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IV. 21 and Done
I took a nice long drag on my cigarette and exhaled it over the top of my coffee mug so I couldn’t tell the smoke from the steam. I looked at my wrists again, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming as I thought about the dream I had just finished doing. I say doing instead of having because it’s a more accurate description. After all, the point of language is to, as close as is possible, describe things that you can’t point a finger at and say “That’s what I mean.” Language does the best it can at this despite being used mostly by people.
Before I lulled myself into an internal debate about the differences between language and communication, I pulled a beat-up leather-bound journal from underneath the pile of last week’s mail. I had bought it years ago with the intention of keeping a daily journal of my thoughts and activities but got distracted from writing them down by the nature of my daily thoughts and activities. I fished a pen out of the pocket of the shirt I slept in and clicked it three times even though once would have been plenty.
I wrote my dream down as best as I could, but it was literally leaving me like a dream upon waking. Some cliches are here for a reason, I suppose. Like most weird dreams, this one left me with an odd feeling. It was a new feeling, too. Somewhere between an itch I couldn’t scratch and the pain I get in the middle of my head when trying to recall something from the tip of my tongue. Once something gets to the tip of your tongue, it’s often too late to recall it. Best to let it go. That’s just my personal policy on the issue, not that anyone was asking.
As soon as my pen finished with the notebook my doorbell rang. It had to be Sam. I knew I was right before I got up to answer the door because Sam yelled “Hey T.J., you up? ” It was a fair enough question given my sleeping and dreaming habits.
“Just a minute,” I said while getting up to answer the door.
I opened the door and greeted Sam, “Why didn’t you use your key this time?”
“That’s rude,” He said. “Why don’t you invite me in?”
“Did you become a vampire recently?”
“Not yet, but you never know. When do we have to be on the case?”
I looked at my wrist and sighed with relief that I wasn’t wearing a watch. Then I asked Sam, “Depends, what time is it?”
“We have about an hour or so. It’s about a half hour’s ride.”
“Time for coffee?”
“It’s waiting inside. Already in mugs.”
Sam pulled two tiny bottles of rum from his pocket and dressed his face in a grin. I stood aside and allowed him to enter. Sam could make a great rummed up coffee if you’d let him, which I usually did.
“Nice coffee,” I said in a complimentary manner.
“Thanks, the trick’s in how you pour the rum,” he confirmed.
“Thought so, tastes sorta counterclockwise. Hey- by any chance do you have some concrete?”
“Unmixed or mixed?”
“First one, then the other,” I said. “Vampires usually dig holes. Good chance we might need to fill one up while on the case today.”
“Yeah, I picked some up on the way over. I don’t need to be told about vampires,” Sam said stating the obvious. “But I do need to ask a few questions about that dream you did last night.”
How Sam always knew about my dreams was beyond me. He routinely surprised me with how much he knew about me that he shouldn’t. It takes more than someone knowing stuff about me that they shouldn’t to spook me, but it was exactly all it took to make me slightly unsettled. Given the string of recent events, slightly unsettled wasn’t enough to become unhinged so I was able to maintain my demeanor of acting settled with relative ease.
“Don’t know what to make of it yet. Why do you ask?” I asked.
“We’ll get to why in a bit. First I need to know if there was a woman in a blue dress in it?”
“Not that I recall,” I confessed. “There was a bunch of other stuff though…”
“Yeah, yeah. The midget with the door, dealing with your psychological residue from the mummy stuff, the weird kids, our case today…got all that. Just need to know about the skirt in the blue dress.”
“I got nothing.”
“Fair enough. Musta not happened yet,” he said while he sipped his rummed up coffee in a manner which suggested we should change subjects.
“Should be pretty straightforward,” I said.
“Today’s case at the law firm. Vampires are pretty easy. We should be done well before 2.”
“That’s good,” Sam said, lighting one of my cigarettes. That’s what I get for leaving them out on the table in plain sight. “Afterwards we should stop by my new bar and have a drink in it. Unless you need to see your crypto-epidemiologist or something.”
“Nah, I got time. Only thing I have to do is check in with my street urchins, been wrapped up in my own bullshit for a few weeks, need to get my ear back to the ground.”
“I hear ya.”
“That’s what ears do. When did the new bar get finished?”
Sam used to own a bar, but we burnt it down to get rid of a mummy that had stopped by to offer me a job. He had some kind of weird clause in his insurance policy that paid him double if his bar was destroyed by mummies or mummy related activity. I was pretty excited to see the new joint as I really enjoyed the atmosphere of a good bar and Sam’s bar had the best atmosphere. At least to me, but everyone is different.
“It’s not ready to be open all the way yet, just enough for us. What do you need to do about the street urchins?”
“Not much, sitting in your bar and waiting should do the trick,” I replied over the rim of my coffee mug.
“That’s good. If we do it right, that’s all you’ll be able to do anyway.”
We finished our coffee and went and found a cab. It wasn’t too difficult a feat, which was nice. Cab rides are usually pleasant. Even when they aren’t, they tend to be effective. That is to say, you end up where you wanted to be at the end of them more often than not. They’re a lot like elevators in that sense.
The non-dream trip to the vampire plagued law firm went almost exactly like the dream version except: Solitol isn’t real, we had some concrete with us this time- so we filled in the vampire hole instead of flying off on a motorcycle, and I got a check from Ms. Rhombus that day, instead of it being mailed. Also, Sam didn’t pilfer anything from the basement this time. Aside from those differences, it was exactly the same as it was in my dream. I checked the writing on the door as we left to see if I could read it this time. I could, no problem.
“Well, that settles it,” I said while we stood outside smoking and waiting for a cab.
“Settles what?” Sam asked.
“Settles whether or not I’m awake this time. Dreaming is getting to me.”
“Think it’ll settle down after last night’s? Seems like you got a lot of psychological hash settled.”
“Psychological hash accounts for less than 5 percent of my dream plots.”
“What’s the rest? That number sounds low,” Sam raised a suspicious eyebrow as he inhaled his cigar. “Wait, you talking about settled or unsettled hash? I can see a low percentage of settled hash being used as dream fodder. What’s the point of turning it inside out making it all weird if it’s already been settled?”
“Combined settled and unsettled hash. Most of my dreams aren’t even dreams, you know that. I get visitors, there’s time travel, inter-dimensional shifts, all kinds of stuff that has nothing to do with me or resting,” I squeezed out through a yawn.
I was weary from doing and talking about my dream. I was getting tired of thinking about dream related activity. In fact, come to think of it, I was just tired.
“I’m tired Sam,” I said honestly. “Can we just go get that drink?” Another yawn followed.
Sam can be a handful, among other things, but he never messed with anyone if they’re sincere with him about what a pain in the ass he was being.
The cab ride was pleasant and without incident. Sam backed off making riddles about my dream time and we were at the new bar before we knew it. The cab let us out on the corner of a crossroads in a section of town located in-between China Town and Fish Town.
I paid the cabbie and dropped two dimes and a penny on the ground while taking my money out of my pocket. I didn’t bother to pick them up.
We walked a few blocks in uncharacteristic silence until Sam stopped and pointed at his new bar.
“There it is,” He said, pointing to recently renovated storefront nestled in between a wig shop and a used bookstore.
Sam unlocked the door and we entered. The interior was long and skinny, I’d say from looking maybe 16 feet wide by 60 feet long. The flooring was stained and cracked from what looked like years of neglect. The ceiling tiles were yellow with nicotine stains in some spots and brown with water damage in others.
The bar itself was almost as long and wide as the building. It was worn and tattered looking, with initials carved here and there looking like poorly done tattoos. It appeared structurally sound, so it had that going for it. I sat down on a stool with a rip in it, lit a cigarette, wrote my initials in the dust on the bar top, and said to Sam “Looks fantastic. I thought you had it renovated though?”
“Just the front, so it blends in with the rest of the block. We’re getting gentrified around here, appearances are everything.”
“They sure are. Got a name yet?”
“Solid. Simple and to the point.”
“I thought so too, thanks for noticing. What’ll you have?”
Usually, I say something like “Whatever you’re having.” but if you say those kinds of things to Sam he just pulls two full bottles of rum out and hands you one. I learned that the hard way more than once and sometimes I re-learn it, depending on how the day went.
“Whiskey sour,” I said.
“Coming right up,” Sam answered while pouring whiskey into a highball glass. He then squeezed a lemon wedge over it and dropped a single defenseless ice cube into glass before placing the finished product in front of me.
“Good stuff,” I said after my first sip, “I’m glad you’re not between bars anymore, was starting to miss hanging out in here. Does Danny know about this place yet?”
“Not yet. I’ll let him know as soon as I get all the paperwork with the city ironed out. If he knows, he’ll want to see it. Which would be fine if he ever went anywhere alone. Can’t have him and his whole entourage making a scene in here before everything’s above board.”
“That Danny, he’s the very definition of a character.”
Sam took a long pull from his glass and said “What’s the deal with the street urchins? Waiting on something or just wanting to hear anything?”
“Well,” I lit a cigarette, “Now that Youmotepp is out of the way the city’s gonna need a new crime boss. Nature abhors a vacuum…”
“Wait,” Sam interrupted, “I thought nature adored a vacuum?”
“Nah..,” I began to say but changed my mind “…Well, depends on the make and model I suppose.”
“Right, so any news on who’s planning to take over the city, crime wise?”
“Well, not really. That’s what I need to talk to the urchins about. Last I heard a gang of werewolves was planning on moving in.”
“I head something about that too. Bad news, if it’s true. I’d be happy with some ghosts or maybe ghouls running the crime thing. They get the game. Crime is all slow nickels.”
I slapped my hand on the bar more loudly than I needed to and proclaimed, “Damn, why didn’t I think of this before? Golems would be perfect for this. Do you have Frank’s phone number?”
“Frank Stein? Don’t think so. Doesn’t he have a set of telephone letters?”
“Not since I won them from him at cards. The urchins should be able to contact him. I’m expecting one here soon.”
Contacting the street urchins I had hired to gather information for me wasn’t that difficult a thing to do. All I had to do was think about where I was and that I wanted to see one of them. Ten minutes or so later, one would show up.
We finished our drinks and started another. After we repeated that process two more times, the door opened and a child in dirty clothes walked into Sam’s Bar like he owned the place.
“Hey Mr. T.J., you wanted to see me?”
“Hey Jax, how’s it shaking?” I said.
“Ah, you know. Same shit different ass,” he answered.
“I hear ya”, Sam said. “Have a seat.” A glass of beer appeared on the bar in front of the stool Sam had picked out for Jax.
Jax sat down and took a sip of his beer. From the way he drank it, it was obvious that it wasn’t his first one. Some folks might object to a kid drinking beer in a bar with two half-lit old guys, but street urchins have different rules than non-street urchin kids. Besides, it was a light beer. Jax drained his drink and asked for another. Sam obliged, trying to give him a new glass with the new beer.
“Nah, too fancy,” Jax said. “Keep using the same glass please.”
Sam smiled and gave me a slight nod of approval. I wouldn’t be surprised if this time next week he has his own gang of street urchins.
“Hey, can I bum a smoke from one of you guys?” our young guest asked.
I tossed my pack on the bar, set my matches down next to them and said, “Help yourself, Jax.”
Jax lit a cigarette and relaxed into his stool a bit. “Thanks. What did you want to ask me about, Mr. T. J.?”
“Well, a few things. I’m expecting a turf war soon…”
“Nature does adore a vacuum, doesn’t it?” Jax asked.
“Well, sometimes I suppose, Sam and I were just talking about that…anyway, have you guys noticed any new monsters in town? I don’t mean the usual drifters. I’m talking about clans, packs, families, official sounding stuff.”
Jax inhaled deeply and finished his second beer. He then sat quietly for a few moments, lost in thought. A few minutes later, the fog had cleared from his eyes and he answered me, “Well, maybe. My memory ain’t what it used to be. I hear beer is good for memory recall. Maybe if I had another it would jog the ol’ noodle a little bit. ”
Sam smiled and refilled Jax’s beer glass.
“Thanks a lot, Mr. S, appreciate it,” Jax uttered as he was taking a sip of his third beer. “Yeah, that did the trick. I remember hearing about this guy Frank coming into town and asking some weird questions.”
“What kind of weird questions?” Sam asked as his face perked up.
“Real weird shit. Like ‘Do you children know who runs the numbers game around here?’ and ‘Is that massage parlor owned by The Mob, The Tong, or a sole proprietor?’ Stuff like that. That what you looking for?”
“That’s the stuff, yeah,” I said. “You get a last name?”
“I didn’t, but Luke and Erica were the ones who met him, this is all second hand to me,” Jax answered while lighting a cigarette.
“Hey Jax,” Sam interrupted, “You got one lit already, buddy.”
“Yeah I know, starting with the third beer I like ’em two at a time.”
Sam chuckled and shook his head. It was clear he was pretty amused by the proceedings.
“Jax,” I said while producing a fifty dollar bill, “Take this and get some food for the gang. I’ll give you a couple of packs of smokes and a growler of the good stuff before you go. I’m looking for someone named Frank Stein. He’s tall, his skin has a slight greenish hue to it. He moves slow and talks deliberately. Any of that sound familiar?”
“Wow gee whiz, a quintuple sawbuck. Thanks Mr. T.J. ! None of it sounds familiar to me personally Mr. T. J., but I’ll ask around and get back to you as soon as I can.”
Sam, Jax, and myself sat around bullshitting for another hour or so before Jax announced that he had to leave to go check on his bets at the OTB joint around the corner. Sam showed him out through the back door. A drunk kid walking out of a bar is never good for business. At least not the kind of business that’s good to have.
“How old’s that kid?” Sam asked after showing Jax out.
“He says he’s seven, but I think he might be lying to make people think he’s older than he is.”
“Who lies about being seven? There’s nothing to gain. Not like seven-year-olds can vote or rent a car.”
“Street urchins have a weird culture.”
“Are they all that way?”
All the ones I’ve met so far are pretty much just like that.”
“Damn,” Sam said. “He might give Danny a run for his money someday.”
“Maybe. Life expectancy of a street urchin isn’t that long, though. Unless he gives it up or gets adopted, he’ll probably be dead before he’s old enough to drive.”
“That’s a real shame.”
“Sure is,” I said through another yawn.
My eyelids were getting heavy and the back of my head started to feel like it was being pushed down by a giant. I stretched my arms out and yawned again, more dramatically than the last time. Sam excused himself to the bathroom and I felt my head slump downwards. I folded my arms on the bar and used them as a pillow. The last thing I remembered hearing was Sam singing softly to himself “Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, life is but a…”