The Evil Genius—no, no, he had to stop thinking of himself that way. He’d done his time, was working to atone, to the degree possible, for the horrors of his past, wasn’t that man anymore. He was changed. Counseling helped with that, but it was Ethel, that beautiful dear heart with her kind soul, her love and understanding, who’d rescued him, changed him. He smiled: The Reformed Genius. He liked the sound of it. He attached a new socket to his wrench, fit it over one of the bolts on the exhaust manifold, tightened it down.
That done, The Reformed Genius laid the wrench on top of the tool chest and wiped the sweat from his bald, bespectacled head with a red cloth, then from his long, skinny arms. He returned the rag to the pocket of his tan coveralls and grabbed his bottle of water and took a long drink. This was good, he thought, working with his hands using tools to fix cars. People brought their cars in; he or one of the other mechanics diagnosed the issue and corrected the problem. It was honest labor a man could feel good about, and he did.
The Reformed Genius raised the big Ford Explorer on the lift and was about to step under to take a look at the axle, said to have a crack, when something caught his eye, over by the garage entrance. His heart skipped and his breath hitched in his throat: talking to his boss and another of the mechanics, it was that fat, hulking lummox from Anytown PD, the one with the bulldog jowls and bulbous nose. “The Chief,” they’d called him, though it hadn’t seemed he held that position. He was at most a captain, probably a lieutenant, but seemed, really, to be partner to…
“Heya, E.G.,” came the gravel-in-a-blender rasp from just behind The Reformed Genius. “How’s the evil biz?”
The Reformed Genius turned around slowly, the hairs on the back of the long tall stack-of-dimes he called a neck standing on end, and through the thick Coke-bottle lenses of his glasses saw him there, in the flesh, Detective Jack Chaser, “Detective Death.” He looked much the same: head shaved to avoid acknowledging his male-pattern baldness, his hard face with its chiseled aspect covered, as ever, in the appropriate places with salt-and-pepper stubble, his steely gray eyes squinting through a cloud of dark, noxious smoke that billowed from a slightly crooked cigarette in his mouth. His black leather jacket, a ragged article, was open, beneath it a gray crewneck tee, but it was to send a message that he wore the coat unzipped, and that message was: “Look at the big .50 caliber hand cannon in my jeans.”
Chaser grinned wolfishly, its quality malevolent. “Look like ya saw a ghost,” he remarked, the mirthful menace practically dripping from his tongue.
With some difficulty, The Reformed Genius swallowed. “Maybe I have,” he said, attempting a defiance that no longer felt natural to him. He made for the hand lamp that lay on the tool chest, but stopped his bony hand short of it. “Just need my light,” he said, conscious of Chaser’s hairy paw having grabbed the Desert Eagle’s handle.
Chaser relaxed his grip on his cannon, but didn’t relinquish it entirely, instead jerked his head toward the tool chest. TRG picked the lamp up delicately and, slowly, raised it just above his head, illuminating the undercarriage of the Explorer.
“Looks busted,” said the excitable bass The Reformed Genius recognized as belonging to that “Chief” oaf. He came up next to TRG, teetering in a slight side-to-side fashion, each of his wide, fat legs moving stiffly, as if made of wood. “You oughtta take better care of ‘er.”
Chaser used his vanishing butt to light another Black Death cigarette, then cast the butt aside, bouncing it off a big red drum with “FLAMMABLE” stenciled on it in black block letters. “Nah, Chief, it’s not his, Evil here’s a grease monkey makin’ an honest livin’,” he glanced at The Chief as he said this, smirking wryly, then set his eyes on the Genius. “Ain’t that so, E.G.?”
“Stop calling me that!” the exasperated parolee cried, slamming the hand lamp down on the tool chest and tensing his body, shutting his eyes, fists clenched, his entire person quivering. He took a breath and seemed to relax somewhat. “I’m The Reformed Genius now. I’ve served…”
Chaser, smirk absconding like a thief in the night, jolted to life, snatched TRG by his shoulder, whirled him around and got right up in his face, their noses very close. Almost touching. “Save it! Tell it to some greener-than-a-pepper-tree P.O., shitbird, ‘cuz I ain’t buyin’ it! Ya can change yer name with the bureaucrats, but a leopard can’t change his spots, and in my book, you’ll always be The Evil Genius,” he said fiercely. He backed up a step or two, recovering some of his smug detachment, then looked at Chief, who was gnawing on a cigarette to calm his nerves. “Slap the cuffs on this creep, Chief.”
The Chief, inhaling the remainder of the cig, took The Chief by his thin, twig-like forearm, but TRG pulled away. Apoplectic, he demanded, “Put the cuffs on me for what?”
The Chief and Chaser both scoffed. Chaser replied, “For questioning, shitstain. I got a hunch you might know somethin’ about somethin’.”
“I’ll come with you,” TRG assented, sounding exhausted, then: “But please, no cuffs. I don’t want my coworkers to know.”
The Chief rumbled with obnoxious laughter as he took TRG by the arm. “Whaddaya think I was talkin’ ta yer boss for?” As TRG deflated noticeably, Chief added, “I thought this guy was s’posed ta be a ‘genius,’ Chaser.”
Chaser took the devastated Reformed Genius by his other arm, he and The Chief leading him out to curious looks from whispering mechanics, a couple of them lowering their heads or looking away to avoid TRG’s desperate glances and pleading eyes.
Emily Twiggs fiddled with her shoulder strap and held her bag close as she walked uneasily up the sidewalk. She thought she smelled vomit. She was sure she smelled urine. She put two fingers below her nose and soldiered on.
“Hey dollface, what’s a nice girl like youse doin’ in a place like ‘is?” an awful man in a ratty shirt and a sweat-stained flat cap asked with what might have been described as a toothy grin, had he had enough teeth in his head to warrant it.
Emily moved past, ignoring his effort to give her butt a squeeze, only to be faced not long after by an equally repugnant man who was like the funhouse mirror reflection of the first.
“I like yer legs, toots,” the man remarked, the odor of rubbing alcohol escaping his equally tooth-deficient maw.
“Thanks,” Emily said uncomfortably as she maneuvered around him.
He moaned softly as she brushed inadvertently against his grimy person, savoring the contact and committing it to his memory, such as it was, by looking her up and down. Then he appended to his come-on, “Like ‘em even better if they was wrapped ‘round my head,” chuckled dumbly, flicked his diseased tongue rhythmically and then doubled over in hacking, coughing laughter.
Emily could barely keep from screaming. These people were awful and yucky! She just wanted to be home in bed, reading The Stenographer’s Ghost, Grisham’s wonderful new sequel to the immortal masterpiece The Stenographer, under her goose-down comforter, perhaps texting with Otter about the goings-on in Coast City. “Help!” she cried suddenly.
“You okay, hon’?” a voluptuous hooker with a heart of, if not gold or some other precious metal, then at least some useful material like copper or aluminum, asked, ever so lightly touching Emily’s shoulder. “Ya look like yer havin’ an awful go of it. Ya lost, sweetie?”
Emily sort of stumbled away from the street, underneath a big flashing neon display of a nude woman, with blinking LED text that red “LIVE BABES THAT WANNA SCREW” and “HOTTT! XXX ALL NUDE XXX” in alternating fashion. The hooker followed, put an arm around her.
“I’m just… I don’t…” Emily stuttered insubstantially.
They sat on a little ledge, Emily’s thin figure able to fit between two of the “hostile architecture” concrete ridges. The hooker, meanwhile, was used to it, her ample thighs and buttocks bearing thick calluses, from parking her caboose in such places often on slow nights. She brushed Emily’s hair back out of her face with a long blood-red nail, smiled a little.
“There, sweetie, now I can see ya,” she said warmly. “You’re pretty.”
Emily smiled shakily. “Thanks, Miss…”
“Miss!” the hooker laughed raspily. “The name’s Jane. Jane Sechswurcker.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Jane. I’m Emily. Thank you for your kindness. I just… think I got overwhelmed by, you know…” she trailed off, looking around performatively to make her point.
Jane nodded, pulled a cigarette from out of her glittery clutch, then adjusted her large breasts before lighting it. After a puff or two she agreed with what seemed to be the young woman’s point. “Yeah, Titstreet ain’t fer everybody, that’s the honest-ta-god truth!” She then shrugged a little. “But it’s home.”
“You live here?” Emily tried and failed to hide her shock, but did slightly better with the disgust.
“I ain’t here on no vacation!” Jane cackled, coughing into her hand. “Darn cough. I gotta see the doc one’a these days.”
Emily wasn’t sure what to say, so said nothing. She realized, in the silence, and the clarity it afforded, that Jane was not, couldn’t be, nearly as old as she’d thought initially; she’d just been aged prematurely by what must’ve been a rough life. Jane seemed to shift uncomfortably under her studying gaze—the curse of the writer, Emily thought, to notice and catalog everything for future use; she was almost proud of her new profession as she momentarily forgot about the piss smell, the awful sights and sounds, the strange smoke and mist that seemed to be spiraling and undulating around everything and most everyone, without any ostensible source or obeying what little she remembered from physics class back at College U, so she smiled nervously before looking away from the woman.
“Ya want I should call ya a cab?” Jane asked, ending the lull in their sparse, intermittent conversation.
“Oh, no, thank you. I have a car, I just… have you heard of a place… ‘B-Stings?’” Emily asked hesitatingly.
Jane looked her dead in the eye, first indifferently, then searchingly, then the corners of her bright red lips started to twitch, hinting at a smile before her mouth fell open and she roared with laughter. Emily asked her to stop, laughed a little herself out of confusion, then gave her a little squeeze on the arm.
“Jane, please! I…”
“You ain’t lost! Ya might not know where ya are, but you ain’t lost!” Jane said boisterously between her increasingly unpleasant cackles, struggling to her feet.
“What do you mean? I…”
“Look up, doll! Up!”
Emily did look up. Now Jane was bathed in red neon light, then the gold of the LED sign’s text. She grinned down at Emily, and then stepped aside. A sign with a cartoon honeybee with huge knockers hung from the marquee, with “B-STINGS” written on it in big red cursive.
“Say, whaddaya want with this joint, anyhow?” Jane asked, eyeing Emily queerly. “Yer not thinkin’ about dancin’ for this dump, are ya?”
“God no!” Emily protested violently, so much so that she alarmed herself. She shook this feeling off, glanced quickly at Jane. “I’m… sorry, I just… no. I’m trying to find… someone. It’s very important.”
“Well,” Jane trailed off, both puzzled and watching some of the passing foot and auto traffic and seemingly realizing the night was getting away from her. “I gotta run, doll. Watch yerself in there. And don’t eat anything!” she called as she began to drift off into the flow of shuffling passersby. “Last time I had a bite in there I had the shits for days!”
Emily thanked Jane for her help and then walked over to the door, where a big burly doorman with a wooden nose looked her over. He asked if she was “the new girl.”
“Yes, I’m new here. I wonder if…” Emily replied with eager nervousness and nervous eagerness.
He sighed, hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go ‘round the back.”
“I… thanks,” she replied, leaning to the side to see the alley to the left of the structure.
The big lug muttered something about “dumb broads” as she left, but Emily thought she’d better let it be, like The Beatles sang. She didn’t much care for The Beatles—Ringo was kinda cute, but the rest of them didn’t do much for her—but her boyfriend was playing their records, always records never CDs or tapes, talking about their “resonance,” discussing his ever-growing collection of “Beatlegs.” It was tedious, really, but she loved his passion. He was so cute. She missed Otter, hoped she would see him again soon.
“Focus!” she ordered herself in a harsh whisper as she walked timidly through the darkened alleyway.
Her feet splish-splashed in the little rain puddles between the remaining cobblestones of the ruined alleyway. Then she thought she heard something over to her left. Breathing, maybe? No… crying.
“‘Scuse me,” a soft, pitiful little voice called out.
Emily jumped. “Who’s that? Who’s there?”
“Just me,” the same voice, quiet, almost embarrassed—a girl’s voice, but so reluctant in its character that its tone seemed to be apologizing for the bother of its very existence.
“Where are you? I don’t see you. If this is some… some kinda joke, or, or, or…” Emily sputtered.
“Over here,” the voice said. “Hey. It’s me.”
And there, sitting atop an old metal trashcan, was a girl in a ragged dress, possibly homemade, with a knobby-kneed and bony-elbowed figure at once frail and tomboyish. And with a pillow for a face. An honest-to-goodness pillow, swear to God.
“Got a smoke?” the pillow girl asked, sounding slightly more self-possessed now that the band-aid of being seen for the first time by this stranger had been removed. “Guess you’re the new girl, huh? You got nice legs.”
Emily couldn’t help but stare, and was initially too dumbfounded to do anything else. This strange pillow girl shifted awkwardly, seemed on the verge of saying something to break the tension, but Emily beat her to the punch: “Are… you… Pillowface Jones?”
“Yep,” Pillowface replied, affecting the manner of a bowed but unbroken, jaded youth now, “All my life. Got a smoke?”