"Purgatory Peteís Pancakes and Spirits"
I started mixing a whiskey sour and said, "Care for a cocktail, Ms...?"
She looked at me like I was the devil himself. "My name is Clara Roberts, and no thank you, I would not care for a cocktail." I put down the mixer and sighed. Itíd been a while since I'd had a good drink, but I wasnít going to be rude to my first client in two weeks.
It was six in the morning. I pointed out the frosted window at some sparrows just visible in the dim light outside. The birds looked like fuzz balls in the wind. As they searched for crumbs the mice and other crawlers missed the night before, I said, "Every morning those things skitter like screaming feathered cockroaches looking for food on those icy bricks."
The young lady, dressed in a day old evening coat and pumps with the scuff marks that came with wearing them all night long, looked at me and her eyes that should have held mysteries showed only weariness. "What has that got to do with my case?"
"Young lady, itís got everything and nothing to do with your case."
Those same eyes said more than the "What?" that escaped her lips. See, sometimes my voice makes what I say difficult to understand. The reason for this goes back about fifteen years when I lost my temper for a moment. Nothing unusual about getting angry, I suppose, but as it happened there were stitches in my throat where a doctor had taken something out, and just one shout permanently altered how I spoke. So as clearly and slowly as I could manage, I repeated in the hoarse whisper that was served as my voice, "Itís got everything and nothing to do with your case."
She said, "Oh."
After Ms. Roberts left, I went to Jackís Coffee and Pancake House over on third. The walk gave me a chance to go over what she told me. She had thrown a large party the night before that included bellmen, caterers, chefs, and a Christmas gift exchange. Her gift had been a gilded sparrow. She described it as being about the same size as a real sparrow but hollow and made out of woven gold and studded with small gemstones.
The way she talked about it, I got the impression that the contents of the bird were more valuable than the bird itself. I didnít know if she was on the level, but a jobís a job. Inside the golden sparrow there was supposed to be a small brass plate engraved with numbers. The numbers had something to do with foreign bank accounts, but I didnít ask what. The money she gave me to find the bird took care of the next two months, so I wasnít bothered much by the condition of "no questions asked".
I needed a list of people who attended the party, and she gave me four names. I asked her if she was sure these were all the people, and she told me these were all the people I needed to think about. I didnít ask her any more questions.
At the pancake coffeehouse, Jack grilled me with the same question he always asked. "The usual?" I said, "Yeah, and put a shot of tequila in it." Jack winked at me, "Sure Sal, whatever you say." I knew there wasnít a drop in the place, but it never hurt to try because sometimes things change. I said, "Youíre lucky I like your pancakes."
In between pancake flips, Jack said, "Sal, you got anything good these days?" I shrugged. "Same old stuff. Looking for a bird today." Jack said, "Just like olí Humphrey looking for the flamingo, right?" Jackís smile was unnerving because he had blackened teeth. "Yeah, something like that." I replied.
I finished my coffee and dropped two bits on the counter. On my way out the door, Jack called after me. "Hey Sal, Fran says you got a strange color. Better watch your back today!" I looked back to see his wife peering around the kitchen doorway, her face stricken with a mask of horror and premonition. Iím not superstitious, but the skin from my neck to my tailbone seemed to be covered with worms for a moment.
A few minutes later at a phone booth I took out the slip of paper with the four names. It started with, "Pete Petrovitch". I called The Library. When the librarian answered I gave him the name. "Just a minute Sal," he said, "Iíll see what I can find." It didnít take long. Seems that Pete Petrovitch was with the Russian embassy. I said, "Does he have any friends named Gambali, Jones, or Sperco?" The man said, "Bruno Gambali, Fencer Jones, and one Sperco. Associates in business outside the embassy." I said thanks and hung up. Iíd see the charge on my account as usual.
The Russian embassy was at the top of a high-rise office building. I told the guard in the lobby that I had business with Petrovitch. That seemed to be the right button to push because the guard escorted me to a special elevator that stopped only on four floors. He used a key, and then closed the gold colored elevator cage as I started up.
Two ceiling cameras turned towards me, but I ignored them and waited for the elevator to stop. When the doors opened a man stood in front of me and extended his hand. In a thick accent he said, "I am Peter Petrovitch, and you, I presume, are Mr. McClure." I told him people called me Sal and shook his hand. He led me into an office and had me sit in a plush cushioned chair next to a small endtable with drinks. I sat down and took a sip of the nearest glass. It wasnít a whiskey sour, but it was good, and I took a larger sip. He sat in the chair opposite me and held his drink on his lap.
I let him start. The pause nearly became uncomfortable before he said, "Mr. McClure... Sal, I know who you are because Ms. Roberts visited you this morning. What did she say?" I said, "You know thatís between me and her, Petrovitch." He said, "Of course it is. Well, perhaps you can answer this. Did she ask about an object, the likeness of a sparrow perhaps?" My eyes gave nothing away, but he must have known thatís why she had been in my office.
"Mr. McClure, let me explain. The object you have been hired to locate does not belong to her and in fact, she procured it quite illegally from me during a dinner party last night at my residence." I said, "Go on."
"While we pursued her to reclaim my property, the object was lost. She no longer interested us, but with the possibility that she had hidden the object, one of us followed her, eventually to your office." I played a hunch and said, "That would be Bruno?" He looked surprised. My hunch played through, though I didnít know where it was going. "You must be more informed than I thought, Mr. McClure." His accent suddenly seemed less thick, and something began to stink. I pushed myself out of the chair and dropped my glass as the floor moved. I looked at my feet but didnít see anything unusual except that in the next moment they were at the same level as my face. I must have blacked out before hitting the floor because it didnít hurt.
I woke up to the smell of coffee and a pain in my skull usually associated with a good night. At first my eyes wouldnít open, but I must have moved or made a sound because in a voice I didnít recognize I heard, "Heís awake. Get him over here." I was brought to my feet too quickly and it took a while for my head to catch up. The cup forced into my hands nearly burnt my fingers. "Drink this and youíll feel better." I muttered, "Sodium Pentathol?" The voice said, "Doesnít matter. Drink that." I took an exploratory sip and found it to be bitter and tar-like, with an aftertaste of cigar butts. I drank the whole cup and felt mildly content.
When I finally looked at my surroundings I found myself to be in a small gray painted storage room, with a small round porthole in the far wall, a table with two chairs and one man, and a man next to me with a pot of coffee. I had another cup and then said, "Are we going somewhere?"
The one at the table said, "Depends on you." He had the look of someone trying to be a businessman. I didnít mention that if he bought his suits a size larger theyíd fit better over handguns. He turned the lamp on the table toward me, which made it impossible to see his face. His sat down in the other chair.
I looked for somewhere to sit and was interrupted by his partner in a voice heavy with garlic and pasta. "Your future depends on what you decide right now. Find the bird and give it to us, and you can retire, or donít find the bird for us, and you will be retired."
Itís not healthy to argue over such options. I said, "Youíll have it by tomorrow."
It was morning when they dropped me off near my office. After I kicked the junk mail covering the floor into a manageable pile, I dialed the number for Clara Roberts. A man answered and I said, "Ms. Roberts please." He politely put me on hold, and a few moments later a woman said, "Hello?" I told her I had the bird and asked where we should meet. She paused and then cautiously said, "You have the gilded sparrow....?" I guess she didnít expect me to find it so soon. I told her Iíd gotten a hot tip the day before. Then she said, "Weíll meet in a public place... the subway station on the east side of Eighth and Victor." I knew the spot and gave her an hour.
Iíd been sitting in one of the plastic blue wall chairs, timing the subways and watching the sparks as they rumbled past, and watched her walk down the stairs two hours late. The next subway would arrive in about a minute.
I stood up and met her halfway. "Well, where is it?" she asked. I said, "I left it somewhere safe, just in case." She shook her hair. I guess it was a signal for the three thugs that had walked into the area fifteen minutes earlier because they started walking towards us.
She said, "I donít think so, Mr. McClure." She opened her purse and took out a small golden object the size and likeness of a bird. "I came here to see what you were up to. Youíre clever, arenít you? Maybe youíre too clever." She shook her hair again. I could see the light of the subway shining off the high voltage plates on the roof of the tunnel as it rounded the last corner to the stop. Then she turned around and began walking towards the stairs when something hit me on the back of the head.
Thug number four, behind me. The day before, Jack had told me to watch my back. I should have listened to him.
I didnít lose consciousness, but I fell to my knees. I saw one of the other thugs close in wearing steel tipped construction boots, and then he kicked me in the ribs. The blow sent me sprawling and I could feel the shattered rib bones grating against each other as another kick sent me over the edge of the concrete waiting area onto the subway tracks.
"The last thing I saw was the blinding headlight of the subway, and then I found myself sitting here." I took a sip of the drink that waited on the polished wooden bar top in front of me. The drink was good. "So now what?" The man in the next barstool turned his head towards me. He had to use both hands to do it because his head seemed to be perched unconnected on top of his neck, and a jagged stringy tear showed where it must have been torn off. His eyes looked at me and he said in a voice so hoarse and whispered that it sounded like mine, "Hey buddy, youíre making a mess with that drink. Go find the seamster- he'll fix you up right, just like he did me!" The man seemed to be using both hands to hold his head on.
I looked down at myself and noticed that my body seemed to be in ragged pieces, loosely held together by some queer attraction of their own. The man next to me was right. Blood, sinew, and various other bodily accoutrements were dripping and littered on the floor around me. And the drink I had been sipping spilled out of the gashes and tears and puddled on the gore-covered floorboards as fast as I drank it. What a shame.
I slumped off the barstool and carefully shambled out the swinging wooden doors. I planned to keep as much body with me as possible. On my way outside, the bartender turned and with a smile of blackened teeth said, "Welcome to my saloon, Sal. Come on back as soon as you get a chance!" Then he laughed and some of those teeth flew out of his mouth while the barmaids scurried to pick them up. I turned away and took a few steps outside when I heard him laugh and say, "Hey Sal, you're looking real good today!"
Outside, the covered boardwalk extended around the building. On one of the gray wooden posts there was a sign with the word "Seamster" burnt into it along with an arrow pointing up the road. Above it, another sign that said, "Wrongful Death Complaints" with an arrow pointing down the road. A woman in a white dress and bonnet, sewing a patch of fresh skin to her rotting face, took a moment to say, "You go to the Wrongful Deaths Department if you want another chance in the other world." I whispered, "Do many people get second chances?" As if she had said it a thousand times, she replied, "Second, third, fourth, you name it, you got it. Itís easy." I looked back at the saloon I had just left. The woman said, "That would be Purgatory Pete's watering hole. Everyone winds up there when they get here. Some folks never leave. So far youíre doing good."
I thanked her and walked into the street where misshapen birds silently scraped their twisted blackened beaks on the dead gray earth under a large welcome banner strung from one side of the street to the other. I stepped aside as a headless driver dementedly raced a stagecoach pulled by skeleton horses up the street, and I coughed in the cloud of dust that welled behind it. I felt something tear then, and I caught my jaw and a few rubbery strands of connective tissue as it pulled free of my face. I held my jaw back in place and in a horrified instant I knew there was something wrong here, something strangely wrong. "Hey mister! Hey mister!" I carefully turned around to see one of the barmaids rushing to me. "Mister, Pete wants to know if you'll be wanting the rest of your drink?" I looked up the road towards the complaint department, my second chance. It was going to be my brother's birthday soon, and the lake will sure be nice in a few weeks. And the women are certainly more attractive, at least none of them are falling apart. Then there's- "Mister?" I looked down at the barmaid and said, "Tell Pete..." I slowly shook my head and said, "Tell Pete I'll be back in a few minutes." The barmaid smiled and skipped back into the pub, where a moment later I heard a roar of laughter from Purgatory Pete. You see, it had been a long time since I had a good drink, and somehow I doubted that drinking would ever be the death of me in Purgatory Pete's Pancakes and Spirits.
© Copyright 1996 and 2002 by Scot Ranney