by C.T. Hutt
The editor’s office was a rundown rat trap swathed with peeling wallpaper and saturated in the stink of desperate human failure. The Chief sat behind his plywood desk, sopping sweat from his greasy forehead with a Dunkin’ Donuts napkin. The man was a wet cookie dough sausage with a pushbroom moustache and a bulldog’s temper.
He slammed a doughy fist down and pointed his index hot dog right in my face.
“You’re going to do this story for me, Ace. You’ll do it, or you’ll never work in this town again.”
“I’m done with this town and done with the paper and done with you,” I told him. “I’ve seen too much filth and eaten too much grit out of the gutters of these mean streets to see this thing through to the bitter end.”
“Damn it, Ace, you’re the best I got. I need this and so do the people of this rotten burg. It’s a story that has to be told and you are the only one I can trust.”
“Damn it, Chief, you’re right. If I don’t take this one last chance, it’ll haunt me ‘till I die.”
“Get the hell out there, you bum!”
I knew I shouldn’t have caved, but something about that sour-faced pile of quivering guts made me think about old times. It was the Chief, after all, who taught me the ink and paper game. Despite everything The Business had cost me, I still felt like a debt was owed.
The inside scoop doesn’t just dump itself into a man’s pocket. My hat threw itself on as I stormed out the door, following my old black book downtown.
The Horse’s Head Tavern was the most insidious mafia crypt this side of Sicily. The patrons all had nicknames like “The Drooper” or “Stabsy”. Ghoulish goombas lingered at the bar and around the pool table, fingering stiletto knives and licking the ends of their Tommy guns. The waiter brought me frozen mackerel wrapped in a newspaper, compliments of the house. An unseen mandolin player broke into a fierce, high-pitched song.
I ran out the back before the bullets started flying and found my way to a payphone.
“Chief, I’m done with this case,” I yelled into the receiver. “It goes deeper than I ever thought and things are getting savage.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Ace, you live for the thrill. If you didn’t have this you’d have nothing but slow death by discount alcohol.”
“I don’t have what it takes and I never did.”
“You’re a natural, Ace, a beautiful golden calf. If you can’t do it for me, do it to earn the respect of your bastard son and jaded ex-wife.”
“Damn it, Chief, you’re right. I can be the father I always wanted to be if I just let go of my foolish pride.”
“Keep on the case, you bum!”
The old bull had me by the horns. A man’s family is all he has and a family’s man is never quite in control of himself. Getting them back would mean leaping into the whale’s mouth and gamboling with death for the inside scoop. But, I knew what I had to do and who I had to do it about.
The smoldering remains of the explosives warehouse hissed and sizzled in the early morning rain. A number of ash-stained firefighters shook their heads at the devastation, certain that no one could have made it out of the inferno in time. The Chief stood among them, hip deep in crisped ninja skeletons, shaking his head in mourning.
I crawled out of rubble like Lazarus, untouched by the fire and glistening with cold sweat.
“Ace, you’re lucky to be alive you lucky son of a bitch.”
“Aliver than ever, Chief,” I said. “This time it’s personal and there’s no going back.”
“You’re a loose cannon, Ace, a lone wolf and a renegade American hero. You don’t play by the book or play by the rules. You play by ear and dance to the beat of a different drum. You’ve got spunk, Ace, spunk and moxie. You remind me of myself when I was my age and you were as old as you are now. But, you’re still too green to go it alone.”
“Damn it, Chief, you’re right. I’ve got to slow this case down and get my head on straight.”
“To hell with that. Get back out there and bring me the inside scoop no matter what it takes, you bum!”
The conspiracy tightened around me in like a lubed-up noose. I lost months at a time undercover and underground. I plastered the walls of my subterranean spider hole with pictures and pieces of the inside scoop. As the evidence piled up, my life came crashing down and violence begat violence in the rolodex of my past.
Midnight Park was the worst patch of repulsive, fallow land in the worst neighborhood in the city. The crack fiends and meth junkies would never be caught dead there; even the pigeons refused to land. The rats in the underbrush all had tattoos and smoked menthols incessantly. The Chief threw them chunks of the ham he was eating. He sat alone on the one lonely bench in the park, waiting for me.
I jumped out of the shadows and covered his jack-o-lantern mouth with both hands.
“Did you come alone? Answer me!”
“Relax, Ace. Don’t you know who your friends are? You’ve got a lot of explaining to do. This story has smeared itself across the whole city leaving a trail of bodies from the Mayor’s office to Begger’s Alley.”
“Don’t you think I know that already? This whole thing is coming apart at the seams. The Russians have their hands all over this, but they’re being manipulated by some unseen puppet master. The Bear Keepers Union, the Polo Guild, they all have a dog in this race, but half of them are chasing their tails and the other half don’t know whose ass to sniff. All the while, I’m being followed by a coven of Filipino assassins and am just one step ahead of The Man in White. By now, the diamonds have already arrived in Nepal and the Jazz Lady will have recovered the briefcase. It’s all coming together, Chief, but those bastards killed Martha and Enus and the cops think it was me!”
“Settle down, Ace, you’ve pushed this as far as you could possibly go. It would be wrong of me to ask you to do more. We’ve been friends for a long time and I owe you this much. I’ll take the fall. Get out of the city, Ace. Turn up the radio and drive off into the sunset like the magnificent noir cowboy we all want you to be.”
“Damn it, Chief, you’re wrong. If I’ve learned anything on The Job it’s that quitting is for losers. Only winners go down with the ship and I’ll scuttle this bastard if I have to bite through the hull.”
“You’re a no good bum, you bum. Still, I know I can’t stop you from seeing this through to the bitter end.”
I woke up on the right side of a Presidential Suite on the top floor of an uptown hotel. A shave and a new black suit set me out into the day looking better than the sunrise. I stopped for breakfast at a diner with no name. I ordered steak, eggs, baked beans, and black coffee. To wash that down I had orange juice, waffles, funnel cake, more beans, tater tots, a glass of whole milk, and a side of applesauce. I wrapped things up with a pineapple smoothie and half a dozen bowls of cereal. I wasn’t worried about cost, having long ago traded off my identity and credit cards. It was good having a plan coming together and even better having it coming together over two scoops of raisins. I wiped my mouth and set out.
The abandoned subway station was lit only by a single dying bulb and the neon metallic chaos of passing trains. The dust was grey and two feet thick, the moldering dander of the city above. I stood in the circle of illumination like a department store mannequin, waiting for my contact to reveal himself. I dropped my cigarette in surprise when the Chief’s walrus-like face ballooned out from behind a nearby pillar.
He shot me twice with a snub-nosed revolver before I realized he had a gun.
“You just had to keep digging, didn’t you, Ace?”
“I can’t believe how much I’ve learned to hate about you,” I said.
“Don’t be a sore loser, Ace. This had to be done and you know it. It was a set up from the start and now you’re finished just before the ending.”
“Don’t count me out just yet, Chief. I rigged this whole place to implode at the push of a button.”
“God damn you, Ace. I never should have tangled with the best.”
“Those are terrible last words, you bum!”
I may have lived my life like paper boy, but I managed to live my death like a paper man. I squeezed the trigger and went out with a bang.
About the Author
C.T. Hutt is an American fiction writer living and working in Boulder, Colorado. After years spent as an analyst in D.C., he came out West to try his hand at professional story telling. It was the best decision he ever made.
He writes comedies, science fiction, westerns, steampunk, and other sorts of tall tales. He writes about heroes, monsters, politics, and history. He writes because he loves to. You can find him on Twitter as @bookhutt. or at his site bookhutt.com.
About The Artist
Our very own Dave Chang is a game writer and web designer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology.