Welcome to Flash Pulp Guest-isode 6.
Tonight we present Not My Line of Work, by Dean Bryant Johnson
This week’s episode is brought to you by The Charred Tree.
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, we present a tale of professions and professionalism.
Not My Line of Work, by Dean Bryant Johnson
Giselle stamped from the room and slammed the door. Hamm was fairly certain this was the first time he had ever seen a dame stamp her way from any room so effectively while wearing six-inch heels. Sure, some had tried but it’s difficult to take a mad woman seriously when she’s waving her arms around like a ceiling fan trying to keep her balance. But Giselle…Giselle had pulled it off. Walked those gams across the floor as graceful as you please, flung open the door without a moment’s hesitation, and slammed it so the glass rattled violently in its frame; the last letter slipped and nearly fell. He’d have to fix that. It was already a challenge to get paying clients to take him seriously with a name like Hamm Packer; he could only image the snickering his colleagues would send into their sleeves if that second m disappeared. The thought made him frown.
“Fer cryin’ out loud!” he said under his breath as he stood and began to cross the sparsely furnished office to repair the lettering. Hamm froze when a loose floorboard creaked. He hadn’t heard the elevator groan its way to the main floor yet so Giselle was likely still in the hallway. The last thing he needed was for her to come back—while she’s a looker, the only thing he really wanted at this point was for her check to clear the bank—so he stopped and waited quietly for the aging machinery to announce the all clear. After thirty seconds of agonizing silence Hamm heard the elevator screech open, crisp footsteps walking into it, and the screech in reverse as the car closed. He felt more than heard the elevator descend to the first floor. He straightened the last letter of his first name and pressed as hard as he dared. There, that’s better—Hamm Packer, Private Investigator.
The telephone rang as he returned to his desk. He lifted the receiver while reaching for a pencil. “Packer.”
“Mr. Packer. Good. You’re still there. I need to see you as soon as possible.” Her voice was calm but painted with a layer of urgency. A bit of an accent—too little to reliably identify—gave her voice an exotic sound. Hamm looked at his watch—8:37.
“Well, I was about to turn the lock and call it a night. How does tomorrow sound?” The day had started with an ugly hairball left by an ill-tempered cat on the bathmat and had ended with an angry client with legs up to here nearly destroying the entry to his place of business. Best to not push his luck and start over in the morning.
“Oh! That’s no good. I’m leaving by the early train. Can’t you please help me? Can I buy you dinner while I explain my problem?” Her voice dripped anxiety with an edge of desperation.
Work hadn’t exactly been beating a path to his threshold lately and the bank account could always use some more dough. Worst case? Tuck away some groceries and hear someone’s story. Maybe he could do something, maybe not. It could be worse—most clients would never even consider buying him a meal.
“You know a place called Dorset’s Tavern, Miss…..?”
“Ortice. Antonia Ortice, Mr. Packer. And yes, I know where it is. Would you like me to meet you there?” Hamm could almost feel the gratitude pouring through the phone line.
“No! No, not there. That’s not a good place for us to talk business.” The few times Hamm had walked by Dorset’s, the hairs on his neck had stood on end. Something seemed to warn respectable people away from that place. “Opposite side of the street and at the other end of the block is The Stockyard Grill. I hope steak is fine with you.” Hell, when a client offers to buy you a meal, you treat yourself to something a little better than a bag of cheese doodles and a slurpee.
Two hours later Hamm Packer pushed away the large plate that held only a bone and the wreckage of a much-abused baked potato. He sipped his iced tea and looked over the edge of the glass at Antonia Ortice. He was glad he had let her buy him a steak because he certainly wasn’t gonna take this case.
“So let me get this straight. Your father died a few days ago and now he’s haunting you. But before he died he told you that some heirloom piece of jewelry could protect you?” Nope. Saying it aloud didn’t make it any less insane. Glad this place was getting ready to close—fewer people around to hear the crazy-talk.
“Not him alone, Mr. Packer–all of them. Every one of my Ortice ancestors. My father’s journal says it will begin with the first new moon after his death, so I have less than a month to find this thing and reclaim my life.” Antonia closed her eyes. Her fingers pinched and caressed the ridge between her eyes and she shook her head. “I know it sounds preposterous. I don’t want this to happen to me. I have a life of my own, dammit! I don’t need the dead bothering me.” She slammed her fist on the table. The flatware and her untouched water jumped with the impact.
“Look, Miss Ortice, I’m gonna be straight with you. I could use the money—really, I could—and I might even be able to find this brooch or pin or whatever it is for you, although I wouldn’t make any promises on that. I couldn’t help you on the mumbo-jumbo part of it. I have no idea where to begin and I’m not even convinced I believe in such things.” He folded his hands on top of the wadded napkin in front of his plate. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I can’t take your case.”
Antonia’s gaze fell to her lap. “Thank you for your honesty, Mr. Packer. I appreciate that you at least took the time to hear my explanation of the situation.” A tear slid down her cheek as she handed her credit card to the waitress. “What I should do next?”
“Let me give it some thought.” He swirled the ice and the last half inch of tea in the glass. “I’ve heard rumors of a guy here in the city that dabbles in magic and voodoo…that kind of stuff.” Hamm retrieved a small spiral pad and a pencil from his jacket and made a note. “Might also check with some of my other contacts. If nothing else maybe they can get me a line on Mr. Bedknobs-n-Broomsticks.”
The waitress–her barely legible name tag proclaimed her to be Vera–returned with Antonia’s credit card and the slip for her to sign. “Can I get you folks anything else?”
“No. No thank you. Everything was wonderful.” Antonia said it by rote while she figured the tip.
“Um…if you don’t mind my saying….” Vera whispered. Packer could tell by her body language that she was nervous to say anything so he smiled to reassure her and motioned for her to continue. “I couldn’t help but hear you discussing the ghost and magic fella. You looking for him?”
“Yes we are, Vera. Do you know where we might find him?” Packer had learned to keep the tone conversational. Sources tended to make like a clam if they thought they were being interrogated.
“He’s called Coffin. Don’t think I ever heard anyone use a given name for him, not that you’d need one with a something as memorable as that. You can usually find him at Dorset’s a couple nights a week.” She indicated the direction with a general wave. “Strange place that but it seems to suit Mr. Coffin. If he’s not there I bet old Dorset could point you in the right direction.”
“Thank you, Vera. You’ve been very helpful.” Hamm extended his hand. Vera shook it and left with the signed credit slip. “I hope you tipped her well, Miss Ortice, ‘cause she just answered your question of what to do next.”
“That’s near here, isn’t it? Can we go now?” Antonia clasped his arm as she spoke.
“Absolutely.” Packer drained the last of his tea before placing the empty glass next to his plate. “Let’s go.”
They stepped into Dorset’s and it was what Hamm would have expected had he ever taken the time to think consider it. Usually he would have loved a place like this—lots of wood with brass fittings, comfortable padded stools at the bar, billiards, and some dart boards to one side—but something made him want to leave, to find a more welcoming bar. “Well,” he said under his breath, “the good news is I’m not here to drink. I’m here to find this guy and then I’m done.” He excused himself forward and got the barman’s attention.
Hamm leaned over and spoke softly, barely loud enough for the man to hear, “I’m looking for Coffin. Someone told me I could find him here.” He slid a folded bill across the worn wood of the counter. The barkeep looked twice between the money and Hamm Packer’s face before deciding the money was good. He motioned with his head toward the back and Hamm’s eyes darted that direction. When his gaze returned to the polished wood the twenty was gone.
“He’s here, Miss Ortice.” He took Antonia by the arm and guided her deeper into the tavern where they could see the rear seating area. Three booths were occupied. The two on the right were occupied by couples obviously out for a night on the town. A man in a leather jacket sat alone drinking coffee in the one of the left. That had to be Coffin.
“Is that him?” Antonia was excited.
“Only person it could be. I tell you what. I got you here to the man himself so I think I’m done. Frankly, this place gives me the willies and I don’t think they like me being here—can’t put my finger on it, but after awhile you learn to go with your gut. You go see if that’s him. If it is, great and good luck. If not, I’ll help you find some other lead. Deal?” He could feel the eyes boring into the nape of his neck.
“Yes, that’s fine, Mr. Packer. Oh! Here.” She placed several folded bills in his hand as she shook it. “For the money you gave the bartender as well as for bringing me this far. Thank you so much for your help.” Antonia approached the leather-clad man. Hamm pocketed the money without counting it. He was certain this particular client was playing fair and honest. At least he wasn’t out the twenty he’d lost at the bar.
Hamm watched as Antonia approached the and addressed the man. He couldn’t hear their words but he knew she was asking if he was Coffin. He nodded and offered her the seat opposite him. Hamm hoped she found the answer to her problem. Maybe this Coffin guy could help her; Hamm sure as hell knew that he couldn’t.
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