* * *
The odor coming from the fish market was pungent. It was hard for Elsie to tell if what she smelled was the legitimate cost of doing business or just garbage. All she knew is she wouldn’t buy any fish here herself, not if she could avoid it.
She was overdressed for the location. Her silk polka-dot blouse and dark skirt were fine for the office, but not for this far down the harbor. Her boss had insisted she wear his raincoat, and she was glad he did. Still, she wished she had worn a less bright shade of red on her lips. At least she was able to use her scarf to tie down and cover some of that blonde hair.
The instructions were for her to whistle “I Wanna Be Loved By You” while she browsed the stalls. Her contact would identify himself once he heard it. As she looked at the cod and the mackerel and pretended to be interested, the music brought her strange looks. This worried Elsie. How would she know the difference between a masher and the informant, if one of these burly fishermen decided to take a pass at her? This was starting to feel like a mistake. A private eye’s secretary maybe should stay behind the desk, stick to paperwork. This assignment was...unpleasant.
A beefy gentleman in overalls and a beanie dumped a huge crate of ice and shrimp into a wooden partition, and the water splashed on Elsie. She jumped, but it was too late. The brine dotted her coat. The stench increased, and she feared it would now follow her wherever she went. “Sorry,” the man said, with a voice that was far smaller than his size.
“It’s okay,” Elsie replied. “It’s not my coat.”
“Then whose is it?” another man asked.
He was Hispanic, but he spoke without an accent. He had greasy black hair and wore a plaid shirt and a heavy jacket--standard fair for boatmen. His one distinguishing feature was a rather large mole above the left nostril on his rather large nose.
“It belongs to my boss.”
“Did he give you that tune, as well?”
“He was supposed to come himself.”
“And so he sent some dame instead?”
“Not ‘some’ dame, but a dame he trusts. Are you Six Toes?”
“Sixto. It means ‘prince.’”
“I’m not some circus freak. I have five toes like everybody else.”
“I said I’m sorry. Don’t you have something for me?”
Sixto motioned with his head for her to follow. He stuck his hands in his pockets and put his chin down, like he was trying to lower himself, to walk smaller. He was actually pretty short, shorter than Elsie, probably even if she took off the heels. They went through a doorway covered only by clear plastic slats. The coverings were filthy with sea salt and viscera from the millions of sea creatures that had been gutted in the marketplace. It was dark through there, and the stink increased ten-fold. Elsie took the scarf from her head and used it to cover her nose.
There was a single light bulb in the center of the room, and Sixto turned it on by puling a chain that dangled beneath it. There was a metal table next to Elsie. It had a drain at its center and still-fresh blood circled the hole. A long fish with a long snout and razor teeth lay there. The one eye it had facing up seemed to be staring in her direction, accusing her of being its executioner, and ready to take her flesh in return. As warning, it hissed at her--a noxious, threatening wheeze.
Elsie gasped, but she did not scream. She knew better.
The informant pushed past her and pressed his hand down on the fish’s face, covering its eye. “Don’t worry,” Sixto said, “he’s dead, he just doesn’t know it yet.”
Sixto pushed the fish to the back of the cleaning table. He then reached his hand down into the bloody drain. His child-like fingers slid easily into the tiny hole. He felt around for something, and then pulled up what Elsie had come for.
A small copper key.
He held it between two fingers like it was a lit match. “If certain people find out I gave this to you, I’ll be as dead as that fish.”
“You have a way with words, Pancho.”
Two men had entered the room behind them. They looked as out of place in the fish market as Elsie did. They wore big coats and fancy hats. Their hands were clean, and their shoes had been, as well, at least until they’d stepped onto the slick floors of this seaside butcher shop. The ocean slime was creeping up on the dark polish, almost as if it were eating away at their soles.
One of the men was clean shaven, the other had a thin, well-combed moustache. Other that that, they were nearly identical. The one with the hair was the one speaking. “Something tells me when you got all lyrical about that snapper,” he said, “you really meant yourself.”
Sixto was quick. He pulled a knife. It had a serrated edge, all set to cut open a fat belly if necessary.
He was outmanned. Both of the newcomers pulled guns.
Elsie was in the middle. She looked from one to the other. Guns to knives and back to guns. “Listen, fellas,” she began, but the clean-shaven thug cut her off.
“Keep it quiet, Jean Harlow, before you make me slap the peroxide right out those curls.”
Peroxide! Elsie was no bottle blonde!
Angry, she grabbed the closest thing to her: the cord for the light. A quick yank, and before any of the tough guys could react, they were in darkness.
Lucky for Elsie, she had a little more warning. In the split second before her eyes went blind, she grabbed the second closest thing: the dead snapper. Its tail was slimy and its scales were sharp, and just the thought of it made her want to vomit, but she held that back and began swinging the fish over her head, turning in circles, hitting whatever got in her way. She was pretty sure she connected with at least one of the hitmen and her informant, as well. She heard hard objects hitting the floor, and maybe a body. On the third spin, the snapper slipped out of her hands, and she heard it smash against the wall, like a wet kiss given without invitation. Elsie fumbled around for Sixto, finding him, knowing it was him by the feel of his workman’s jacket. “Give it to me,” she hissed, doing her best impression of the fish’s gravelly death rattle.
His hand found hers, and he put the key in her palm. Sixto then shoved Elsie, hard, pushing her right through the thugs and out the door. A pistol was fired three times as soon as she was back in the open. It was all the distraction she needed. Half of the fishermen ran for the little room, the other half ran for the exit. Elsie followed the other half. She wasn’t sticking around.
The stone pathway that led down to the baths was shiny with water, the leavings of the men who came and went from its tubs. The condensation on the walls made it look like a storm cloud had blustered through. The brick walls made it feel like the tunnel down to a tomb.
It was off-hours, so the locker room was empty. Otherwise Elsie would have not been able to go down there by herself. She’d better get a bonus for this. It far exceeded the usual duties of filing, typing letters, and answering calls. The key had the number “D6” scratched onto it, and Elsie found the corresponding locker. It was rusting in all this damp, and the gears on the lock were sticky, but it still opened with just a little force.
Inside was a small box. It was rectangular, about six-by-nine, and maybe three inches deep. It had a gold clasp keeping it shut. Elsie was tempted to open it and see what was inside, her boss had not told her, but she thought she’d best move fast just in case more thugs followed her.
She grabbed it, and turned to go, only to see the Mexican waiting for her. “Not fast enough,” she said aloud.
“Plenty fast for me,” Sixto said. He had blood smeared on his jacket, the one she felt in the dark back in the cleaning room. “You were out of there like a race horse on opening day.”
“It was dangerous for you to come.”
He pulled a pistol out of his pocket. “Not really, I have a gun now. I took it off of one of those men after I knifed him. What say I trade you one of the bullets for that box there?”
Elsie had never had a gun pulled on her before. This was twice in one day, and the first time directly on her, not just in her vicinity. She didn’t like it. Not at all. It made her feel like she did when she went over the crest of a roller coaster down by the pier. Like an air grating underneath her stomach was trying to blow her guts up into her ribcage. “I don’t understand,” Elsie said. “You had the key. Why give it to us instead of just coming here yourself?”
“I had that key, but that private dick of yours had the location. It seemed like a good idea to make him pay me to take the treasure off his hands.”
Sixto raised the pistol.
Elsie braced herself. She closed her eyes, she didn’t want to see it coming.
The gunshot echoed in the basement chamber, almost like many bullets had been fired, like a Gatling gun. Bang bang bang.
Only he must have missed. Or death was painless. She hadn’t felt a thing.
Elsie opened her eyes. Sixto was on the ground in front of her. He was clutching his neck, trying to dam the river of blood flowing from it.
The hitman with the moustache was standing there. He still had his own gun. Its muzzle exhaled smoke the way a Frenchman does, little ringlets tumbling against gravity, rising to the ceiling. His clothes were stained with blood as well.
Elsie held out the box to him. He took it.
“Thanks,” he said. “I wasn’t told to kill no twist, and I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I’m not going to argue.”
“Good thing. I’m not like my late partner. I’d hate to mess up that pretty hair of yours.”
The man winked at her. Here she had been afraid a fisherman would make a pass at her. She hadn’t figured on a different kind of working man taking a liking to her golden locks.
“Keep dreaming, you schnook.”
The killer smirked. “Some other time then,” he said. “Tell that fella you work for to do his own dirty work next time.”
The girl couldn’t help but laugh.
* * *
Current Soundtrack: Echo & the Bunnymen, "Thorn of Crowns" at Arbiters of Taste on Turntable.fm
e-mail = golightly at confessions123.com * Midi-Confessions123 * Criterion Confessions * Last FM * GoodReads * The Blog Roll [old version] * DVDTalk reviews * My Books On Amazon
All text (c) 2012 Jamie S. Rich