A serialized noir novel: Chapter Five

SPEND AS MANY YEARS AS I HAVE on this world, you realize that sweeping generalizations and stereotypes are only used by the confused trying to hide their own sorry state. As such, they’re not at all my favored manner of expression. But in this particular case, I’m gonna make an exception:

Everybody’s living with a landmine.

Maybe it’s a moment of indiscretion. Or a zig when you should’ve zagged that sends you down a winding path that ends in a dead end. Or exposure to chemicals or bad habits that’ll turn back up as inoperable tumors or failing organs. And sometimes, those landmines are people.

Those people from your past, former loves, official or otherwise, that fill you with fear of their eventual reemergence into your life. Because if they do make a reappearance, they have the power to change your entire world. The people who still, even after all this time gone by, can walk through those doors, gently request that you leave behind your responsibilities, relationships, and truths, and you know that you’d be out the door before they finished making their case. That’s the kind of power they have over you. Put another way, these are the people that the songs are written about.

For our hero Pug, that landmine was this new woman at the bar, someone that through a simple whisper of words could change it all.

Her name was Mercia Jones.

As she said, it’d been awhile.

“It sure has,” Pug smiled. “Can’t say I had you penciled into my night.”

He registered the ways time had worked since they last met, at that mutual friend’s backyard birthday barbecue out in Fruitvale. By that point, it’d been a few months of night sobs and last calls after she’d ended it, though the wound felt as fresh as day one. It was also at that backyard party, in the middle of a game of baggo, when she told him she was finally picking up for good and moving south to L.A.

“Feels suffocating here,” she’d told him. “At least down there, there’s room to spread out.”

In the seven years that’d come and gone since, her green eyes had learned to glow a further emerald, her brown skin stayed smooth but drooped more at the edges of her lips, and the wide hoop earrings that always bracketed her face went missing. She’d done something to her hair.

“L.A.’s done you good, Merch,” he swigged from the bottle

“It’s easier on the complexion down there, that’s for sure, not constantly battling the elements,” she said. “But nowadays, I only drink 12-dollar cocktails on a stranger’s dime, and only party poolside in the hills.”

“You’d fit in well here again now,” he smiled.

“Maybe if I’d shown up last week I could’ve said the Bay’s done you good.” Her smooth fingertips traced the scabbed-over cuts that still dotted his face since his drunken fall down the BART stairs. “Brawlin’ again?”

“Someone’s gotta stand up to the bad guys,” Pug said. “You back in town for a bit then?”

“Depends,” she said, and spoke those words Pug had more than an inkling were coming. “I need your help, Milo.”

He sniffed his feelings into a series of calm nods, finished his beer, and sipped from Tor’s commandeered PBR.

“Alright,” he said. “As they say, step into my office.”

Pug led with a forced smile past the joyfully soppy piano karaoke congregation, now nodding along to an added beat from a new drum kit. He looked over his shoulder and saw Tor at the bar’s other end, keeping occupied as he waited for the beer that’d never come by reading postcards and dreaming up plots, no doubt. Pug offered a hand to Mercia, and the old couple slid into a booth. Pug christened it by flicking at a stapled-up business card, its pre-bent corner hinting at its role in this sort of ritual over the years.

“How’d you know I was here?”

“It’s past ten on a weekend, so,” Mercia trailed with a smirk. “And I was tipped off by an old friend.”

Pug peered through the bar to find Tommy, but he’d since made himself scarce. At the piano, Dibble told a woman in blue to get closer to the mic, and she resumed her smoky rendition of “Dream a Little Dream.” Pug tapped his foot along to the beat.

“What can Pug do for you?”

“It’s Sam,” Mercia said. “He’s missing.”

Sam was Mercia’s younger brother, her junior by a few years. He always kept his head shaved, with a hoodie pulled over as soon as he stepped outside. He’d lived with his folks when Pug first met him, at some dinner with Mercia’s family during their time together. They’d bonded quickly over their hatreds, not necessarily mutual, but that wasn’t enough to justify communication after Mercia broke it off.

“Sam got himself an apartment last year near Jack London that he was paying for with this cafe gig,” she told him. “But after not hearing from him for a few weeks, my parents went to check in, and he was gone. Like he’d never lived there. Landlord didn’t get a forwarding address. My parents think he’s back on drugs.”

“What do you think?”

“Fuck if I know,” said Mercia. “Kid’s always been a mystery to me. But he’s my brother, and he’s missing, and I heard you handle these sorts of thing now, like it’s your gig or whatever.”

“Sort of,” said Pug. “Usually it’s mostly finding lost cats, missing car keys.”

“You have a normal hourly rate or something?”

“Oh, go fuck off, Merch,” Pug said. He finished the PBR and let out a burp while staring at his former love, the landmine. “Let’s go find this brother of yours.”

* * * * *

Note: To download the much easier-to-read and way-better-designed PDF of this chapter, go here. If you want to download a PDF of all seven chapters of Part One, head here. If any of this is to your liking, head to oaktownoir.com to sign up.

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