From “CAT SCRATCH BLUES” by Axel Howerton (from the anthology “to be named later”)
Dougray was on the dance floor, and when Dougray was on the dance floor, there was bound to be a crowd. The DJ was spinning some nouveaux dancey-soul-type groove. Bouncy but funky. Probably that skinny kid with the mountie hat, sounded like old-school Michael Jackson. Dougray was working it, taking three fine ladies to school, a tight spin here, a drop-split there, whirling and gyrating like James Brown in a 20 year-old breakdancer’s body. Thirty-some people were crowding the dance floor, entranced by the skinny dude in the turtleneck and pinstripe slacks, were whooping and cheering loud enough that Charlie could barely make out a word that Turkish was saying to him.
“You just pick her up…”
“Pick her up.” Turkish shouted back.
“All I’m sayin’, man.”
Charlie shook his head, pointed to his ears. Then he thumped two hard fingers down on the pad of paper between them.
“Write it down.” He shouted over the din.
“What’d you say?”
“Write it down, goddammit!”
Turkish nodded behind his Ray-bans, then leaned over to scrawl the numbers down, with his free arm wrapped around the pad like a schoolkid hiding a note.
The song ended and the applause rang out even louder than before, as Dougray stepped off of the dance floor, slapping fives and shaking hands, one lady on each arm, and one trailing behind. He slid the women into the booth directly opposite Charlie and settled in beside them, ignoring them completely as they began to chatter and check their shiny lips in tiny mirrors.
“You got this?” Turkish asked, sliding the pad across the beer-sticky table.
“We just pick her up, take her to the place. I got it.” Charlie ripped the sheet off and stuffed it into his coat pocket.
“When you gonna do it?”
Charlie smiled, looking past Turkish to catch the eye of Dougray in his booth, nodding the message across the room. Dougray nodded back.
“We can fuckin’ do it right now.”
“Nothing else going on around here.” He looked across to Dougray again, and gestured with his head towards the door.
“Call me when it’s done.” Turkish said, leaning back with one arm slung over the chair.
Charlie swallowed down the last of the sweet bourbon in his glass, and was already walking.
It was a ten-minute wait for Dougray to make his exit, there was no counting the phone numbers and drunken praise he would have waded through on his way out. Charlie was halfway through the tenth page of his book when the passenger-side door cracked against the chill wind, and Dougray folded his lanky frame into the seat.
“What the hell are you reading now?”
Charlie shrugged it off and tossed the ratty paperback onto the dash.
“That Scott Phillips dude. Picked it up at O’Keefe’s today. I’ve never read this one.”
“That a western story?” Dougray eyeballed the cover, “What’s it about?”
“I don’t know, man. I just started it. Bunch of outlaws doing some outlaw shit. Shady horse-cockery.”
Dougray rubbed his hands in front of the heater, which was on full blast, yet struggling to affect anything beyond three inches from the console.
“So, we set?”
“Yeah, we’re set. Turkish says all we have to do is pick her up, take her to the place. We make sure she doesn’t see anything, doesn’t hear anything, and he takes care of the rest. We just babysit until he gets the money.”
“Uh-huh. And when’s that gonna be?”
“I told you, man. Turkish says this guy is good for two-fifty K. He makes the call, gets the money. He gets paid, we get paid.”
“Turkish says? And what if it takes a whole bunch of days? What then?”
“Then we keep babysitting. How long you think this man is going to hold off paying to get his wife back? What the fuck do we have to do? We keep her in the room, feed her a can of soup once a day, who gives a shit?”
“And we get how much?”
“Fifty. And how much does Turkish get?”
“I told you, if the man pays two hundred and fifty thousand, we get fifty. The way I see it, if we get fifty, the rest is none of our business.”
“We’re taking all the risks, man. She’s sees somebody, escapes, fingers somebody… who’s it gonna be? Not Turkish. You and me, that’s who. We need to renegotiate that wage.”
Charlie“Look. Let’s go get her, get the job moving, and we’ll see what we see. If we want more, we ask for more.”
“Uh-huh.” Dougray laid one long pinstriped leg over the other and set back in his seat.
“Don’t be like that,” Charlie said, pulling the van out into the dark of the road. It was another few minutes before he asked, “You take lessons to dance like that?”
The van pulled up in Victoria Park, just west of fourth street, in front of a run-down shanty bungalow marked 3045. Most of the yard was buried under a thick pad of wet snow. The house was ragged—more peel than paint—and the windows were smeared and greasy. Broken weeds crept high against the low windows and 70’s style glass-bejewelled concrete that stood just above the snow.
“You sure about this place, man?” Dougray asked, “This don’t look like no millionaires house. This place is a shithole.”
“This is the address, man. How do I know the situation. Maybe they’re divorced, or separated or something.”
“They divorced, why would the man pay two hundred and fifty grand?”
“I don’t know, man. This is the address.”
“And why would she be living in a shithole in The Vic?”
Charlie huffed and shook his head, bracing himself before he hopped out into the cold of the night.
The walk had been cleared since the worst of it, but a pristine inch of the latest snowfall still covered the paving stones. Nobody had walked that way in days. Charlie held Dougray back with a tug on the sleeve.
“Let’s go around to the back. It’ll be too easy to see our footprints here.”
They headed to opposite ends of the block, Charlie counting the houses as he passed them, then counting again as he tromped down the alley behind, careful to walk in the wheel ruts that ran the middle of the alley. He huddled down at the corner of the open yard, behind a 25 year-old Pontiac rusting under three feet of snow. Dougray was right, something was off. Turkish had said the man was loaded, prime for grift, but even more likely to pay up fast on a kidnap job. This didn’t look at all like loaded. Victoria Park was a shitty neighborhood full of drunks and old ladies, twenty year-old hobo-musicians and ex-cons who couldn’t get a job. Most people down here were one bad week away from being homeless. Maybe this chick was hiding out. Maybe she was shacking up with some dock worker, and the man really just wanted to bring her back for comeuppance. Charlie shook it off. Whatever it was, wasn’t any of his damn business.
“Reading too many cheap crime novels,” he mumbled to himself.
Dougray hustled up on the left and squatted down next to Charlie.
“The fuck, man? This is some bullshit right here. I got snow all the way up my ass, man. All the way up. Let’s just get this shit done so I can get in some warm clothes and get a goddamn drink.”
“Game face,” Charlie announced, pulling the bandanna up to the bridge of his nose, “you set?”
Dougray pulled his own mask down and patted the messenger bag at his back.
“Check-fucking-mate, man. Let’s do it.”
Charlie dodged and jumped across the snow, trying to space his marks in the snow at weird intervals, just in case somebody came looking for tracks later. Dougray followed, effortlessly sticking each step exactly in Charlie’s footprints. They met up at the back door.
“You sure this is the way to go in?” Dougray asked, “You don’t want to bust in the basement or something?”
“Places like this, you never know if they got some kid renting out the basement, sleeping on a cot or something. Not too likely she’d be in the dark kitchen at two a.m. though, right?”
“Makes sense to me.” Dougray slid a short prybar from the messenger bag and fit it into place at the plate where the doorknob lock rested in the jamb. Two solid jabs and a twist, and the door popped with a small crack.
“Man, I love these old-ass houses.” He whispered.
The smell hit them as soon as they stepped into the kitchen. Charlie let out a cough and clamped his hand to his face to muffle the noise, happy that it also helped cut the stink. Dougray shut the door behind them with a gentle tug, before setting two knuckles in place over his nostrils.
“Jesus,” he muttered. Charlie put two fingers to his lips and stepped forward, stopping himself when he saw the muddy puddle forming under his foot. He held one arm out to stop Dougray, then dropped his fingers to point at the floor before reaching down to pull off his engineer boots. Dougray stooped and carefully removed his own shoes, placing them neatly to one side of the mat.
As Charlie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the dual sources of the stink that had assailed them. The corner next to them held a gigantic plastic garbage bin, overflowing with refuse and unleashing a terrible stench of rotting fruit and sour milk. The opposite corner held a litterbox, also overflowing, and battling the garbage dump stench with its own foul odor.
Charlie was almost afraid to step out onto the floor in his stocking feet, but the sooner they were away from this corner the better, he thought. Dougray obviously agreed, as he was already to the other side of the kitchen and peering out into the dark hallway. He turned and gave Charlie the lookout signal – two fingers at the eyes – then threw them in the direction he was headed.
Charlie paused at the entrance to the hallway, taking a deep breath of stale air. Stale, but not reeking to high heaven. He pulled at what he assumed was the basement door. Locked. Then he followed Dougray down the hallway. There was one more door on each side of the passage, one opening into some kind of sewing room, as cluttered and dirty as Charlie would have expected. It was a room that could have been on that show about the hoarders, the one with the kind of crazy old ladies you’d hear about on the news, crushed under their old pizza boxes and garage sale trash and dug out by the fire department when the neighbours finally got overtaken by the stink of death and the rampaging hordes of feral cats.
The second room was a bedroom. Charlie took note of the shambled bed, lit from outside the window by the streetlight. It was empty, save five or six cats all stretched out. Jesus. Now he actually began to worry what the hell they were getting into. More boxes and piles of laundry lined the walls, along with no less than three of those cat treehouse things, weird carpeted totem poles that were supposed to keep them from climbing the tops of your cupboards. As his eyes made their way down to the floor, Charlie caught a slight movement in one corner. Straining his eyes he made out at least six more cats on either side of the bed, some in little pillow-beds, some stretched out on bare patches of carpet, most of them curled into the various piles of clothes and bedding strewn all over the room.
The muscles at the base of Charlie’s neck twitched and pulled in tight, forcing a steel rod of tense straight up into his skull.
After nearly stepping on six or seven more cats down the long, dark hallway, one hand gingerly fingering the filthy wall for purchase, Charlie nearly walked into Dougray, standing in the mouth of what must have been the living room.
With the strange acoustics of the place, they didn’t hear the music blaring from the TV until they were practically standing on top of each other in the room. A fat old lady was sprawled out in a threadbare recliner, her lumpy face lit by the spastic pastel blinking of an ancient episode of Lawrence Welk. Two big-haired dancers in matching magenta foil jumpsuits whirled and dervished around the screen as the polka band played some kind of bastardized western tune.
Dougray leaned back and whispered out of the side of his mouth, still staring at the beached hausfrau snoring in the la-Z-boy, “The fuck is this, man? This is not the right place, man.”
Charlie slipped his phone from his pocket, fumbling with the screen as he stepped past Dougray. There was an audible artificial click followed by the little woosh sound of the message flying off into the ether.
They stood in the flickering light of the television, staring at weird old Lawrence rambling on with his weird old accent, introducing The Ink Spots, who weren’t the actual Ink Spots, but a pretty good facsimile. They were just starting to harmonize on “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town”, when Charlie noticed the movement along the walls. The cats were streaming into the room, creeping on padded feet, stretching out from the shadows, pouncing and leaping from the corners to set in front of the television, as if it were some kind of electrical pied piper. Their heads were twitching in unison, one side to the other with the music, more and more cats coming in behind, until the feline audience numbered something close to twenty bobbing little heads.
© 2014 Axel Howerton ; 2015 Coffin Hop Press