Welcome to Flash Pulp, Episode Forty-One.
This evening’s story is brought to you by OpopanaxFeathers.wordpress.com
It’s like that old show, Win, Lose, or Draw, but without the couches, or the competition.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – 400 to 600 words brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
In this second chapter of our current Mulligan Smith tale, our hero begins to gather a clearer picture of the man whose memory he is chasing.
Flash Pulp 041 – Mulligan Smith and The Casanova Suicide, Part 2 of 3
It was two days after his meeting with the client, and Mulligan was sitting on the opposite side of the Denny’s from the booth he’d occupied with Mrs. Melby.
Thumbing his cellphone, he looked at the time.
Across the restaurant, his eyes hidden behind the glare of his thick lenses, sat the pot-bellied man.
Smith looked at the phone again. The clock blinked at a minute’s passing.
Sunlight bounced along the green blinds that kept the heat off the patrons by the windows. Outside, a gray Prius pulled between twin yellow lines. At the sight of the vehicle, Mulligan scooped up his iced tea and slid from the booth. Glass in hand, he maneuvered to the short strip of black carpet that marked the entrance area.
He extended his free hand to the young woman coming through the door.
“Hannah?” Her make and model had come up with her insurance info when he’d asked a friend to ask a computer. The well washed car stood out amongst the Ford Focuses and mini-vans – it wasn’t a Prius kind of parking lot.
She met his handshake. The woman was slightly taller than Mrs. Melby had been, and no older than twenty-five. She dressed professionally and wore her long curls in a taut ponytail.
“Mulligan? Sorry I’m late, I got a few last minute emails at work, and it felt like I hit every red light on the way here.”
“No worries,” Smith replied.
With Hannah in tow, he maneuvered to a booth close enough to the pot-bellied man that he could clearly see the yellowing of age in the man’s glasses’ rims, but far enough that their conversation would remain private under the din of the cutlery and chatter.
A server was close at their heels, asking if they were ready to order, or needed time.
“Can I get you anything?” Mulligan asked.
“Just a bottle of water, please.”
Smith nodded at the college boy with the HB pencil, and added an order of mozzarella sticks.
Once the waiter was out of earshot, the woman cast a long glance over the dinner crowd.
Mulligan had positioned himself to maintain polite conversation, as well as a decent angle of observation. In his end booth, the man he was watching had lifted his phone to arm’s length and was busying himself squinting, as if attempting to better read a fresh text message.
“I can’t eat in places like this, everything tastes like cardboard and comes out cold,” Hannah said, adjusting her skirt on the vinyl.
“At a place like a McDonald’s, you always tell them to hold the pickle – they make a bunch of extra Big Macs, to beat the rush, but they usually sit around getting cold. You ask for no pickle, they have to make the burger fresh. A Denny’s is usually pretty safe though, at least around mealtime.”
Giggling drew Mulligan’s attention to his left. On the far side of the partition that separated the rows of booths, an overwhelmed mother with a shouting two year old boy sat opposite to twin sisters, both in booster seats. The girls had started giggling at the outburst, but were rapidly elevating into their own riot.
Attempting to maintain her inside-voice, the mother took turns asking the boy, then the twins, to lower their tones.
“Well – I’m actually a raw food vegan, so I doubt I could eat anything but the chicken wings’ garnish anyhow,” Hannah replied.
Smith took a long draw of his iced tea, now watery from his vanished cubes.
The man still had his arm in the air.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Cooking breaks down the cell walls of your eats – lets your body absorb the nutrients. You’re probably putting yourself through pounds of broccoli a day that your body isn’t even digesting.”
The server returned with her water, and his fried cheese.
“Not that I’m one to talk,” he added, still grinning as he dipped the appetizer in its accompanying ranch sauce. “Was Shamus into raw food too?”
The mother had had enough. The toddling boy was scooped up into one arm; the twins linked hands and were dragged along to the exit in a short chain.
She didn’t need change. She hadn’t managed to order.
“Deeply, and he was a professor, so he should know what he was talking about.”
Mulligan reached into his hoodie, retrieving the black notebook that acted as his memory.
“Right – an English professor. You were in his class?”
“I had him for a technical writing class, yes.”
“Uh, and how did you guys get to know each other?”
“The same as anyone I guess. Our first date was beer and pizza when he helped me move out of my college roommate’s apartment, and into my own place.”
“Oh, so this was after you’d graduated?”
“Yes – Months earlier I’d actually gotten up the courage to ask him out for a drink after class. During his lecture he’d told this story about a fantastic Greek bar he’d been to where women – well, anyhow, he said no. The day after my commencement though, he emailed me asking if I was still interested.”
“Didn’t that strike you as a little creepy?”
“You’ve seen pictures of Shamus, right? He spent longer on his hair in the morning than I did – he wasn’t the type to be hurting for company. Anyhow, I told him I’d love to, but maybe sometime the week after, as I was moving. He just showed up with the beer and pizza. Good thing too, everyone I was depending on disappeared.”
Mulligan bounced his pencil’s eraser on the table top. After a moment, he flipped back a page in his notebook.
“Sorry, just to rewind a bit – I called Shamus’ sister yesterday, and she said his death had come as a real surprise, since he was such a health nut?”
“Well – he worked out. A lot. He also visited his Reiki masseuse, his acupuncturist, his chiropractor, and his nutritionist, regularly.”
“You know, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, if you want someone with actual medical standing you need to visit a dietitian. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but did he ever visit any real doctors?”
“I used to bug him about it actually, he seemed terrified of them. I’d laugh and tease him that a guy who put that much effort into maintaining himself shouldn’t be afraid to have a doctor tell him to turn his head and cough, but he’d still refuse.”
Mulligan nodded, his Bic mechanical pencil working methodically.
“Notice anything different about how he was acting lately?”
“Well, he’d called off one of our dates a couple of weeks ago, and I remember getting a call from the Reiki lady – we use the same woman, and she knows we were together – saying he had missed his appointment.”
“So, you, uh, considered yourself a couple?”
“What about Rhiannon?”
“Well – it was complicated, but it worked.”
“Do you think he was having an affair? I mean, that there was another other-woman?”
“What do you think he was up to during those missed appointments?”
The woman’s brow dropped.
“I don’t know.”
“Any guesses on why he would take his own life?”
Smith closed his notebook.
They finished their drinks and Mulligan paid the bill.
As she pushed open the glass door, he murmured a thank you and goodbye, returning to the booth at which they’d been sitting.
Tilting his head to the left and right, he inspected the benches. He ducked low, looking under the table, then hunkered down on one knee for a closer inspection. He set his cell on the rough carpet.
The man, whom the PI had come to think of as Mr. Slug, was so focused on reviewing his phone-work that he hadn’t noticed the staging for his benefit.
He started when Mulligan leaned into his field of vision from the far side of the partition.
“Can I get you to call my phone for me? I’ve misplaced it somewhere.”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” replied the man, a bead of sweat standing out on his temple.
Smith watched the grid of thumb-nailed photos disappear from the phone’s display.
Mulligan gave his number, and they both cocked an ear as a ragged index finger hit transmit.
The theme to The Rockford Files began to sound in the distance, and Smith returned to his booth, scooping his phone from the floor.
“Huh, I must have dropped it. Thanks.”
Mulligan paused at the door, straightening his sweater in the reflection of the large fish tank. Over his wavering shoulder, he could make out the shining dual moons of Mr. Slug’s glasses, watching him.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm. The audio and text formats of Flash Pulp are released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.