Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and eighty-one.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Dark Wife.
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 dines at the edge of a crime scene.
Mulligan Smith and The Reformed Man, Part 1 of 3
The client had been vague in his instructions: “Check out the crime scene and get a feel for the area before your meeting, the following day, with Cassie Withers.”
Smith was no stranger to any of Capital City’s neighbourhoods, but he had done his best to earn his pay. The downtown alley in question was a narrow run between a college bar, whose ownership was in constant rotation, and a shuttered shop with a sun-worn sign that read “Taj Mahal Grocery.”
Mulligan continued to stare at the lane, though the afternoon had worn away to evening, and the growing shadows were unlikely to provide any new information on the death of Donnie Benton. As he eyed the gloom, the P.I. tapped a cooling mozzarella stick against his not-quite-clean plate.
His friend, Billy Winnipeg, had selected the nearest eatery to the location of the murder; a pub-style hangout with a sidewalk patio, which was otherwise devoid of patrons due to summering students. The seating area consisted of five plastic tables trapped in a box of wrought iron barricades, and the view was making it difficult for Smith to enjoy his client-billed dinner.
Billy, who was retelling a particularly embarrassingly vomit-filled incident from his mother’s time as a motel cleaning woman, was having no difficulty disposing of either of his hamburgers. Between the tale and the food, the thick-fingered Canadian had no attention left for his friend’s lack of appetite.
Mulligan’s gaze wandered down the street, to a gray-bearded man in the process of turning in his sleep. Even as his fingerless gloves worked at maintaining the newspapers that made up his bench-bed’s blanket, the slumberer’s snores continued.
The free meal bothered Smith. Why had he been hired? Two of the client’s university friends had been murdered, three years apart, but he had nothing else to add. Had the victims been into anything nefarious? He didn’t know. Were the dead pair close? He couldn’t say, they hadn’t been in touch.
Yet Mulligan’s employer was willing to pay for a professional snoop to walk in the C.C.P.D.’s footsteps.
The detective dipped his fried cheese in the complementary marinara sauce, but the red glaze failed to make it any more appealing.
Somewhere beyond the restless hobo, a chant drifted in on the still August air, and, within moments, the pavement filled with a throng of angry slogans and wildly swinging flashlights.
The Church of the Burning Christ had taken publicized stands against recent military actions overseas, going so far as to protest the funerals of local soldiers, but, to most of the city’s dwellers, they were best known for their signage and roadside homilies.
From the opposite direction came a lone woman, wearing a long leather coat and a studded choker. A pair of white earbuds – matching her facial makeup – thrust some unknown beat into her ears, splashing that which would not fit back into the boulevard.
Despite the approaching gauntlet, the girl did not swerve in her course, and Mulligan, though he did not know her, gave a respectful half-wave as she passed.
She had just enough time to give him a resigned shrug in reply, then the shouting began.
It started with the leader of the group, a red-headed man with full day’s stubble on his cheeks.
“And when Jehu was come to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window,” he announced to the crowd at his back.
His congregation snickered, raising higher their hand-scrawled declarations.
From his position, Mulligan could easily read two “God Hates Fags” and a “You’re Going To Hell.”
“Harlots stain their faces many colours,” continued the preacher’s impromptu sermon, “but all are equally whorish.”
There came the scrape of plastic on stone, and Winnipeg rose from the ruins of his meal.
“Hey,” he said. The word rose like thunder from the depths of his throat. “My mom spent a few years as a hard hustling whore. It ain’t easy. They don’t call them working girls for nothing.”
Smith knew it to be a lie, but the few seconds of distraction were enough to let the leathered woman slip through their net of beratement.
Over the collar of his crisp white shirt, the evangelist’s neck took on a shade not unlike that of his hair.
He turned to his followers.
“Leviticus tells a tale we must now recall: “Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him.’
“Did you hear this heathen’s accent? Just as the half-breed egyptian came into the camp of the Israelites, so too has this foreigner – a Canadian, and the admitted son of a prostitute – come to speak to us of corruption.”
A cacophony of slurs rolled from the crowd, but, having accomplished his task, Billy simply sat back down.
Mulligan raised an eyebrow and asked, “you going to let them talk to you like that that?”
The weight of Winnipeg’s arms strained the workmanship of the table as his glass of beer disappeared within his fingers’ grasp. He lifted the mug as if it were the first drink after a day’s heavy labour: With a smile, and entirely oblivious to the troubles beyond its rim.
“Talking shit is all we’ve got,” he said. “Mom says its a universal right – one of the few. Talking shit and dying are really the only two things you can never stop people from doing. You can make laws about it, but then people just think they’re badasses because they’re talking shit in private.
”You gotta treat these sorts of folks like those little dogs, the yapping buggers. Kicking them just makes ‘em worse. You live with one for a while, and leave ‘em alone, it gets to a point where you don’t even notice the constant barking anymore.”
Realizing they’d get no further reaction out of the chatting pair, the crusaders marched on.
Smith grinned. “I’ve never known you to back away from the opportunity to lob a fist.”
“I’m a reformed man,” responded Billy. “No more punch ups.”
“Why the change of heart?”
“Well, as Gandhi once said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.””
As the members of the Church of the Burning Christ turned the block’s corner, Mulligan’s smile turned to a smirk. Over Winnipeg’s shoulder, however, he could see the formerly sleeping man creeping in his direction, an ear cocked to the wind, so that he might guess the distance of the warbling assembly.
It was clear he had no interest in remaining long enough for the hostile flock to return.
“Besides,” said Winnipeg, after draining his ale, “Ma says she’ll be pissed if I lay anyone else out.”
Donnie Benton’s final moments came to Mulligan then – the pain that must have blossomed from the crown of his skull as the two-by-four landed, the impact of his cheek on the cool cement, the utter indifference the world outside the alley had shown his last breath.
It didn’t seem like much of a neighbourhood for pacifism.
Lifting his hand to summon the bill, Smith nudged his abandoned dinner towards the passing homeless man, who, in turn, gratefully filled his pockets.
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