What The Puck?
Ever have one of those days? How about one of those weeks? Got the picture? Now stretch that into an entire month and you can begin to see why my mood was lower than a 60-year-old hooker's expectations.
The name's Mandolin, Tony Mandolin. I'm a private investigator and the city of San Francisco is my beat. I used to be a way for people to find things, and relatives who were lost, but a couple of years ago things shifted to the weird. That last was a huge understatement by the way; weird had somehow become the major factor, not only in my professional life but also in my personal. My current girlfriend is a scientist who breeds highly unusual plants, and my housemate is a sometimes recovering NFL-sized, black, drag queen named Frankie.
My last case dealt with another woman of magical means blackmailing the city's best restaurants with poison orchids. I'd had to use the services of a flock of pixies, an alcoholic wizard with a serious attitude problem and an apprentice Werebeagle – yes, I did say Werebeagle - plus assorted others to solve it. Apparently, according to Bay Area reality, not every lycan is related to wolves and Alsatians. It seems shapeshifters come in all flavors. I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere out there is a whole tribe of weremice getting overwhelming urges to attack the cheese counter at the local supermarket just before a full moon.
That case had also taken away one of my usual hangouts, the Summersault but, cad that I am, I didn't shed too many tears. You see, I'd found a better place literally right around the corner from my house. It was called The Snug and run by a guy with the utterly cynical name of Tiny.
The typical San Francisco summer evening, cool, damp and foggy, perfectly suited my mood, so I stuffed my hands into my pockets and mooched on over to Tiny's place. The Snug's owner stood just shy of 6'10" and tipped the scales when you found some that went that high, at around 575 lbs. His usual mode of dress was a week old growth of beard, red mixed with white, light blue shirt with khakis and an old apron that must have been around when Doc Holiday met the Earp boys. He kept a sawed-off shotgun behind the bar for just in cases but I'd yet to see the time come when he had to pull it out.
Sure, things happen in the city, especially when you run a neighborhood bar. There was a night not too long ago when this addict tried to pull a gun on Tiny. They say the guy bounced twice before he hit the other side of the street, and then there was the time he punched out a troll. Yes, troll, the kind with knobby green skin and breath bad enough to use as welding fuel. When you live in the city you get your entertainment where you can.
I pushed open the door to The Snug and walked in. Discarded peanut shells crunched under my feet as I made my way over to the bar. They hadn't been there when I discovered the place, but a couple months back Tiny took a trip up north to the lost coast. Now, every spare corner in the place had a 100lb. burlap sack of the things. I picked one of the small bowls sticking out of a bag and scooped up a portion.
"Rough day, Tony?"
"You can read my face, eh?"
"No, rough week."
He grunted again. The big guy's vocabulary would never win him any game show host gigs. He was New Jersey Irish from the other side of the tracks. Me, I'm mongrel Italian, but he's never held it against me. "Another?"
I cracked a peanut. "Yeah, sure Tiny, thanks." I flipped the empty shell down to join its brothers.
Tiny pushed the fresh pint in my direction. "So...wanna talk about it?"
I looked up in surprise. Tiny usually stayed out of people's personal problems. The most common advice was a sympathetic grunt and perhaps a raised eyebrow.
"Work problems. I've been running into brick walls since the weekend."
Tiny examined a thumbnail the size of my belt buckle. "Some more of that weird stuff?"
I took a sip of my beer. "Yes and no. I accepted a runaway case and I've been getting nowhere. You know how deeply a kid can go underground, but now I've got some serious heat on me to do something...or else."
Tiny nodded. "Expectin' miracles 'cause they believed the hype."
I looked up. "I don't hype my business, Tiny."
He grunted and shook his head. "I know, but they don't"
"Thanks for the help."
As Tiny turned back to polishing glasses, I looked over towards the chess set he had put next to the fireplace. Hand carved. Whoever had done the carving sure took their time. Each piece was a miniature portrait of a middle-ages figure down to the last detail. The white were Saxon, the black--Norman. Every time I picked one up I saw another detail I'd missed before. Me, I couldn't whittle if you spotted me three notches, but I do appreciate talent.
Since I lived around the corner it had become my habit to decompress by going against Tiny with that set even though the games were usually short and to the point. The point being me taking another beating. So what, where else can you play by a fire and drink beer? Besides, I thought that perhaps the exercise of planning a few moves ahead would help me break through my figurative wall. You know what they say about plans...
Against most of the other regulars, I could hold my own, except of course Ursula Ignatova and her fiancé Paul. Ursula is the medical examiner and Paul runs a lab over at Berkeley doing terrible things to moss and mildew. And then there was the old man I met after the Summersault burned, Doc Lamoreaux. He was one of the few guys who could even whip Tiny. Of course, Doc has the patience of the grave on his side, he's a zombie, but he prefers the title life-challenged. He belongs to an association of life-challenged folks, the Brotherhood o' Non-Living Entities Reanimated or BONER for short. And yes, he got the joke. He was originally from New Orleans and still had the Cajun in his voice.
I snatched up some more peanuts, letting the shells fall to the floor. Tiny ignored my sloppiness. He says the crunch underfoot adds atmosphere along with the ability to absorb spilled beverages. Anybody will find an excuse for not doing janitorial work.
I finished my beer and signaled Tiny for another. Then I blinked. "Hey, Tiny, who's the little guy over by the chess set?"
"What little guy?"
"Your eyes going bad on you, Tiny?" I picked up my mug. "Over there by the chess set. About four foot nothing with a dark green coat? "
Tiny gently, but irresistibly pulled my mug out of my hand, "Time to go home, Tony."
I looked back at the chess set--nothing. I did a quick scan of the place; nope, just me and Tiny. The other two customers had finished their business and gone. I knew it wasn't the beer. Two pints did not do that to me. I turned back around on my stool and leaned my elbows onto the bar.
"Tiny. You know I haven't had enough to start hallucinating." He just looked at me and went on wiping glasses. "Tell you what. If I can hit two bull's-eyes out of six will you believe me?" I might not be much of a chess player but I can throw a decent dart. The Sung had a board hanging in an alcove off the bar, pub style with foldout doors and a boar's hair target over an inch thick; well away from breakables, and the odd customer.
He looked me up and down, measuring. Then he sighed. "Yeah, go ahead."
"Some darts, please?" Every Thursday night Tiny holds a darts tournament. The winner drinks for free the rest of the night and the losers pick up his or her tab for the time prior to the match. Not a bad deal for Tiny. It usually makes for a very busy Thursday and being a work night, most winners aren't too interested in greeting Friday morning with a roaring hangover.
Tiny handed me my darts. I toed the line and threw. Seeing that little guy must have shaken me more than I thought. My first dart stuck firmly into the middle of the left door. Tiny grunted and started to pour out my drink.
"Hey! Whoa there, Tiny! I've got five to go." Tiny grunted again, unbeliever. I took a deep breath and some extra time to settle the flutters. I could feel the dart sink into the 50 before it hit. I looked at Tiny and gave him my winner's grin. He grunted noncommittally but it didn't matter. I was in the zone. The second one I tossed without even really looking. It slid in next to the other dart with a satisfying metallic 'zing'. Tiny pushed the mug back over to my stool. It was a good thing I hit the zone when I did, because as I looked back over to the chess set, the little guy was back. If I had to toss another dart right then I couldn't promise you it would land anywhere near the board. What made it worse was, he waggled his eyebrows at me. Tiny had his back to the bar just then so he didn't see my hand shake when I took a drink.
The front door opened and closed. It was Heather, the girl from the antique shop a couple of blocks down the street. She must've seen something on my face when she slid onto the stool next to mine.
"You can tell, huh?"
"You've got one of those faces, Tony. You'd make a lousy poker player."
I took another drink. "Yeah... guess so."
"He been like this all night Tiny? Irish coffee please."
Tiny started his mixing and grunted an affirmative.
She nodded back.
I looked. The little guy was gone again. I was starting to wonder if my brick wall problem was affecting more than just my personality. I grabbed another bowl full of peanuts and sat down with my back to the wall next to the fireplace. The chess set was arranged on the table before me. The playing surface was inlaid into the oak tabletop, squares of white birch and ebony. As I sat down the front door opened again and Doc came strolling through. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket and gave me a jaunty wave.
"Tony! You're not ready for another shellacking already, cher?" I made the mistake of playing Chess with Doc Friday night. He caught me in his own version of fool's mate after five moves. No, I wasn't ready to face him again. Not for a long time. His voice had that usual dry, raspy grave quality. It smoothed out after a couple of drinks.
"No, Doc. The fire's kind of peaceful. It's a good place to do some thinking."
He looked at me for a few seconds then nodded. "Yes...do you some good, I t'ink, cher." Now, what did he mean by that? I shook my head and turned back to the fire. Everyone seemed to know me better than me. I think that was part of the problem. What was bugging me was work, or rather work not working out the way it was supposed to. It used to be that I could find anything, even if the thing needing finding didn't want to be found. Over the years I'd gathered my fair share of lumps because of that, but still...it was part of what made me, me. And now I had this runaway to find, not to mention the knockdown, drag out I'd had with Alcina the other night because my temper got the best of me. I tried to piece together the reasons as to why.
No, I'm not some psychic detective and I don't have any magical powers. What I am is stubborn and over the years I'd developed a knack for being able to turn over what others have missed, sometimes even when those others didn't want me to. Getting nowhere, I scooped up some more peanuts and ordered another brew.
I spent the next half hour having a discussion concerning my shortcomings with myself. I considered closing up shop and trying my hand at managing a pizza parlor. But reason intervened and convinced me that even with all its problems I wouldn't be happy doing anything else.
The door blew open with a bang.
"Frankie! Easy on the door. OK?" Tiny called out as my partner came in.
"Damn wind. We have a real blow working up out there." Frankie, besides being my housemate and an NFL-sized ex-drag queen was also one of the best decisions I'd ever made in my business. I'd already lost count of the number of times he had saved my life and, if memory served right, he'd started doing that before I'd hired him.
He has one of those mercurial personalities of the born performer. When I'd met him he was doing a show at one of the SOMA clubs catering to fellas who don't swing in the same direction the rest of us guys. During the last case, he'd wiped out a high-ranking member of Queen Medb's court with the swing of a chair. Faeries are tough, but Frankie is one of those folks who could give Tiny a run for his money in the brute strength department. Unlike Tiny, though, Frankie cries during romance movies.
He shook out his umbrella and said, "So...what's new, guys?"
He received an assortment of noncommittal shrugs and grunts and then ordered a pint. After it slid to a stop in front of him he joined me by the fire.
I did not want to hear that. The other major failing I have is that I can't switch off a mad the way most women seem to be able to do. Of course, being of the male persuasion, I am guilty as charged when I act like a man. Alcina was, more than likely, waiting for me to admit that I was wrong and I wouldn't ever do it again. The worst part of it was...she was right. I imitated one of Tiny's grunts.
"I...spent some time checking out the shelters," Frankie said tentatively, turning the pint in his hands.
"Yeah," I drank, already knowing what was coming next. This girl had vanished from her parents' home over a week ago. I usually solved such cases in less than a couple of days, three if the kid was real good at hiding. But, not this time. Somehow this girl had managed to disappear into the city's background and pull it in after her.
"I showed the managers the photo. None of them had seen her and it didn't look like any of them were lying."
"Yeah," I nodded.
"Do you think..." Frankie began the question with his attention focused on his drink.
"No, Frankie. Not if Hell freezes over, and I'll say the same thing to Alcina. I am not going to ask him for help, not this time. He scares the living crap out of me."
This 'he' was the reason for the fight Alcina and I had. Landau Bain, San Francisco's resident wizard was also an unrepentant alcoholic and scary as hell. Both Frankie and Alcina were convinced that simply because Bain had saved my worthless hide at least three times during the last case that I should forget the time he fried my nerves with a wave of his hand. They were convinced that Bain, being a wizard and all, could solve my problem with another wave of his hand. They were probably right. However, the last time I'd gotten mixed up with him I'd wound up as the sacrifice du jour for a witch and her acolyte.
I went back to my self-proclaimed gloom and nodded at the appropriate times while Frankie dispensed what he thought was helpful advice.
After a while, Julius ambled in complaining about the rain. Julius is the Werebeagle I told you about. He had one of those faces that make you think about a hound dog when you look at him and if you did so in a good light, you'd see a subtle patterning in his skin that spoke volumes if you knew what you were looking at. He also had the most incredible sense of smell I'd ever seen put to work. He'd been out of the city for the past couple of months so I hadn't been able to use him on the case. For the first time in a while, I saw a potential ray of sunshine in my future.
I waved Julius over to where Frankie and I sat and offered to buy him a drink.
Julius was immediately suspicious. His experiences with the last case he'd helped me on hadn't been all that enjoyable, even though he did get paid.
"I...didn't see you guys sitting here," meaning that if he had we would have been seeing his backside exit the bar.
"Hey, I paid you, didn't I? I think I almost remember putting a little extra in," I motioned to the empty chair next to Frankie. The case had paid extremely well. Antonio Luccesi, the city's crime lord had been very generous since it turned out most of the restaurants affected by the blackmailer were under his control.
Julius nodded, "Yes, yes you did."
"There, you see? Now don't worry, I have no intention of getting mixed up in any case that involves, witches, wizards, warlocks or trolls, ok?" I managed a pretty phony smile.
Frankie chuckled disbelievingly, the ingrate.
"Who's the little guy with the green suit?" Julius asked.
I whipped my head around so fast I almost gave myself an injury. "You saw him?"
He wasn't there again. Damn.
I turned back to face Julius. "You saw him," I made it a statement that asked questions, "You really saw him."
Julius reared back at my excitement, "Y...yes, so what? Lots of little people live in the city."
I glanced over my shoulder, "Is he there now?"
Frankie asked, "Tony, what's going on?"
I told both Frankie and Julius about the little guy, the green coat, and the wagging eyebrows. I even mentioned the disappearing act. Since they both had witnessed as much weirdness as I had, I figured on a little understanding at least."
This time I'd figured right.
"You know...this sounds familiar." Julius scratched his head, grimaced and rubbed his chin. "I...don't.... .... know...it seems I've heard or read about something like this before."
"One of the tabloids, maybe?" Frankie reached for a peanut.
"I remember!" Julius slapped his forehead. "My uncle, Pontius the Finder, mentioned it, oh...about six or seven years when he was telling me all about his trip to Ireland."
"Go on," I encouraged.
"Did you see if the hair was red?" Julius asked with his head tilted to one side.
"What does that have to do with--?" Frankie began.
I stopped him with a held up hand, "Yes, I think so. I couldn't get a real good look."
"Then I think I've got it now. According to what my uncle told me, we've just seen a Leprechaun." He held his chin up in smug pride.