Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and twenty-seven.
Tonight we present, Mulligan Smith and The Bystander, Part 1 of 1
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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, Mulligan Smith, PI, finds himself out in the cold.
Flash Pulp 127 – Mulligan Smith and The Bystander, Part 1 of 1
Regardless of the dusting of snow, a small crowd had come to gather outside 240 Maple, most of them having been drawn in by the blinking red bubble-lights of the four police cruisers parked along the road.
Mulligan, his hoodie zipped tight against the chill, watched as the KOCC reporter wrapped her story. Once the cameraman had barked out a quick confirmation that the transmission had completed, and even as the onlookers’ retinas were still aglow with the directional light’s after image, the one man crew, and the correspondent, hopped into the bright-blue news van and gunned the still idling engine.
The PI had used his rubber-necking of the brief broadcast as an opportunity to eavesdrop on the whispered conversations that shot amongst the bystanders, but his time had been largely spent listening to the spouting of an old man whose hat would’ve better served a Cossack. The pseudo-Russian had gone on at length, in a stage whisper obviously intended for more than just his wife, that if there were this many police on hand, they certainly must have the flasher in custody.
Despite the bumper-to-bumper parking, Smith had his doubts.
With his excuse for silence gone, he struck up a conversation with a wispy haired fifty-something, whose face was lost deep in her massive parka.
“Funny what some people will do,” he said.
“Yeah, guess so,” she replied in a thick Wisconsin accent. “Must be a real perverted-type.”
“Usually I’d agree, but I’m not so sure this time.” Mulligan took a step closer as he spoke. “Generally a pervert can make do just jumping out of the bushes at a park, or trawling bus-stops – by the time they get around to breaking and entering, it’s not just to share a brief view of their pride.”
“Oh?” replied the parka. “Then what happened here?”
“My guess is that the culprit is seeking attention. They probably don’t get much of it in their regular existence.”
“That’s not what the news-lady said, and everything I’ve read in the paper has made the flasher out to be a goddess in a gas-mask – a little beauty with some sort of weird fetish.”
“Yeah, well, these stories have a way of taking on a life of their own, and legends spring up. Have you ever heard of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon?”
“The Mad Gasser might have been a person running around Virginia and Illinois in the ‘30s and ‘40s. See, supposedly there was this fellow with a spray gun – the old type that looks like a bicycle pump with a can stuck to one side and a nozzle at the far end – and he’d creep about in peoples bushes until they were sitting around at home watching TV, or whatever – then he’d user the sprayer to try and gas them through cracked windows, or even nail holes.”
“Gas? Did anyone die?”
“Nope, a few folks got sick though.”
“Are you saying you think she used something on her victims and that’s why she wears the mask?” the woman seemed pleased with the idea.
“No, the mask is just so she doesn’t get caught. What I’m saying is that the police chief in Mattoon actually ended up declaring the whole thing a hoax – likely just the product of hysteria, and maybe some chemical releases from a nearby factory.” Smith shrugged. “I don’t know what the reality was, but, as I mentioned, these things tend to collect their own mythology. Maybe claiming you were awoken in the middle of the night by a supple, nude, twenty-year-old makes for an easier confession than the reality of having the bejesus scared out of you by a, uh, stout mother of four, whose children are all college-aged.”
The woman’s eyes grew large, but Mulligan went on.
“Truth be told, I’m actually working for the first victim. Seems he feels his original description of the assailant may not be the most helpful thing in the world, but he’s got too much pride to go back to the police for a second round of red-faced recounting.”
“Why does he still care?” the ex-Wisconsinite asked, her voice now a squeak. “It’s never happened to the same person twice, has it?”
“Well – never mind that if this were a crime committed by a man, the outcry would be triple what it is – the basics are that my client, despite the fact that the increasing media coverage is handling this almost like a case of prankster-ism, spends most nights waking up in a sweat, and now has to get out of bed to check his door locks a dozen times an evening. I do understand a bit of where you’re coming from, though – a guy with that much money rarely has a kind word for the help, and if he’d been more honest in the first place, his pride wouldn’t be in such a bind.”
“How did you know?”
“Well, first off, I actually bothered to look into who’d temped in the house when, and if, each victim’s main cleaning lady was unavailable.” He wanted to be stern with her – he knew he should be. He damned himself for smirking. “You were the only coincidence. If your employers had paid you more heed while you were busy dusting their shelves, they could have recognized you themselves – but then, my suspicion is that if those men had been less inattentive while you were tidying, you wouldn’t have felt the need to make your nocturnal visits.”
He’d thought the woman would break down crying at the news, but she seemed increasingly happy just to be noticed.
He decided he’d actually allow the interview when the KOCC lady called later – it was the least he could do after getting the aging mother fired, and he suspected she’d enjoy the spin he’d give her saga.
He let out a short laugh before continuing.
“Anyhow, it didn’t help that you were pretty easy to spot in the background of the last incident’s news footage. Those boots are pretty tall, and your coat is pretty long, but, if people were paying a little more attention, it’s definitely noticeable that you’re not wearing any pants.”
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