This must be what it's like for the norms. I refused to use the term 'dullers,' which was the modern parlance for those who didn't shine. I promised Slice that I would help him, I still feel like I should, I have the urge to, but I can't see what to do next.
"She'll be there, sir." James said.
"Ruby is going to be there, she agreed, on her own, to come and we're sending a ride to collect her so there will be no problems. She should be at the governor's mansion when we arrive to make sure you're okay and help you dress. The venue has also changed, it will be in the governor’s hall after all, a much smaller venue."
"The hall, in his mansion…wait help me dress?"
"Her words, Mister Greer, not mine."
"Ruby..." I shook my head.
"Women, you can't live with them, you can't live without them." James said.
"That's an old-fashioned attitude, James. I thought the SCaCU was more progressive than that?"
"Don't let my personal statements reflect poorly on the team. Sometimes old-fashioned attitudes are both old fashioned and correct. It's the endless dance between the sexes, isn't it, Mister Greer? You step forward, she steps back, then reverse, add in a spin or two and you've got a relationship."
"Huh, you're quite the philosopher, James. We should have a few beers when this is all over."
His demeanor stiffened slightly but the smile plastered to his face didn't dim as he answered, "I'd like that."
What was I doing? Inviting a handsome man out for a drink? What the hell was going on? I put the heels of my palms over my closed eyes and pressed them into my face, massaging them back and forth. I thought this whole visit to St. Walburga was supposed to leave me well rested and healed? Maybe I didn't stay long enough?
What am I going to do without my shine? Fuck it. Other gumshoes get the job done without a beeline to the evidence, so can I. It was a romantic thought, but my investigative skills were probably on par with an amateur. Maybe a good amateur. And I did have contacts, less after this past weekend. Just thinking of Flying Hawk and Dog brought on a melancholy mood. Almost without conscious effort, my hands opened the small liquor cabinet and found the whiskey. Old Putney 21-Year-Old Single Malt, a pricey brand for a government vehicle. I poured a slug into a soapstone snifter and whirled the amber liquid around while I composed my thoughts.
First, I had leads. The Ramos family was the obvious one. I'm not a genius -- fortunately for me it didn't take one to see this whole mess could be placed at their feet. Proving it was another matter entirely. Most of the jobs I had made any money on were not for people who required absolute proof, just something as close to the truth as I could get. The police department was big on paying me to recover evidence -- I’d found more weapons used in murder over the years than anything else.
As for the Ramos’s…I doubt they would have word one for me. The other crime families in town might. If I could approach them in the right way, they might give me something worth hearing. Especially the Vitellos, I had an 'in' with them. The problem is the blood is so bad between the two that the best I could hope for would be for anyone I contacted to only lie through their teeth a little bit about the Ramos's. My contacts would tell me anything if they thought it would hurt the current bosses in power.
The Teungs, on the other hand, probably wouldn't bend over backward to help unless I stressed the damage I could do to the Ramos's. Which would make anything I learned from them suspect as well. The Teungs still controlled most of the prostitutes and opiates in the city and their gang war with the Ramos's was more than a few years in the past with nary a flare up since it calmed down.
Why is that? I thought over the last couple of years and couldn't recall so much as a drive-by shooting between the two rivals. The Teung's kept to 'Little Asia' and the Ramos's kept...everywhere else. It's like they declared a truce and no one told me. Have I been that far away from the streets that I don't know what's going on anymore?
I shook my head; not conceding the possibility, not yet anyway. Now is when Dog would have come in handy. I'd relied on him too long, and now that he was gone I'd have to work on getting another person in the department to pass me unofficial information. Clarence might do it for me. I'd never asked him to risk anything for me before; he didn't Shine. With a heavy sigh, I asked, "James?"
"Yes?" He looked up from the road.
"Do you know when Dog's funeral is?"
"Dog...? Ah, yes, Mister Shoemaker's funeral hasn't been announced yet, I presume it will be on Thursday, right now his body is going through an autopsy. So long as the coroner doesn't find anything, it should be released to his family, probably tonight or tomorrow."
"Okay, thanks." Monday, sheesh. I hadn't thought about that, the fact that my arm and legs had been cut off on a Monday. Definitely my worst Monday ever.
The rest of the ride back to Auroria I sat back and snoozed. I hadn’t meant to, it just happened; I guess growing back limbs takes it outta a guy.
James woke me when we were five minutes from arrival.
“We going in the back?” I asked, still a little groggy.
“The service entrance is more discreet. The press figured that out a long time ago so I wouldn’t hold out hope that they don’t notice us arrive. The governor would like to meet with you briefly before you go out to meet the press. Ruby is there, awaiting your arrival.”
Ruby waiting on me, nothing new to this chapter of our lives, is there? Out loud I said, “Okay, I’ll make sure not to leave a mess back here for you.” I gathered up the coffee detritus and set it in the box with my personal effects. Not much there. My wallet was in a plastic baggie. Presumably the blood all over it was mine. “Hey, ah, where’s my gun?”
“I’ve got it.”
“So will I get it back?”
“Sure, after lunch.”
“Do I have lunch plans?”
“Yes. After meeting Governor you’ll be brought back to me, I’ll drop you anywhere you want to go…but we’ll have a stop to make first.”
“Okay.” Sometimes it didn’t pay to ask too many questions, and James was growing on me.
I didn’t end up seeing Ruby until after I met the governor, that meeting was perfunctorily and short. We shook hands, I vowed support, he thanked me for my help bringing Dog’s killer to justice, and we parted ways. I never liked the guy, and the meeting didn’t change my opinion. Ruby was a bundle of pissed off and worry, I was relieved to see that ‘worry’ was winning out. It was me and her in a guest bedroom in the governor’s mansion.
“Ruby.” I said.
She moved over to me like a cat, quickly and gracefully with an air of disinterest. “Billy.”
“For dragging you into this.”
“Into what? I swear Billy, you say the damnedest things sometimes.” She grabbed me, held me at arm’s length for a moment then pulled me close and planted a fields worth of sugar cane on my lips.
“Shush.” She pulled back and inspected me, going over my face and head carefully with her hands, slowly she started moving down to my limbs. Her nimble fingers pulled at the edge of my shirt and lifted it over my head and then continued on their journey down my body.
Lightly she touched my arm with one hand while her other pulled at the knot holding up the hospital scrubs, the garment fell to the floor leaving me nude for her contemplation. I kicked it off completely while her fingers continued to explore my body. Kneeling she looked at my legs, focusing on below my knee caps. Something was wrong. No two somethings, first Ruby wasn’t seducing me; she was inspecting me. Like a mother does to her kid when some hero snatches the little rascal from out in front of a moving car. She was making sure I was whole and all right.
From her knees in front of me she looked up, her blue eyes squinting, “You’re okay. I heard, I mean the news said you…that he…”
“He did.” The other thing that was wrong was…well my girlfriend was kneeling in front of my naked body less than a foot away from my manhood, and there was no reaction. No reaction at all.
“But you…you have your legs! They said he took off your arm too.” She stood up and grabbed my left arm, “This one?”
“No, my right.”
“You healed? Is this a new shine, Billy?”
The look in her eyes, it was hopeful and slightly awestruck. Shit. I’d always known, of course. I mean who wouldn’t have? A woman like Ruby hanging out with a two-bit brother shamus like me? It was my shine that pulled her in, my shine that kept her around when other men entered her radius. It wasn’t absolute proof, but the tone of her voice, the hope…if I had mutated or learned something more and gone up in the world, well, the brightest of the shiners, no one had ever heard of them being poor. This all passed through my mind in an instant, and I covered my reaction with a yawn while I shook my head. “Nah, baby, they put me up to St. Walburga’s, the healer. The surgeons, they more or less just tossed my limbs into place with a few stitches and sent me up there in a bucket of ice. Sister Charlene did the rest.”
Her frown was barely perceptible, “Did it…did it hurt?”
“Worst thing ever and I’m tired as a…well so tired I can’t think of anything more tired.” I rubbed my hands over my face and head, “I gotta do this thing with the governor. There were supposed to be clothing here, is there a shower?”
“Yeah, through there.” Ruby pointed at a massive, dark stained door.
I padded through au natural and saw clothing laid out on a vanity, along with towels, soap, a razor and a hair brush by the sink. “Perfect. A hot shower should liven me up. Is there any coffee?”
“I’ll see what I can find.” Ruby called to me out of sight. I heard the outer door open and shut and moved to turn on the shower.
Looking into the mirror, I glanced at my manhood and shook my head, “What the fuck is wrong with you? She was on her knees in front of you, when she looked up…my god that had to be the sexiest thing I have ever seen in my life!” Getting no response, I moved into the shower and slowly turned it up until it was as hot as I could stand.
A few minutes later I heard Ruby come into the bathroom, “Got your coffee, Billy, just the way you like it. Jeezus yer steaming the place up! Your clothing is going to be damp if you don’t quit soon!”
I poked my head out of the billowing steam and gave her my best smile, “Thanks, doll! I’m about done, I feel almost awake now.” I twisted the knobs to give myself a cold finish and stepped out into the towel she was holding a moment later.
"The governor's assistant said you have ten minutes."
"Plenty of time. I'll be ready in five."
"You want to go eat after..."
"Tonight. I have to meet with the cops after the dog and pony show. I don't know how long that's supposed to take, probably a few hours. You can stick around if you want, rub elbows with the folks who get things done?"
"You want me to?"
"You came down here for me. You see anyone else down here in my corner? Look sugar, I know I'm probably not gonna keep you much longer, I never thought I would hold onto you forever, and you never made me any promises that way either. I'm not going to overthink this mess, me almost dying and everything; it doesn't make a cucumber a pickle or anything like that. I'm glad you're here, and that's all that matters. We'll figure us out later or better yet just keep on going and let it sort itself out."
"So you're crazy then? That razor guy scrambled your head?"
"Now why would you say something like that?"
"Because you're talking nonsense! I am down here for you, and I can see I'm the only one who showed up. You think half your friends can even be in the same place as a cop without being arrested? I swear to God...Men!"
She stormed out, slamming the door behind her. I felt a mixture of relief and shock as she fled, tinged with maybe just a bit of guilt. A knock at the door outside of the suite interrupted my contemplation. I had only just pulled on my shirt, but answered it anyway; it was the kind of knock you don’t ignore. Authoritative and followed by the words, “Mister Greer? Is everything alright?”
“I’m coming!” I yelled across the room.
The door was unlocked and pushed open from outside. A tall man in a dark suit that didn’t fold quite right slid through the crack of the door. He had SCaCU written all over him. From his Kevlar duds to the monstrous bulge between his arm and chest. “I’m sorry William, but I saw your lady friend storm off and wanted to be sure everything was okay.” The man said as he came upright and looked me in the eye.
“Broads, what are you gonna do?” I asked with a half-smile, “I hope she didn’t storm off too far.”
He shook his head, “No, she started to light up in the hallway, I directed her to the smoking lounge at the end of the hall.”
“I’m sure she was appreciative.”
“Not very. I’m Ethan Jacks, I’m with security and I’ve been assigned to…partner with you until further notice.” He held out his hand, and I took it.
“William Greer, just call me ‘Billy’, or I’ll get confused.”
“Billy it is.”
“So what’s this business about you being my partner?”
“We’re not sure the situation has cooled down yet. Mister Dalima doesn’t strike me as the brains behind any sort of operation that involves killing people. He was a two-bit thug for hire, maybe some breaking and entering, maybe some enforcement, but almost always he worked for someone else.”
“Yeah. Lenny was a westie, wasn’t he?” the term was derogatory for the poor, uneducated masses who grew up in the slums and projects.
“Smart people come out of Westland, Mister Greer. I’ve got no beef with any of them.”
Points for him, after all, I was from ‘Westland.’ “Sure, I grew up there, too. Who do you think was calling the shots then? I continued to dress as we spoke.
“He had been associating with the Ramos Cartel before he escaped.”
“Sure, this will be just the thing to finally break the Ramos’s power in America.”
“It’s a start. I spoke with agent Skol, James; your driver, and he said you were playing ball.”
“For them.” I said, gesturing at the outside world, “I don’t want the bullshit to make it past the threshold if you don’t mind. You saying you had a lead on the Ramos clan is like saying the library has a book you read once; no one cares. Pinning it on them is a whole other story, and I’m sure you know more about the efforts of our government to do just that than I do.”
“Okay, bullshit stops at the doorway. You’re right, we can’t pin it on them and I don’t think we’ll be able to, but we’ll still make them pay.”
“Arrest a few minor gangsters, toss ‘em into prisons their gang already practically runs? Is that the idea?”
Ethan shook his head, “We will hold them accountable; we always do. Do you need help getting ready?”
“My tie.” I explained, tugging at the useless waste of cloth. “My hand doesn’t seem up to it yet.”
He frowned, “That’s unusual. You know I’ve been to Saint Walburga’s Abbey myself. I lost a foot in the line of duty about a year ago. I was walking the next day, and I had to grow it from scratch.”
“From scratch? What happened?”
“I was being fed into a wood chipper.”
“What?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders, “I know how bad the people we are dealing with are, Billy. My point is you had your limbs attached again, with some blood supply even working, so you should have been right as rain in only a few hours.”
“Things go like this for me, Ethan, by that I mean, ‘hard,' nothing is ever easy if I’m involved.”
“I’ll remember that.” He said as he fixed my tie and then dusted my shoulders off, his touch was electric, every brush of his hands was…welcome. “You clean up very nice, Mister Greer. This will be a good press release. You’re being debriefed right after.”
“With breakfast and coffee, right?”
“Right.” He nodded, “You haven’t eaten yet?
“I had some snacks in the car.”
“Okay, good, Governor Black would be very unhappy if you were to keel over on the podium in front of all those reporters.”
Ruby came back into the room, she pulled up short when she caught sight of Ethan, which no doubt saved me an earful. “It’s time to go.”
“We’re ready.” Ethan said, turning me over to her. Something inside me despaired when he let go of me and felt almost repulsed as Ruby took my elbow. He led the way and though his suit wasn’t the most flattering my eyes drifted over the length of his body, something not unnoticed by Ruby.
“Are you checking him out, Billy?” she mock whispered.
“I’m thinking I should have got into yoga or long distance running. I’m out of shape.” I stage-whispered back. “Remind me to hit the gym when this is all over.”