The Case of the Cockamamie Killer
IT WAS A RAINY day like any other rainy day. Hard gobs of it pounding the weary pavement of the city. Horns blaring. Drivers and pedestrians cursing. Chinese and Columbian street vendors hawking plastic-spoked umbrellas. Punks on bikes and roller blades.
And mud. Mud splattering against panty hose and pant cuffs. Splattering and sticking. Then drying up and cracking into dust, later, when the rain ended or the people with the wet clothes went inside somewhere to dry off--and to forget about the rain.
Until the next time.
Charon was late and he was wet. His plan: grab a burger and get back to the office.
He entered the fast-food joint, went to the counter. Nodded to the clerk. Ordered. Plain burger, small fries, small vanilla shake. Clear, simple, sequential. Little easy words that should have gone down like cream puffs. But didnít.
Didnít at all.
"Plain with nothing on it?"
Charon nodded. He smiled. "Yep!" He was gracious, friendly, full of warmth and encouragement, the best friend of any counter clerk. He touched his fingertips to the edge of the counter as insignion of the easy sociability of his spirit. "Iím just not a ketchup-and-mustard man, I guess."
The clerk just rolled her eyes and turned frigid.
Charon did some inferring. Seemed the galís down time was being interrupted by a time-consuming variation on the normal order. Seemed he was out to get her. He could sense the resentment welling up like steam from a geyser over a bed of magma on a hot summer afternoon in the last week of Armageddon on laundry day with the dryer on high.
"Plain?" she inquired again, lower lip jutting in sullen promontory. Maybe she hadnít heard right. Maybe what Charon really wanted was one of the soggy, gunk-slathered, pickled, already-available burgers squatting in the tin racks under the fluorescent warmers. "Nothing on it?"
Charon ran it by her again, monotone, right between the lidded orbs on either side of her nose. "Plain with nothing on it, thatís right. Just the burger and the bun please."
"Yeah, well, I gotta make sure, people says plain and they want jesí ketchup or sumpiní."
"Uh, okay, well, plain. Thatís a go for plain. No ketchup, no mustard, no pickles. Just the burger and the bun. Deposit the burger on one half of the bun and then place the other half of the bun on top. Thatís it. No condiments. Thanks."
"You ainít gotta be nasty. GIMME A PLAIN." "You say plain?" somebody in the back groaned. "Yeah! HAMBURGER PUH-LA-UH-HAY-A-A-A-AAAIN. And no condoms." She stabbed the red button for PLAIN on the register, then cranked her peepers back to Charon, collar level, knot-of-the-tie level. Except Charon never wore a tie. "Whaddya wanna drink?" The sigh, then.
"Small vanilla shake."
"I think we outta shake. Jerry..."
"We got any shake left?"
Jerry copped a gander at the milkshake machine, dredging his memory for spare RNA fragments. "Outta vanilla strawberry" was the report.
"Outta vanilla strawberry," relayed the gal, as if Charon should already have known.
"Large medium small."
"Fries with that?"
"Small medium large."
"Small chocolate shake, small fries, and plain burger nothing on it. Anything else...?"
"No, thatís fine."
"Would you like a apple pie to go with that sir?"
"Not unless I can get it ŗ la mode."
"Well we donít got it like that."
"Guess Iíll pass then."
"To go. Thanks. Appreciate it."
The clerk sighed, downtrodden, and poked the remaining requisite three or four buttons on the cash register with an oppressed and heavy heart.
After a while she started scrounging around for a paper bag.
[ 2. ]
Alice Blimpkin was pudgy, freckled, not excessively bright, perpetually harried, perpetually uncertain how best to juggle the variegated stream of obligations inherent in secretarial life. Charon was hunched at his cubicle, munching, when she scurried into the department with her mop of frayed red hair and her frayed brown sweater with the buttons and buttonholes out of alignment. There was a vector attached to her kinetics and it was pointed right at Charon.
She lumbered over to him.
"Hi Chak, how are ya, just the guy I need to see, got a job for ya. Has to go out A-SAP." She uttered the acronym like it was her own word she had invented just a little while ago. "A-SAP, okay?"
"Iím on lunch," Charon murmured between mouthfuls. He waved the burger to illustrate. Colleagues in contiguous cubicles typed a lot of keys and stared at monitors.
Blimpkin looked at Charon, looked around, looked back at him, looked at her watch, looked at Charon, looked lost. The panic ratcheted up, up, up.
"But...but weíve got to get this out, Chak. Mr. Jagglin just called me about it, special, a little while ago...." She jerked a glance at her watch. "I know youíre on lunch..."
"Get Al or Suzette. Weíre not that busy."
"Weíre pretty busy," said Al, really peering now at his monitor.
"Busy," said Suzette, blowing at her nails, then tapping a dozen keys in rapid succession. Cora and Malcolm snapped diskettes into their computer drives. Quincy Wimble muttered something that you could not understand what he said and fed a sheet of labels into the printer.
"Jesus, Iím busy," said Joseppe.
One thing about Blimpkin, she was great at hovering. No way to get rid of her and you could feel the perspiration slithering from her armpit down the bra strap and down, down, down the crepe flank of her arm and into the unsuspecting runnels of the keyboard.
"Well...but Jeff wants you in particular specifically. Said itís a Chak Special. He was very clear about that. Those were his words exactly. Chak Special. I mean, you know, Jeff says youíre the only one who can handle it...and...and...itís only a few changes...." Charon shook his head, tackled the rest of the burger. Belched. Blimpkin inched toward him, holding out the document, her agonized eyes glistening, strudel green blouse straining under the sweater, frizzy lumpy-bouffant moldy-orange-rind hair looming, teetering toward him, enhanced by the authentic aroma of her armpits. Yes. Maybe he would do it. She offered the document with a mix of dread, hope and desperation.
Charon took it, took a look. "A few changes plus the tape with the rider...," wheedled Blimpkin. "Itís just that itís kind of a rush...."
He skimmed it. The text was twelve-point Times-Roman font with standard Helvetica headings. Double-spaced.
But thatís where the clarity, the easy part of it ended. The blue-penciling was scrambled. Some of the proposed edits were messy, barely legible. Many of the instructions lacked adequate specificity. And there were the usual requests for miracles: "Make it fit." "Massage this a little." "Keep all this on one page but make look nice." "See Appendix F, Table 2." Right. Charon would be lucky to find any appendices at all, let alone an Appendix F featuring the referenced table. Nobody could beat Jagglin when it came to omitting bits and pieces of things, then rushing over with the missing material at the last minute as the client was waiting for the document by a fax machine.
Plus there was that rider Blimpkin was talking about. On a cassette. Dictation. Uh oh.
Jeff Jagglin crapped out when it came to dictation. He was a real mumbler. As if he were talking to himself; as if he were not even aware of being recorded for later playback.
Nor was Jeff one to think things through on a clause-by-clause basis before he started yapping, either. There were always lots of mid-sentence reversals and fumblings. Lots of loops within loops within loops. Sub-grammatical mountain-climbing capped by muttering anti-climax--and a void.
It stunk. Stunk on ice.
"You see, heís penciled in his changes and--"
"Yeah. Yeah, I see." Charon flipped through the rest of the document. Hefted the cassette. "When do you need it?"
"A-SAP," she iterated. She licked her chops. "Mr. Jagglin called me about it himself, says he wants you to get to it as soon as possible. Just as soon as you possibly, possibly can. He really stressed that. Especially the rider. Rider D. And had to be you. Only you Chak. Gotta be."
"Uh huh." Looked like the cassette was not quite rewound all the way. Or maybe the other side had the dictation. "Is this thing rewound or--"
"Uh...rewound? Iím not sure. But he said--"
"He said it was absolutely top priority--"
"Okay, donít sweat it." Charon felt like grabbing a fry so he did.
"Great." She looked at Charon and looked at the french fry and back at Charon again.
"Iíll call you when itís ready," said Charon. "Want a fry?"
"Great." She checked her watch. "Great. Donít forget about the rider. Thatís super important."
Ed Beckerman, department supervisor for the shift, buzzed Charon up to the front desk. "Are you still on lunch?" he asked.
Then Beckerman slid over a plastic job sleeve with the certain precise motion with which Beckerman performed any routine action, the same every time, same angles, lines, degree of exertion, same automatic pattern of conveyance, without joy or aversion, just pure mechanical functionality, like somebody like a robot, like somebody like a machine.
"This is for Brubaker. He wants it by two in the morning. Can you do the overtime?"
Charon picked up the sleeve. "I guess. But what about this Jagglin thing? Thatís also a rush, apparently."
Beckerman said in his toneless, prefabricated manner: "Do the Brubaker and then if you have time finish with the other, or else hand it off. But get the Brubaker out. Thatís the priority." He then attended to some piece of paper as if Charon were no longer there and what was on the paper was just very extremely important.
Charon returned to his cubicle and hooked up the Dictaphone. He plugged it in.
All right...all right, Beckerman...youíre telling me to skip the Jagglin and go to the Brubaker, and youíre the guy in charge, but dammit, first Iím going to find out whatís on that tape. Whatís in that rider. Blimpkin deserves that much. So does Jagglin.
He slipped on the headphones.
Out in the hall, voices. "And here...is the Word Processing Department, where you will be submitting the lengthier documents that your secretaries donít have time for...." Poor saps. So happy to have reached the shimmering plateau of Oliver Shimpkin Baker Dimple & Cromwell, Esquires, right out of law school. So happy.
Charon rammed the cassette into the machine. He pressed the PLAY button and crunched the pedal to start the Dictaphone rolling.
Static. A blank gap, the kind you get at the beginning of a lot of cassettes. Then--Jagglin.
Yeah. It was Jagglin all right. Jagglin in spades. Only he wasnít mumbling.
Not this time.
This time every syllable was clear as a bell fresh off the assembly line, clear and polished and bright, only a little bit on the shrill side, and cracked, the way a voice goes when the chocolate pudding is too hot, the kind of pudding with ugly burnt crust. Ugly and mean.
"Okay Chak. How ya doing. Hey look, look. Look, I donít know if this is going to reach you, but if it does, it means Iím--but if they get me, thatís it, thatís it, Iím done for...but somebody has to know, somebody. And I figure, youíre a private eye, right? A gumshoe? When youíre not word processing? Something like that? Because I canít tell the cops, no sir, not in this crazy world of ours, but if you get this--I mean if I donít make it--I want you to know that--"
And then another gap, a crackle, and there was nothing else on the tape.
Nothing at all!
NEXT MONTH: Chak Charon tries to extract information from Alice Blimpkin.
The Case of the Cockamamie Killer