terrible telling sign, of pouting when he lost, and frowning in that soft way that made everyone want to take it easy on the poor kid. But now he smiled and now Issa knew that yet another idea of what it was that made Joe Ralph tick was false. He was an easy read in that way. It was everything else that proved troublesome.
“It’s going to be fine. This will be the easiest case we’ve had all year… I suggest you take a look at the Belmont case file, Mister Issa. I’ve got my affairs in order. I reckon you oughta get acquainted with your own.”
A long pause quieted the room. Joe closed the book and pushed it to the side. “Aye,” Mister Issa lifted a small brown paper bag to his lips and took a swig.”You and your affairs, Ralph. They’re gonna get someone killed.”
PART FOUR – murder and drugs on bartow
“I don’t know why she calls herself Mrs. Rudolf. They never married.” The reporter scrambled for a pen then quickly started jotting down her words in short form. Her eager gray eyes darted up to the aging detective then back towards the rumpled sheets. “She did get herself attached to a nice banker. A real shitter he was. Liked to touch kids. We didn’t get him for all those years till he was already a retired little shit. And guess what, he volunteered as a little league coach. Boy did heads start to roll. He never touched him though. Not as far as I knew. Can’t say I knew much but I did my job the best I could. Well that shitter died in prison.
“Folks like that don’t last long. And Mrs. Rudolf, still with that name… well she was sued a few times, for using a fake identity mostly, a couple other types of fraud and a case of neglect when we found Joe in the park. She wasn’t turning tricks or selling drugs either. They had her locked up in county and everyone forgot about little Joe. We tried contacting Mr. Rudolf. He’s a fucker too. Didn’t so much as lift a finger. Signed up papers for the state to take the boy, which lit one helluva fire under that kids mother. Judy. Her names Judy. She said it was Judith but no one called her that on account of it sounding filthy, she said. Someone said it was a Hebrew name and wasn’t filthy at all and she said otherwise, said it was the name of a whore if you asked her. That girl was all types of messed up about things but she loved that boy of hers.
“She said he was special but I don’t reckon he said much to anyone, so we weren’t sure what she meant about special. Figured he was a mute. A real dumb one too. He liked drawing circles on things. On windows. The desk. Gave the kid a crayon once while I was talking to Judy and he just drew circles all over my fucking carpet. In any case Judy and Josiah were real close and when he got older and the visits at home got a bit more frequent, he got real good at lying. Lied about everything now that I think about it. I think I liked the little punk better when he was a mute. Dunno why he had trouble talking. A part of me says she fed him some bullshit about never talking to coppers and he took it to heart. Well when he got old enough, he just lied through his teeth about everything and had a smart ass reply.
“I’m telling you that I took no real satisfaction for arresting him. He’s a good boy. Sort of. He did well in school. I was told he did so well they skipped him a few times and ran out of ways to challenge the kid so one of the teachers, a retired lawyer, just fed him lots of journals and cases, and books about the trade. You don’t give a liar a book about how to be a lawyer. That’s like giving a murderer a book about the secrets of forensic science. I heard around that he had one of the highest scores at that school and a score so big and great on his SATS that he got into some quality schools. He was four months away from graduation when his mum got sick. Poor Judy. She was a sketchy one but she had spirit, a real joy about her too, like the world was shit and would always tear things down but she was glad to be around anyway. That’s something.
“That’s a lot more than most get. I don’t know how she managed all that time in pain. The boy dropped out. He got three part time jobs. Three. One in the morning, one at night, and one on the weekends. And still she was in and out of the hospital ’cause she couldn’t pay for much of it. You see that family… man, that family. They didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve that. He finished school the next year. He didn’t want to but she forced him, he said. He says she wanted him to be great, so she could point at him and yell ‘that’s my son!’. He said it was as much about his father never giving a shit as it was about her never amounting to much.” The reporter tapped at the desk and followed the man’s gaze. She whispered to herself before asking her 10th question.
He nodded and waved her off. “Don’t worry, I’m getting to it. The kid was something though. A real pain in the ass. Half the time I wanted to break his arm. The other half I spent feeling sorry for the boy. He got into some real bad shit. He wasn’t selling or dealing but he might as well have been. He’s got this sick mind, I tell you. The kind that comes up with these ideas… it’s basically the kind of smarts that most of those normal thugs lack only I don’t think he has it in him, or he never did, to turn into one of them. I think he liked the challenge. He’d find ways to hide, move, smuggle shit. He’s real charismatic, at least for an asshole or a little shit. He’s got some sort of charm at least.”
“Well in any case that boy,” The man scoffed, “When Jane Carev’s body showed up… Good old Jane… that girl was a foxy gem. She was 17, had the wisdom of a 40 year old, the sexuality of a 22 year old… I knew her personally, it was my old partner’s niece. She lived with him. Always sashayed out from those steps of his, big ol loud, clankly stairs, and she always went out with a sweet voice that she was meeting some man, some boy, always different I think, though she repeated Joe’s name all the time. I reckon he was just a friend. He strikes me as a bit of an odd fellow in that way. There was an innocence to Jane. In any case it was still there when her rosy body showed up dead as a doorknob at Bartow. We arrested Joe.”
“Had to really. He was in the area, someone saw him last with her, his voice was on the phone when she had called my old partner. It was him, we was sure. The little fucker represented himself. Himself! I swear the whole town turned into a riot about that. Thought he was a no good scum, an egotistical little prick, just marauding around like some lawyer. I dunno how he managed to get himself off the hook but the verdict was not guilty and we started pressing for leads until the case went cold.”
“So if you’re eager for a story, why don’t you ask Josiah Rudolf about Bartow. Matter of fact, ask him about Amy and Jack. He left town some time ago. I’m retired, can’t say I’m keeping track of his business but there’s something wrong going on and after all these years I don’t think he’s as involved as he used to be. The man’s got blood on his hands and if it wasn’t literally then I’m sure there’s a complex story about why he’s to blame anyway. Interesting case isn’t it? You know what scratches at me? Real down deep under my balls? This kid knew Jane for years. He was in and out of juvie and county for little small shit – probably started his fascination with lawyers since those public defenders were shit. And Jane? Not one of her friends took up after her. One even said she was deep into drugs and asked if it was an overdose? An overdose? We just finished telling her about multiple stab wounds and this crazy bitch asks us if it was an overdose? Somethings fishy. We’ll figure it out one day. Joe’s the kind that has these sorts of things follow him. You ask Jack and Amy. If anyone knows anything about him it’s them.”
The reporter tapped on the desk again and leaned back. She stared at him with a frown. “Amy Woodrow is dead sir.”
“Are you sure? He leaned up. His eyes lit as thoughts flashed behind them.
“Yup. Her body was identified in the lake in Seattle.” She closed her notepad and the man laughed.
“Well I’ll be. Isn’t that interesting?” He shook his head and sighed. “He hasn’t changed a bit, I suppose.”
“What do you mean?”
The man placed his palms on the desk and stared down at the papers and folders scattered about. “That kid’s either haunted or he’s poison.” He stood up and narrowed his eyes, “How sure are they about the identification?”
“It was her car at the lake, and what they could find from the body matched. Otherwise it was pretty much in bad condition. Is Joe Rudolf something to you, sir?”
“Yeah, I suppose he is. I was with his mother for a while. She’s dead now. Like I said, he’s either haunted or poison.” The man laughed uncomfortably and shifted in his seat. “I’m retired now. Go and find Jack Woodrow. And do it before Joe finds him. He’s got a way of changing people’s story, that kid’s something. I’m retired. Can’t be asked to do much more than tell some truth now and then.” The woman stood up to leave.
“What’s she too ya? This Jane?”
“My sister, sir.”
He looked on with a grim expression, “I’m sor-”
“It’s nothing I haven’t heard about her. I’d just like to know what she was getting herself into.” She assured him as she grabbed the doorknob.
She left. He settled back in his chair and sighed.
He was found dead a week later, still in that chair. His last known contact was a text to an untraced number: SHE’S ON TO YOU. His file cabinet was empty.
PART FIVE – she said things
She said that the cigarettes looked like white crushed shards of colored glass. She said the sun bore through them with an ugly, rich glare. Sharp smouldering lips. She said they were clamped shut at the ends, severed like thick sheets of double-edged one-way windows. She said they were frozen stiff in parts and wet with spit, when he coughed up the black phlegm. She said she saw him before she knew it was him, before she knew it was slender shoulders that she had to look for, not the broad husky frame of a Russian wrestler or the potbelly of her Elfish uncle. She said she saw him shuffle. She said she watched him limp. She said he hobbled like a gimp over beaten pavement and that his boots bathed the concrete slabs with rough grinding slides and accidental bass rhythms. She said he was closely shaven and bald, with a shine and the smell of Irish Moss shaving cream, the same as her dead boyfriend and his dead cousin. She said a lot of things that night.
It was ten o’ clock and the only lit room was his office where he read and reread the same statement until his eyes tired from the frayed strips of descriptions. She said a lot of things. It seemed she was eager to tell a story.