Contemplation with Gun, Snake and Cigar
The case had ended as well as anyone could have hoped and maybe even better than expected. Weeks of sleuthing, backstairs interrogations, broken fingers and burnt feet. It had all led to a warehouse and the Khlarsky brothers and a barrel of bullets. The detectives had help; the 7th precinct, who'd dumped the mess on them in the first place, showed up on time and in full force. There were four Khlarskys, but there were twenty cops and all of them had guns and in the end there were only two Khlarskys. One officer had been hurt when he hit his head on the door frame. They had confiscated over a thousand francs in cash and five hundred more in stolen goods; more than enough to go around.
As soon as the birds were stowed in their cages the lawmen all decided pretty much at once that they should celebrate, hard. So the whole precinct and the two detectives, Donovan and Jack Warricky by name, made their way down to Wallenstein's Cross and straight to Daring's Saloon and Gambling Establishment. It was big place, open floor plan with three stories of balconies in the main room, and they were welcomed with great reluctance. They proceeded to trash the place in a bacchanalian orgy that started at one in the afternoon and went straight through the night. The sun rose and set once more, and they still kept going. It had gotten so bad that Daring and his staff had abandoned the premises. Who could they call for help, the police?
There was only one man, the detective Donovan, who was still conscious forty hours after it all started with shots and canasta, and as he slowly drank his twenty-second bottle of scotch he surveyed the wreckage of a time well spent from his seat at a table in the middle of the room. There were bluecoats sprawled across the bar, under tables and in the stained and ruined booths. A carpet of broken glass glinted with drops of bathtub liqueurs; the pools of vomit here and there added an impressionistic touch. The papyrus ceiling fans were in tatters, the pool tables in pieces, and the slot machines pillaged. It had all been a bit of a blur even to someone of his... unusual constitution, but there were highlights. Gaspard had jumped on a bar stool, butt naked, and cursed Saint Talbot and challenged him to a wrestling match while firing his service revolver into the air for emphasis. One of the bullets had passed through the first balcony and the left foot of Erwin Glasser but the wound was clean and after packing it with napkins he proceeded with his game of five stud poker. There had been a brief knife fight, several broken teeth, a large quantity of broken furniture, and a short but entertaining interlude when one of the cadets caught fire.
Now the room was dead quiet, and by the looks of it, Tom Warden might have passed away sometime in the night. The poor bastard was rotten with syphilis, so it could have been worse. The detective tilted back the last of the bottle and sighed quietly.
Donovan was bored. Everyone else was asleep, something he could do without, thank you very much. He craved attention. He was a social creature, and when he wasn't blathering to whoever would listen (blathering was what Jack called it, the bastard) he would blather to himself. Quietly though. No need to look crazy. He was just bored. Maybe a little lonely. No. Fuck lonely.
“I am the most exceptional MAN alive,” he declared. Across the table, there was an empty chair. It was empty because someone had put a foot through the wicker seat, but he imagined it was whole, and that there was someone sitting in it. A reporter maybe.
“You see, I know this to be true, for I excel in the manly arts. I can drink like no other,” he said, toasting himself and his invisible audience.
“I can drink any man under the table. Whiskey is water to me, scotch mere soda.” He kept trying to imagine a pretty girl now instead of the reporter, but he couldn't. Just some silly bastard with a hat and a clipboard. Odd.
“I can go for days without rest. I can run for miles at a time,” he boasted, “I can dance like a fiend and sing like an angel. Any man who crosses me dies, ka-pow, just so.”
He slapped leather to punctuate his point, his holster hung low on his skinny hips, the gun suddenly in his hand in his flash. He was a small man, barely four feet tall, and it was a tremendous cannon, ridiculous at the end of his skinny arm.
“It’s the big Five-Two. It'll put a hole through anything.”
Yes, responded the reporter. It certainly put a hole in me.
Donovan flinched. The shape before him had come into focus, the pinched face and yellow eyes of Sven Khlarsky.
When you came in through the door, I was whittling a piece of wood, Khlarsky said. I had a knife and you had a gun and you were scared. You told me to drop the knife, and then you shot my hand off. He held out his wrist, the flesh a mash of hamburger around the splintered white bone. His hand dangled by a strip of skin, the knife sill clenched in the dead fingers. You killed me, the specter whispered.
Donovan recoiled, then remembering, snorted in the ghost's face.
“You aren't dead. You're in the hospital, patched up and ready to go up the river to join your pa and that idiot brother of yours in the prison-ships. Piss off.”
I may not be dead, Sven retorted, but two of my brothers are, and that is directly your fault.
“So? You were criminals.”
And what are you? You’re not a copper. You don’t care about law and order. To you, this is all fun and games. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt, as long as you get to play big-shot and not get arrested. Let me show you exactly what you are, little man.
A parade of dead faces with fifty-two caliber smiles trooped by them. Sven joined in, a troupe of dead acrobats whirling about in the agonies of their executions, slain by the big gun and the small man that held it.
You're not a man.
Donovan smashed the bottle. Someone stirred in the corner, farted tremendously, and went back to sleep with a happy sigh.
“Bigod's sake. Bloody imagination running wild. Where's that tokay?” He stood up from the chair, feeling woozy. Again, it wasn't the alcohol. That was strictly impossible. He literally, physiologically could not get drunk. He ambled over to the bar. Glass crunched beneath his small feet. The bar was a mess, most of the bottles broken along with the mirror, but he managed to find half a bottle of some dark brown fluid with a whole snake curled at the bottom.
“T'will suffice,” and he popped the cork and drank. A dull tingling in his throat-hole told him that it was indeed alcohol, or at least formaldehyde. As he was about to return to his seat, he caught a glimpse of himself in the unbroken corner of the mirror. He was a vain creature, and he stopped to inspect himself.
His clothes were a little ragged but unstained, a dark gray coat tailored to his height and slender frame and checked trousers. He wore white gloves and a broad-brimmed hat low on his head and had the habit of tilting it so it just covered his face. Anyone standing above him (and that was, regrettably, almost everyone) would just see a small man in a somewhat battered coat with a large gun and the silver cannonball badge of a detective. Nothing particularly off. He started back to the table.
And where are you going?
“Not this shit again,” he growled and spun about. It wasn’t Sven, though. His own reflection mocked him.
“What the hell do you want? I've got a bottle of snake-oil and I intend to drink it.”
Hmm. You do that. Not that it will make you feel any better about yourself, you murderous creature.
“I'm a Man. Men kill men. It's the state of things in the world today. Everybody's gone mad.”
True enough, but that’s not what I meant. You say you’re a man, but you aren't exactly... well, ordinary, are you?
He wasn't. The clothes he wore were deliberately designed to conceal, and the face beneath the hat and above his high collar was not a normal face. His head was completely spherical, earless, noseless, and covered completely in a skin so completely black and smooth it looked like rubber. That is not to say that he had dark skin, that he had high counts of melanin from some equatorial ancestry. His skin wasn't strictly skin. Its similarity to rubber went beyond appearances; it was as malleable as a water balloon. Beneath his rubber skin there was nothing that was comparable to an actual human body. There were no bones, no muscle, no recognizable organs beside his eyes and the thing behind them that thought these torturous thoughts. There was only a thick, viscous fluid, a witches’ brew of arsenic and a hundred other chemicals. He vaguely understood his boneless locomotion; it had something to do with chambers and hydraulics, a reflexive flowing of fluid through channels and pockets. Even his smile was artificial, two straight lines of perfectly white plastic teeth printed with serial numbers. He was a singular creation, a vat-borne thing out of a shadowy laboratory, let loose on the world with no purpose and no past.
“I am exceptional in every way,” he said slowly. This was the old fight, the doubts and half-checked existential terror that plagued his steps.
Yes, he replied. That is what they told you back at the... well, you don't even know what it was exactly. Home? What was your family, men in white coats and women with needles? Caretakers, Donovan. Observers. They made you and they cut you loose, a poisonous, murderous piece of scum. You're twenty now. An adult. Face facts.
“I am exceptional in every way, I am a MAN among men. I swat criminals like flies and feel no remorse. I can bend myself in half, knot my fingers, pop out my eyes, spit teeth like darts! I can be shot and not die and... for crying out loud, I swallowed a damn ashtray on a bet last night.” He spat a line of black filth and cigarette butts across the bartop for emphasis. “If that isn't amazing, I don't know what is.”
Freakish is the term you are looking for. Men fear what they don't understand. And remember that hate is never far behind fear. They tolerate you because you are of some use to them, a homunculus they can use to keep the apes in line. But they’ll turn you away someday, and then what?
“I've proven myself by now. They can't deny that I am a human being. I have wants and needs just like them. I hunger, I thirst. I crave affection.”
Mmmhmm. Men don't find sustenance in refrigerated cocktails of raw chemicals. They don't sweat carbon monoxide. And affection...
“Women love me,” he whimpered.
The ones you can get love money. And when you get them to the bed, what do you do exactly? You aren't equipped. Reproduction, and the pleasurable side effects, are strictly impossible when you don’t have genitalia.
He dashed the bottle against the piece of mirror. The snake flopped out, a flaccid exclamation point. Somewhere up above, Jack Warricky’s ear twitched and he rolled over, listening.
“It's not like that,” Donovan whispered. He was trembling, his aqueous innards pulsing in distress.
“When you... when you're a man, and the men you work with are... well, when they trip over dames...”
He rummaged through the bottles, found the snake and set it on the bar. Its blackened eyes looked up accusingly.
“I just like seeing them nude,” he confessed.
“Men are ugly. Usually they’re too bulky, whether in muscle or fat. Granted, not all women are exactly beautiful, but the ones who try, who really take the time and effort...”
He sighed hopelessly.
“They are artistic in a way, you know. A, err, curvalinear quality that men can't quite encompass. Then again, while simple nudity has its ups and downs, a corset...”
He shivered and chuckled. It was a tinny sound, not like his normal guffaw.
“I must admit... it's an awkward story... it does make me seem somewhat, well... one time I stole a corset. A trophy, shall you say. Something to show the lads and prove myself, as it were. But I didn't take it to the precinct. I took it home, to my room and locked the door even though no-one was around. And I tried it on. The laces were a bit of a mess; it's a wonder that women put up with them at all, but I managed to cinch it up. Tighter and tighter, until I felt like I was going to be cut in half. And I looked in the mirror and I saw how I had fit the shape and I couldn't bear it. I AM a man,” he insisted. “I sound like one, I think like one, I dress like...”
He looked at the snake.
“For fuck's sake,” he snapped, “I'm talking to a snake.”
He brushed it off the bar with the back of his hand and stomped back to the table and sat down.
“Maybe that's why I don't mind this job. The killing. I hate men. They think they rule the world and everything in it with their guns and their bombs and their fucking motor cars and politicians. I'm the perfect nihilist. I came from nothing and shall return to nothing, perhaps someday when my processes break down, and there will be nothing more to show for it than a greasy smudge, loved by no-one and loving no-one in return. Nuts to this.”
He was so caught up in the passion of the moment that he resolved to end it. He drew his piece and put the barrel in his mouth. The barrel clicked against his plastic teeth as he thumbed back the hammer.
“Wewwy,” he mumbled. He was trying to think of something poetic to say, but all he could think of was the stupid snake. Donovan glanced across the table again at the empty chair, expecting Sven and his crowd of ghouls, the peanut gallery.
But it wasn't Sven. It was the girl from a few nights back, one of the ones who had taken pity on him. Or had at least not been averse to taking money so a hideously deformed pervert could stare at her and leak oils from his eyes.
The name's not important now, sweetheart. It's fake anyways. You know how the business works.
He nodded slowly, the tip of the barrel squeaking against his pseudo-palate.
“Waddaya wanf? Imf tryyynth kilmself.”
Well, it's not really my concern. Your life sucks, after all. You're only a lousy private dick who can't even afford his own apartment. You've got to split the rent with... what's the fellow's name again? Spooky bastard with the dark glasses. He was at the bar while you ogled my chest, remember?
“Jack Warricky,” Donovan said, setting the gun on the table. “Why are we talking about him though?”
He's a bit of a weird fish himself, you know? What with that schnozz of his. Like a battleship, it is.
“More than that. It's the culmination of all noses, a gargantua. He’s like a bleedin'… erm… what’s the word… blood hound. Can match a perp to the scene by his scent alone and track him as well. ”
Fascinating. Those ears though...
“Elephantine. Really amazing organs. He can hear a whisper in a hailstorm, and... what’s the word... echolocate? Echolocation, you heard of it?”
Not a clue, darling. Enlighten me.
“Well, say he's in a dark room, so dark you can't see a thing, and there's a bastard waiting for him with a shotgun. Pump action for the sake of the story. Jack comes barging in, and the perp sees him silhouetted against the door. Figures he has him pretty well covered. So he works the pump, like so,” and he jerked his hand dramatically in the air.
“K-chick! Now, Jack's ears are sensitive to levels of sound we can't fathom, and durable enough so he ain't deafened by nothing, not even the biggest gun battle. So this sound travels through the air as waves or some shit, bouncing off everything in the room, in about a fraction of a second. In the next second, he has fathomed everything that sound has bounced off of. The perp with the gun, the crate's he's hiding behind, the crates to the left of him... Jack that is, not the crook... and knowing full well by sound alone that there is a shotgun leveled at him in the dark, he moves behind the crates just in time to avoid having his head blown clean off. I've seen it. Most amazing thing I've ever witnessed. Though I did catch the shot as a consequence. Ten gauge. Ruined my suit an’ I was leaking for a while after, but all things considering, it turned out all right.”
Fascinating. Then what's with the glasses? His eyes are so sensitive that he needs the shades to perceive only the third dimension or some shit like that?
“No. That's because he's blind.”
“Absolutely. From the day he was born. Seeing as he was born without eyes.”
He rolled a cigar on the tabletop, sealing it shut with a long sticky black tongue and lighting it with a match he struck on his teeth. He pulled on the stogie and blew out a perfect ring, with only a little of smoke escaping from the corners of his eyes.
“I've always wondered about that. Living in darkness, as it were. Though he doesn't know it. Can't comprehend darkness if you've never seen light. Everything reduced to... what? Echoes? It's impossible to imagine it.”
He blew another puff of smoke into the air. It coiled in snakelike patterns towards the balconies. Frowning, he turned back to his companion.
“For all my faults, I at least have excellent vision.”
How do you hear though? You don't have, ah...
“Ears? Funny enough, my whole body is an ear, or at least that's what they told me. Something about the vibrations on my skin. But it's nowhere near as developed as his ears.”
They shared a comfortable silence. He tapped the cigar out onto the floor, careful to avoid the pools of spilled alcohol.
“No need for a fire,” he chuckled. “You know, he's from the same place as me. Much older though. Late thirties. Been on the beat for a long time. Me and him make quite a team. I guess, in a way, that he's my brother. Sure, he's a bit of a stick in the mud sometimes. Level-headed he says. Pshaw! More like boring. But he's a hell of a boxer. Even I can feel his punches, and I'm exceptionally resilient. Elastic, as it were. But when you have hands like that...it's hard not to be a bit of a monster.” He held out his own tiny hands for emphasis, tracing a shape halfway between a catcher's mitt and a frying pan in the air.
“Too quiet by far, but I can't blame him, when all he has all day is an earful of noise. This city is unmerciful loud sometimes. It's no wonder he can get so peevish.”
He sat quietly, thinking. He ground out the cigar on the tabletop, leaving a mark on the wood.
“But he's always respected me. Looks after my back. And me for him. Maybe...” he said, stretching the word into the silence. Some things were better left unsaid, after all.
Maybe we need each other. We're just two strange birds in a cage full of crazies, and that's all we were ever meant to be.
A tremendous weight lifted from his chest. He could feel something change, as if some omniscient screenwriter had just penned the penultimate moment of his life. A revelation in black and gold as the sun rose over the jagged rooftops of a city built just for them.
Above him, Jack chuckled softly and got to his feet. He wasn't really much of a drinker, but Don tended to get into trouble on his own, and a few too many beers and a bad night's sleep made his head buzz. Sweat glistened beneath his mustache and on his bald forehead, dripping down along the ridge of a handsomely shaped, massively protuberant nose. He pulled his battered hat down over his balding pate so it rested on the tops of his wonderfully sensitive ears. He steadied himself with a massive hand on the banister as he walked down into the floor.
“Donovan,” Jack Warricky growled.
“Jack!” Donovan exclaimed, so startled he nearly fell out of his chair.
“You were talking to yourself again,” Jack said more gently.
“Oh. Maybe I was. What about it?”
They knew each other. They were made for each other, twinned by some unknowable destiny. But that didn't bear saying. After all, some things were better left unsaid.
“Nothing. Let's get out of this dive before we have to pitch in, eh?”
“Best idea I've heard yet,” Donovan said, swinging himself onto his feet. “Besides, I may have played a little unexceptionally at canasta last night...”