February 22, 2012 by JRD Skinner
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and forty-six.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Roundtable Podcast.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, private investigator Mulligan Smith unexpectedly returns to a client’s home to complete some paperwork.
Mulligan Smith and The Endangered Granny, Part 1 of 3
On a quiet Wednesday morning, Mulligan was warming a chair in a strip-mall dentist office’s waiting area. He’d arrived fifteen minutes earlier, and had been immediately assaulted by the channel flipping habits of the nine-year-old who’d been left in control of the communal remote. As the boy punched between a MASH episode, a Mexican soap opera, and a show about animal attack survivors, his father sat beside him, rubbing at his phone’s screen.
Just as the Price is Right’s showcase value could be revealed, the red-dressed model beside the boat was replaced by a sallow-faced TV cop.
“This is no accident,” said the officer, “put it together – the penguin, the machete, the clown makeup: It’s obvious that-”
The screen was filled with a hushed golf green.
Behind the reception desk, the bespectacled woman tasked with making appointments and glad-handing patients gritted her teeth and made a third attempt at intervention.
“Richard,” she said, “perhaps if you left it on one of the shows a while, you’d enjoy it more – and are you sure you turned that down? It still sounds pretty loud.”
“Yeah, Ricky,” nodded the boy’s father, without ceasing his rubbing.
“Sure,” replied the boy, also without slowing his thumb’s momentum.
Smith sighed and went back to attempting to locate Laughter is the Best Medicine in the Reader’s Digest he’d plucked from the table.
Backed by the sounds of anxiety inducing equipment, Sasha Burnett, DDS, stepped to the head of the short hallway which lead deeper into the practice. Mulligan thought she seemed prematurely gray. Her smile appeared stout, but genuine.
“Mr. Smith?” she asked, as she adjusted the sleeve of her long white coat.
“Hi,” replied Mulligan.
As he stood, the television touched on a local news broadcast about a convenience store fire, then jumped to a backwater channel filling its afternoon programming with a showing of Gone with the Wind.
“Oh, hey, was that the Eats N’ Treats on fifth? Can I see that a sec?” asked Smith, as he paused in front of the lad and motioned for the black slab of electronics.
The child eyed the waiting woman, then handed it over with a “fine.”
Mulligan flipped back to the Mexican soap, then pulled open the battery compartment and dumped the cylindrical occupants.
Finally, he replaced the Duracells, reassembled the device, and dropped it back in the boy’s lap.
He wondered if the father might raise his head at the intervention, but he paid no notice. With a shrug, Mulligan pushed past his knees, and followed the summoning dentist down the hallway. Passing an assemblage of painted landscapes that the detective guessed was purchased at Sears, they walked beyond the half-dozen occupied reclining chairs, and into a supply closet. The space, which was packed with gloves, masks, floss, and various nibs that Smith couldn’t identify, was large enough to stand comfortably apart, but little more.
“What was that all about back there?” asked the woman, as she extended a hand. Smith found her shake papery, but warm.
“You probably lost your flat-screen’s original remote in some patient’s purse,” said Mulligan, “those universal jobs always need to be reprogrammed once the batteries die, or whatever. Likely the sort of thing the lady at the front desk keeps track of. Kid had it coming.”
“I’m not too surprised. He’s kind of a squirmer. Anyhow, I’m sorry you had to wait, it’s like there’s a candy convention in town since last Friday. Not that I’m complaining.”
“I understand,” replied the private investigator. “This shouldn’t take too long, hopefully – you were saying, in your email, that you were dating Horton Cobb for a few months?”
“Six. He was a nice guy. Old fashioned. I know there’s an obvious age gap between me and Hort, but he’s what my hippy aunt would call an “old soul,” I guess, and I couldn’t help but be charmed. We met at a downtown bar – he was wearing a suit, and he stood out like a sore thumb amongst the college freshmen. I was only there because it was a friend’s birthday – I guess we both must have stood out, actually. He said he had an ailing grandmother at home, who he spent most of his hours caring for, and that he was enjoying a rare chance to getaway.
“He seemed so – like he was trying so hard.
“We exchanged phone numbers before I left. For a while we played cleverly-worded phone tag, then we got coffee. I found his company irresistible, but it was like attempting to find a sexy opening with a Victorian gentleman. It wasn’t that he was constantly formal, or even reserved – he was just always almost overwhelmingly polite and attentive. On a rainy morning, a couple of weeks later, he came in with some hot Pho to share with me. He’d noticed that I often forget to bring something in for lunch, and we’d had to call off plans to go to a soup shop the weekend before.
“We ate it in one of the examination rooms. He sat on the edge of the agony chair, and I hovered on my rolling stool. We kissed when I was done, and it tasted like cinnamon and ginger. I felt fourteen again, but, dammit, he had my heart.”
Mulligan busied himself reading the notes on the side of a box of dental dams, as Burnett wiped at a rogue tear.
After she’d cleared her throat, and apologized, she continued. Her voice was steady.
“It’s funny, for such an incredibly reserved guy, things moved so fast. A month later we were daydreaming about sharing a place. It was like a sign when Granny Cobb’s medical bills spiked and Hort had no choice but to admit that they were headed for the street. He’d made it clear that she would be gone shortly – that she simply wished to die in her own bed. He cried. I figured I could support him – support them – a while, then, when she passed, I’d be there to shelter him from the storm. Besides, I have a three room bungalow, and most of the space is used to store hobbies I never have a chance to partake in.
“She appeared pretty spry once she actually moved in, however. I mean, she didn’t do much, but she couldn’t resist her bingo nights, and was off with her dauber every Sunday. It was really the only time I had alone with Hort. I couldn’t ask him when his Gran might drop dead, but, I have to admit, dealing with her was tiring.
“Still – even if Granny was more mobile than I thought, she didn’t deserve – well: There were a few nights, when I would get back late. I wasn’t joking about being busy, I’m here twelve hours a day, most days. Sometimes, I’d crack the front door and encounter, well, shouting. It was the loudest I ever heard him. He’d certainly never raised his voice to me. There were also, uh, thuds. I never saw any visible bruises on Mrs. Cobb, but she was always overdressed, even when it was warm.
“Listen, I understand that it must be frustrating to be twenty-five and taking care of your grandmother, but – well, I looked at myself, and I looked at him. There was already a fifteen year gap. What if we did have a future together? What would happen to me when I was sixty? Sixty doesn’t feel nearly as impossibly distant as it did when I was his age.
“Whenever I raised the topic, he became flustered and pouty. We’d talk around how difficult she could be, but he’d never admit to anything, and, in the end, we’d wander away from the subject.
“Well, until three weeks ago, when I got the flu and realized at noon that I was breathing germs down my patients’ throats. I arrived home to crawl into bed, but it wasn’t a bit of suspicious banging anymore – it sounded like he was throwing things.
“I waited until he came upstairs, then confronted him in the kitchen.
“At that point he actually owed me a decent bit of money, and, really, I probably kept it going past when I should have out of guilt that I was likely the only reason Granny continued to be able to see a doctor. I just – I couldn’t it shake off anymore.
“There was a screaming match. I accused him of beating her, and he stormed from the house. Twenty minutes later, the old lady came up stairs as well, carrying a pair of well-packed suitcases. I asked her to stay, offered her the room free of rent for as long as she needed.
“I’d have regretted it, probably, but I was feeling so bad for her in that moment. She turned me down, anyhow, and followed him through the door. I gave her my number. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her leave.”
The dentist was now dry-eyed, but her thumb and forefinger continued to fret the hem of her ivory smock.
“There’s something you need to know,” said Mulligan, with his hands deep in his hoodie’s pockets.
Ten feet away, on the far side of the wall, Ricky opened wide for the drill.
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