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Dead Men Prefer Blondes

In [noir] on February 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm

usty Deutsch’s name was, much like her hair colour, pure fabrication.

Her red ringlets glowed against the dark wood of the pub’s interior like embers in a fireplace. Bruen watched her approach from his customary corner, and with each step her face aged a year. Close-up, she was fifty, maybe fifty-five, and visibly tired of life. He counted

the rings under her eyes
the creases at her mouth
the broken fingernails

as she pulled out the chair and took a seat.

Ken Bruen?” Her eyes were wider than they ought to be.

Bruen nodded. “Nice to see you, Rusty. Congratulations on winning the competition.”

There was almost a blush. A shade darker and it would have matched the dye in her hair. “I’ve read all the Jack Taylor books. When they announced the contest, I entered straight away.” She smiled. Her teeth were crooked. “I had no idea you lived in London. Well… I know you and Jack Taylor aren’t one and the same, but…”

“You thought Galway?” Bruen smirked playfully. “It’s a well-known fact that all the best Irishmen don’t live in Ireland. I also don’t get through quite as many of these as Jack does.” He held up his glass and peered through it at Rusty. She was trapped in amber for a moment.

Rusty’s features mellowed with the evening, until she approached the colour of the faux marble statues standing on the bar. She told Bruen about her job, her ailing mother, thanked him profusely for the chance to meet him. After her third gin and tonic, the whites around her eyes had turned pink.

“Do you know why I read your books?’ she asked.

“No. And I don’t care as long as you pay for ‘em.” Bruen smiled.

“My husband was in the Gardaí, he was a policeman, like Jack Taylor.”

Bruen swilled his beer and wondered: Is she a

widow
a divorcée
a madwoman?

When she brushed the red out of her face self-consciously, Bruen asked whether they should go.


utside, the rain spattered as from a paintbrush. Bruen flipped his collar and held the door for Rusty, who exited and then stood, bouncing on the heels of her feet, beneath the illuminated pub sign.

“Sure, let me give you a lift home,” he said. Two beers were as many as he would allow into the driver’s seat of his Volvo. Rusty climbed into the passenger side, and after the hollow thunk of door-metal, they made their way onto the slick street.

Second gear.

“He died a few years ago. In the line of duty is the phrase they use, I suppose.”

“Your man? Sorry to hear such a thing.”

Third gear.

They passed under a low-set bridge and graffiti glared at them.

“Were you in the Gardaí?” she asked.

Bruen spun the wheel gently and shifted back into second.

“Me? No, never. There’s three things you can be as a son of Ireland:

priest
teacher
or doctor.

I took option two and disappointed both the Holy Mother and my own holy ma.”

They climbed a ramp onto the motorway.

Third gear
Fourth gear

“Well, my other half ran with the bad crowd; that’s what he used to say. That’s what did him in, I spose.” Rusty glanced over at Bruen. “Sort of like Jack.”

“Jack’s not a nice fella, Rusty.”

Bruen imagined Jack Taylor’s face, the face he saw when he sat down at his laptop to write. Caved in and pock-marked, thinning white hair like the dying stroke of a paintbrush. Always a pint of beer in his hand.

“Jack’s only in it for himself,” Bruen added. “Wouldn’t make a good husband.”

Rusty Deutsch laughed.

They were close to Finchley Park and not far from the address that Rusty had given him. They pulled off the motorway and the lanes merged into one, trees sprouting up by the side of the road.

“What happened?” Bruen said it quietly, as though the words were tiptoeing past him as he spoke. “Was he shot? Or stabbed. Stabbing is more likely, in Ireland.”

“He drowned.” Twitching his head sideways, Bruen saw that Rusty had turned away from him. In the dim light of the streetlamps,

light
dark
light
dark,

her hair seemed to writhe, Medusa-like. Bruen fixed his eyes on the white lines of the road ahead.


he trees were red herrings. Rusty’s mother lived in a concrete housing estate that towered above the borough, a long-lost symbol of Thatcher’s Britain. Perhaps he should set a novel in London after all, Bruen thought.

“My best to your mother,” he said.

Rusty clutched her purse and opened the door. As she climbed out, in her narrow, angular bones and the tumble of red on top of her head, there was something approaching art.

“And don’t get too hooked on Jack Taylor – he was never a good Guard, nor much of a man.”

“I never said he was,” Rusty replied, and slammed the car door.

Bruen wound down the passenger window and called out: “But he reminds you of your man?”

“I hated my husband, Ken. And he hated me.” She was taking baby steps backwards in her plastic high heels. “He always preferred blondes, you see?”

Rusty pivoted and a shadow swallowed her, from head to toe, until just the clicking of her shoes

bounced
around
the breeze
block
building.

 

Deacon’s Folly

In [pulp] on January 25, 2011 at 6:58 pm

It was late when my friend began to speak. The lights cast a glow upon him that would have made him seem eerie, had I not been his companion of nearly ten years. Strangeweather moved his face until it was directly illuminated, and addressed our party clearly, crisply, and with more than a hint of menace. The rest of us sipped Scotch and shrank into our chairs until our childlike proportions poked through our adult skin and reshaped the tweed and wool of our jackets.

Years ago, when I lived in Edinburgh, few gas lights graced the Mile. Pockets of inky blackness spread between each lamppost and one could disappear into them at barely a moment’s notice. Many did. The labyrinths beneath the city were home to hundreds of lost souls who might once have made their way from tavern to tavern, and, eventually, to their homes. Instead, the alleyways took them.

I worked in the gardens at the Castle, and, at the end of each day, made the trip down the Mile and across the river to my boarding house, a cold, sparsely furnished room in the new town. Accompanying me each evening was another lad who worked at the Castle, Samuel Brodie, a native Edinburgher with a simple and direct manner (much like our friend Mr. Butler) whom I had met a year before, and brought to work on the grounds.

Brodie would slink sideways, disappearing at the end of the Mile into a brougham carriage. I could not say why, but I never asked him where he boarded.

One night deep into November, the air hardening the soft rain into snow, Brodie and I left the Castle grounds and made our way down the slope of the Royal Mile. We passed the tavern at the top of the street and heard bristling shouts coming from inside. Then the light faded, we dipped into darkness, and eventually the next gaslight shone upon us.

After one moment too many in silence, Brodie asked: “Do ye know the story, Strangeweather? Of the Deacon?”

“Deacon Brodie?”

“Aye. Artisan by day and robber by night.”

I told him that I knew the tale. Really, I said, who in Edinburgh – who in Scotland - did not? Supposedly, William Brodie had built the first gallows in the country and then fallen foul of the law and been hanged by the very contraption he had built.

“We continue to be punished,” my companion said. We were in the darkness and I could feel his breath clouding around him in the winter street. “Before the Deacon, the Brodies, if not of noble blood, came from a revered lineage. Respected about town, ye see?”

Aye, I said, and left it at that. As the streetlights grew more frequent and we reached the end of the street, I saw a leering grin on Brodie’s face. He turned, finally, and cantered towards the waiting carriage on Blair Street.

Throughout December, our routine remained the same. Brodie spoke from time to time of his ancestor, the gentleman burglar, but our conversations rarely lasted long. The Scot was absent from the Christmas service at the Castle and only reappeared at the Hogmanay celebrations at the end of the year. By February, I was living with a permanent chill in my bones, and Brodie, who had seemed always so robust, was ashen-faced and sour.

We were sliding our way down the Mile later that month, snow covering the street and lightening the darks between the streetlamps, when Brodie took my arm and pulled me towards an alleyway to our right. I grasped his overcoat, barely staying upright, and felt his bones protruding from beneath.

“Strangeweather,” he said. It was a growl more than a word. “We are friends, aye?”

“Aye, Brodie, but–“

“I have been debating for weeks whether to tell ye or no.” He paused as though this were a question and he expected a reply. “I have something for ye, a job, perhaps.” Brodie stalked off towards the Mile before I could ask what, exactly, he wanted me to do. Perhaps he wished to recompense me for finding him work.

At the end of the road, he turned right and called me on, his face clearer in the well-lit street, its pallor evident even against the crisp white snow. A brougham stood waiting, a thin layer of snow settled on its roof, and Brodie gestured to it with the same unnatural grin that I had seen months earlier. If only, my dear friends, I had turned and walked across the river and back to my icy room in the boarding house on Waverley Square.

Instead, I stepped up to the carriage and climbed into it with Brodie.

At first, I thought us alone. But after a moment, the creases and folds of an overcoat appeared in the corner of the cab. Crumpled against the seat was a man. Leaning forward, his face, I saw, was sallow and withdrawn, his skin pallid like Brodie’s, but with lines and wrinkles that the younger man did not have. He reached out a hand that was adorned with gnarled, curling fingernails and said:

“Mr. Strangeweather. How do you do. I am Deacon Brodie.”

The air puffed out of my lungs. Not wishing to be impolite, I took the man’s hand. It was stone cold. When he withdrew it, I saw on the back a faint impression, as though I had crushed some of the rotting flesh beneath my fingers. Deacon Brodie grinned a lilting, familiar grin and the brougham began to move.

When I regained some of my faculties, I turned to the younger Brodie, but a reflection of the man that was sitting across from us, and tried to speak. Words were lost to me. “There is one last job, Strangeweather,” Samuel Brodie said. “The Deacon has been planning it for years, since the day he was hanged at the hands of this city.” The clattering carriage struggled against cobblestones. The man – the dead man in the corner – barely moved.

After several minutes, mercifully, the carriage stopped and the younger Scot climbed out into the snow. I followed him agitatedly. I asked what he was talking about, told him I didn’t understand, but before he could reply, the thin, white figure of Deacon Brodie stepped lightly onto the snow.

“This is where it happened,” he said. His voice rasped against the night, but the air did not cloud around him. He turned to look at me. “Mr. Strangeweather, one benefit of being a craftsman is that you learn the ins and outs of timber and rope, right angles and circles, beams, bolts and.. nooses. It was a simple matter, really. One hangman’s folly, and I was free. A slip of the wrist–” he swiped his cane through the air “–and a dead man lives.”

I gasped a syllable or two before Samuel Brodie stepped up to me. He said: “What do you say, Strangeweather? One last robbery… for the Deacon?” He pointed behind us and I gazed up at the outline of Edinburgh Castle, stark against the red night sky. “Well, what do you say?”

“Well,” I asked. “What did you say?”

Strangeweather leaned back in his chair. “My dear Mr. Butler,” he replied. “I am a gentleman, not a thief.”

The room exhaled and we all creased out of our armchairs. Questions were fired at Strangeweather and he deflected them with ease, as though swatting a wayward fly from his face: “How did you get away?” “Why, I walked, Alastair.” “Did you return to your work at the Castle?” “I never leave a good job, Silas.” “And Samuel Brodie?”

Strangeweather rose and the light cast shadows under his eyes. “He was hanged in April of that year, outside the Castle. He screamed at the top of his lungs, cried out: ‘It was Deacon Brodie who planned it, it was his theft, his final performance.’ But of course, no one believed him.”

“Except you?” I asked.

Strangeweather was, as his name suggested, prone to the most unexpected changes of temperament. He whipped out his cane and sliced the air with it, then, with a stern expression, said: “A dead man lives, Mr. Butler? No, I shan’t have such a thing.”

Merlin’s Keep

In [untitled] on December 9, 2010 at 4:56 pm

here is an old foundry a few minutes from here. He grasps her wrist, battle-scarred like his, and walks out of the back door and across the street. They stumble down the grassy hill behind his house, their bodies vertical, the earth inclined, and they reach Pleasant Street on the other side.

This way, he says, his voice obscuring the empty pop of the tub in his pocket, and he lets her hand fall to her side.

Outside the foundry there is a sign, staked into the ground and splintering. A large horizontal gash splits the wood in two and nearly runs for the full length of the sign. On it, still legible, are the words: Merlin’s Keep.

When Yuri was a child, Merlin’s Keep had still been in business. It billowed mile-wide, inky clouds across the sky as it forged beams and girders, car panels and corrugated roofs. The Tobin Bridge had been built here; the train cars for the new Yellow Line subway. He remembered how it towered over the Square downtown.

Now the sign stands abandoned, much like the foundry inside, pointing jaggedly at a ninety degree angle to the ground. Yuri recalls online news clips of a stars and stripes flag being planted firmly in the red Martian soil.

They go inside. A cube-shaped space, steel beams still delineate the walls at intervals, rising around them for two stories. The roof is gone. In the far corner, the one nearest the river, there is a coal-covered, metal contraption.

One of the forges, Yuri whispers to Sandra. She smiles weakly and her mouth creases like a dolphin.

Reeds as brown as the sign outside perforate the stone floor, peering up through the cracks at the two foreign bodies in their midst.

Yuri creases into a cross-legged position on the floor, pushing aside the twigs in his way, and Sandra sits opposite with her knees bent toward her chest. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the small plastic tub, and the pills tip and tap against the side. The label is worn off, though even if it had remained legible, it would have been incorrect.

Are you sure? he asks. Sandra nods. In another time, before the Pulse, she would have been beautiful. White, lank hair now hangs around her face; and though her lips are full and alive, the creases under her eyes are as blue as her irises and exponentially wider. Yuri hadn’t looked in a mirror since then either. He couldn’t blame Sandra for neglecting her appearance.

Like Yuri, Sandra is an archivist at the Bradbury Library. It is a strange word, Yuri thinks.

Ok, he says, and twists the cap off of the bottle in his hand.

They are not archivists, he thinks; they are reconstructive surgeons. Pulling from memory the lost words, sentences, serifs. Rebuilding page for page and line by line the books which ought to fill the brownstone building’s shelves.

In his palm he holds out two pills: one white, the other half blue, half red. Sandra takes them nervously, opens her full mouth, and then gulps them dryly.

It might take some time, Yuri says. Her eyes close… Slowly, like honey smearing from a spoon. She slips into unconsciousness, and he lays her down on the cracks and between the reeds.

chug, train-like and unmistakeably mechanical, echoes against the ghost walls of Merlin’s Keep. It crescendos, then stops. Yuri hears footfall and stays perfectly still, leaning as he has for the last fifteen minutes against the dusty forge in the corner of the old foundry.

Outside, rushes and brushes. Breath crisps against the afternoon, and a figure appears like a mirror image at the opposite end of the Keep.

Hey. Yuri, he says. The man is bearded and thin, wears a plaid sweatshirt with holes near the wrists. This her? he asks.

Yes. She needed to get out. She’d transcribed her last, and the Library was under pressure to get rid of her, Yuri replied.

Your goddamn eidetic memory is all that’s keeping you in your job, the man says.

Yuri leans down and the remaining pills make distant popcorn noises inside his jacket pocket. He reaches under Sandra’s arms and lifts her from the ground to the sound of crackling reeds. Since the Pulse, there has been no electricity, and even the slightest noise bounces manically against the eardrum. He drags her over to the man, and takes one last glance at her before placing her carefully into his outstretched arms.

Pretty, the man says.

The man’s voice is dull. Yuri nods and tells him: Be sure to wake her as soon as you get there.  We have three more coming next week, all Fed escapees.

I’ll take as many as I can handle, the man says, and jerks his head in the direction of the water running quietly behind the husk of a building. Outside, in the river, Yuri knows that the boat is tied to the splintered, wooden sign, as usual. In it, others like Sandra lie unconscious.

As the chug resumes, Yuri leaves Merlin’s Keep and canters up Pleasant Street as far as the yellowing grass. He crouches at the apex of the incline and looks through the leaves of the trees to the Foundry.

A tiny puff of smoke emerges from behind the steel outline further down the street. Far below and headed for the Atlantic, a small tug boat struggles against the rough wash of the Charles River, and Yuri wonders if it will ever be his turn to sail away. [ends]

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