A serialized noir novel: Chapter Three

DAMN, was that you?” winced the bald black man with the shotgun at the odious smell. He twisted his head with a cringe of confusion and the thick flesh on the back of his neck bunched into ripples. “You shit yourself?”

“I promise it’s worse over here,” said Pug. “Sorry, but kinda your fault for answering your door with that gat.”

The man lowered his gun and clasped a free hand over his nose. The skin around his eyes cracked into wrinkles and a hissing laugh came through his shut teeth. “That’ll wake you up,” he said, wiping tear-filled eyes, and Pug finally fully made out the battered, bruised face of Mr. Gardner. “What can I do for you?”

“Yesterday’s incident,” said Pug. “I’m from the public defender’s office, who’s repping Mr. Royce Grace.”

“Fuck that guy.”

“I can appreciate that,” said Pug. He pulled out the recorder and the red light flicked on. “Just here to collect a statement.”

“Don’t got much to add on top of what I already told the cops,” said Gardner. “This asshole knocked on my door, introduced his psychotic ass, and started whoopin’ mine.”

“How was he acting?” said Pug. “What he was saying?”

“Nah, man,” Gardner said with a shake of his head. “Sorry you came all the way over here, but this ain’t my first time with your type. Anything I say’ll help his case, and I want whatever settlement’s coming.”

“Fair enough,” said Pug.

“What gets to me though is — listen, I’ve been beaten plenty before,” said Gardner. “Deserved most. But this one was meant for someone else.”

Gardner told it all for the tape. He’d grown up in the area, “forty years in this damn house,” and threw some extra tech boom money into property “just like pops said.” One investment was a two-story four-plex in what’s now known as Temescal, “though it wasn’t considered such when I bought it.” The only tenant that came with the place was on the first floor, around back: the then 57-year-old Lydia Grace, Royce’s mom.

“Great lady, no complaints,” Gardner’s voice issued from the recorder into the back smoking section of the red-dimmed Ruby Room. It was the quiet empty before downtown’s civic working force streamed in for happy hour. April took notes, Pug slurped from a cheap can.

“I had no plans to sell the joint, but when they offered what they did a few months back, I had to take it,” Gardner had said. “The headache of dealing with tenants is worth only so much. So, they evicted that nice, old lady. Not me. I feel for her, I do, but I didn’t deserve no beating.”

Pug pressed stop and April passed an envelope holding a check, along with a bonus off-the-books twenty. “This round’s on the house, too,” she said.

“If I’d known that, I would’ve ordered something fancier,” Pug said. “What happens now?”

“Gonna be hell proving self-defense when the guy walks up to the house of the person he assaults,” she said. “But that’s what Royce is going for. He’s staying in jail until this gets resolved just to prove a point. Pride is one powerful emotion.”

“Know who bought the place?”

“Trying to figure that out,” she said. “I’ll let you know if we have anything else.”

Pug sipped and finally texted Tommy back, who said he was playing a show later that night at the Fallout Shelter, an art collective in the warehouse grid known as Ghost Town.

“What’s your friend play?” asked April.

“Drums.”

“Of course,” she said. “Never short on drummers around here.”

April downed her whiskey shot, spread her notes across the pool table and Pug knew her niceties were over. He crept away, topped off his beer with a Jameson shot on the way out, and rubbed his eyes until the faux rock wall backsplash behind the bar came back into focus. He exited into the afternoon sun and biked to his apartment to nap off his day drunkenness. After waking up with a freezer burn-toughened microwave burrito, he changed his clothes and rode to the show.

It was called the Fallout Shelter because of its nuclear-era theme: mushroom cloud black-light paintings, replicas of bombs fashioned from steel hung from the rafters, a piercing detonation countdown going off if one loiters in the bathroom too long, shit like that. Pug walked through the front double doors, a huge bisected yellow hazard symbol painted across them, and threw a five in the donations bucket. He grabbed a lukewarm Tecate and waded into the crowd. On stage was a gal with green highlights who side-eyed the loud chatterers as she banshee-sang over the feedback of her guitar. Pug found Tommy and hugged him hello.

“Harriet around?” Pug asked Tommy, wearing his standard flat-brimmed A’s hat which, with similarities in facial hair and skin color, made him look like a furrier version of Rickey Henderson.

“Should be,” said Tommy. “She’s living here now.”

“Shit. What happened?”

“Ask yourself, Romeo.”

Tommy chinned into the crowd and Pug turned to see Harriet gymnastically navigating toward them, her foamy red plastic cup leading the way. Her shoulder-length light purple hair was held in a ponytail, exposing twin six-gauge plugs in her ears that she’d carved out of coconut wood. She smiled toward Pug in a kind of slow motion.

The guitar fuzz clicked off and the show organizer took the mic. “Thanks for coming,” she said. “These shows keep this space open and a roof over our heads.”

Next on the docket was the main event, a royal rumble where nine dudes tried to muscle each other out of the makeshift “ring,” really just the main stage with drooping ropes enclosing it. Last person left in the ring took home a quarter of the donation bucket. This month’s crop was the standard assortment of shaved heads and rattails, punks with with cut lips and knuckle scuffs. They tossed jackets to friends and twisted in warm-up stretches.

One participant stood dead still in the ring’s center. His eyes were closed with a meditative calm but his nostrils flared as if tracking the movements of his competitors. He was a foot taller than the rest, his head void of hair. His pale biceps held twin tattoos of perfect black rectangles that, under the spotlights, faded enough to allow a faint cameo to the sharp swastikas hidden beneath.

“Who’s that?” Pug asked.

“Spike,” said Tommy. “Mean dude. Do anything for a buck.”

The announcer went over the rules and rang the bell. Slaps and grunts were consumed by the crowd’s shouts and cheers. It was over in about thirty seconds, half the contestants laid out nearly unconscious, the other half smartly exiting the ring of their own accord.

Standing alone was Spike, who wiped a lone sweat droplet from his forehead. He grabbed the envelope, flipped through his earnings, tucked it into his back pocket, and left the building.

Moments later, the cops kicked in the door. When they did, Tommy’s standing warrant for arrest was the only thing on Pug’s mind.

* * * * *

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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