ultravoid #11 — Grand Jean

A small gathering huddled beneath the dive’s awning just ahead. Figures rippling through windshield trickle as they came and went. Chatting, striking up smokes, looking real familiar with each other. I sat — headlights off — just up the road and was getting some looks.

It’s my fault really. Tracking down working girls in Vieux-Montréal and probing for the worst urban myth that’s ever popped in my inbox was not considered a productive use of my time. My editor loudly made sure I knew as much. Even flirted with the guillotine; “But is it clickworthy?”. All I had was the tip and a few background details that checked out. In return I got just enough slack to hang myself with. Not that I had much of a choice. I needed something good after burning a valuable source for a story on money laundering by a local clown school. My editor relented and said the stakeout would be a sort of penance. Lesson being to never touch a clown’s nose without their permission.

It’s now an hour after our agreed meeting time. I’m gripping the wheel tight and white when two gals break off and walk past. I roll down a window and ask if they’ve seen Charla. They give each other a worrying look but say she’s inside finishing up her act and that she’ll be out real soon, honey.

All I have to go on is an old profile pic from a deactivated Facebook, now several years out of date, along with some scattered image searches that could be anyone really. But the Charla that appears wasn’t all that different. Glasses gone and a bit more make-up highlighting her features, but still the smiling, graduate cap-and-cloak Charla all the same. Now she wore a pair of jeans and one of those split top deals that parted the cleavage sea from collar bone to bikini line. Her hair was done up in an old-timey flapper bob, complete with headband, while a bracelet of USBs dangled from one wrist. A tattoo dominated one of her shoulder blades, just like the police file said- a lightning bolt zapping a human silhouette. The kind of thing you see on substations to keep you from touching the cables.

I roll up and don’t have to say anything. She spots me then slips a folded piece of paper to what looks like the bouncer. A secure number maybe, or a current picture for the milk cartons.

The air down Saint Catherines is buzzing with xenon and watchful snoopers; vigilante quadrotors on their own quest of crusader misogyny. Charla’s quiet, reaches into her purse and lights a smoke without asking, her eyes marking out landmarks as we go. The street is a seabed of dead designer stores, fishbowls papered over, and yesteryear posh shops sporting brown logo stains. Far ahead the lights of New2 Montreal, the moveable feast where it all shuffled off to, pile high like a landfill of stars. Charla points out an empty lot.

“Pull up here.” She guides me to one of the far corners. Two sets of dark tenement alleys fall away like entrances to some deeper labyrinth.

“Thanks for meeting with me.” I flash the red light on my recorder and set it on the arm rest between us. She quirks a brow and watches the little black box as I set it down. No protest. From under my seat I retrieve a dossier and hand it to her. “How’s your sister doing? Colleen right?”

“Never been better.” She flips open the vanilla cover but takes no interest in the pages she flips through. Police file. School record. Airline receipts. Credit card transactions. “This is some creepy shit, boy.”

“Don’t mean any harm. Just have a few questions.” I reach over and pull a photo from the bottom of the stack. “She doing better since her friend here skipped town?”

I wait for a sign of recognition. Her gaze bounces over the blown up perp shot of one Andre Richelieu AKA D-Guy. Charming fellow. Major identifying features- Missing front teeth, a gothic-font tattoo of his Montreal area code across his neck, another of the Pillsbury Doughboy with a comically large penis on his left cheek. A thin eyed contempt stares up at her as she speaks. “Heard he took a vacation.”

“Yeah, him and like four other pimps around here.” That got her attention. Her black marker brows suck down towards a remarkably Greco-French Canadian nose. “Well, three actually. They found the forth guy. His head was twisted around and popped off like a bottle cap.”

She shrugs and drops the dossier back in my lap.

“Good riddance right?” I say but she’s already clued out. She’s doing her best to finish off her cigarette and my eyes begin to sting from the second-hand filling the car. “Rumor is those guys had some muscle though. Someone serious keeping everything at bay. Looks like he’s on vacation too, right?”

No response.

I hold up the school record. “Okay. How about you. Rags-to-Rhodes. Swap to MIT. Machine learning, circuit psychology, something about carbon-kinesthetics? Some recruiters I talked to said they were begging to get you on-board. But then last year, you pack up your stuff and end up here. Colleen get in trouble? Am I close?”

“Don’t talk about her.”

“I’m fine with that, as long as we can talk about you. You’re a smart girl, definitely not as deep as these other goons. Help me out here, what am I missing?”

I see her hand flinch for the handle. Can’t slap the driver-side lock quick enough before she flicks it and bails out. The shock of the interior light and the BING BING BINGing of the open door delays reaction and I lose her in the white glare of the windows. I jump out only to duck below a pair of platform heels as they bounce off the roof and clatter overhead. I could let her go, but a synaptic flash of my editor’s scowl has me locking up the car and sprinting into the alley after her.

I’ll admit, this is a first for me. In all my years behind a web desk, I never considered I’d be literally chasing leads like some Marlowe schmuck. In that deep recess, all I got to go on are the wet slaps of bare feet on pavement. A sliver of silver moon finds its way down between the brick and mortar. A scrawny kid in a soccer jersey leans out a window to watch the commotion, the light from his corner bedroom breaking up rows of dark pores overhead. I’m too focused on the bucket rim of rooftops to notice the pile of garbage bags I stumble over, or the fire escape ladder that just misses my head. The wet slapping stops ahead near the glint of what looks like a dumpster huddled against the wall. I slow my pace and call out, sure she’s crouched and hiding behind it.

“Alright. Good run.” I say through deep breaths. Way too outta shape for this.

I rest a hand on the dumpster and guide myself to its opposite edge. “Come on out. Lets chat.”

At first I think it’s something inside the dumpster that moves. But in the next half-second the whole box rears up and takes one heavy, pounding step forward. It’s only when I feel two thick, metal clamps around my neck do I realize it’s no dumpster at all. The clamps squeeze the saliva from my throat, toothpaste-style, and the worst sort of choking wheeze leaves my mouth as my toes hover over the cement.

It’s an odd feeling, being held up by one’s neck. Something feral within takes over as your hands scratch and pry at your ringer and your feet flail for steps that never appear. Meat-sack is too generous a term for how the rest of your body feels stretching limp below. Whatever’s got me pushes me against the wall and I find myself at eye-level with my the beast- moonlight washing over a cyclopic lens that whirrs internally. It’s hard to get a sense of the full thing in the dark but it must have been seven to eight feet tall, a golem of thick, hollow metal. I make out the drooping silhouette of a red and white toque duct-tapped over its cylindrical head.

“You done?” Charla says from somewhere nearby but I can’t for the life of me find the breath to respond. The only thing piercing the fog of panic in my head are ghost images of gang-bangers with theirs heads twisted, lego-like, in the wrong direction. I do the only thing I can and slap an open palm against my new neck brace.

“D-Guy and them had great muscle. Some deep grade military stuff is my guess. When Colleen mentioned the hardware they were keeping on a short leash, I knew I could be of more help here than in any lab.”

A moment of silence. Then, “You pass out yet?”

I gurgle.

“Good. I don’t know where you got your lead, but nothing gets out about me or Colleen, get it? Word gets around, they come hunting for big boy here, her and the rest of the girls would get thrown back to the sharks.” I feel her poke my leg. “And that’s on you.”

My knees buckle as I hit the ground. I’m sucking in air that tastes of piss and garbage bag juice. I make out Charla’s silhouette as she climbs up and straddles the robot’s head. I scramble for my phone and think the auto-flash catches some of its hulking form as they stomp away, but when I check the gallery it’s all streaking colors and no detail.

My editor goes cross-eyed looking at it the next day but still can’t make the bot appear. Even the purple impressions on my neck aren’t enough to convince him and he asks what I’ve been taking and where he can get some. At my desk the story’s words float around in my head but never make it to the page. I start to nod off. Narrow alleys plunging away behind my eyes. And when I dream, I dream of dumpsters walking upright, their eyes full of moonlight.