(A Tale of Silverware Noir)
Story by Kevin J. Guhl / Illustration by John Waltrip
Silver City… its utensils hope for a shiny future but cannot escape the rusty underbelly of their metropolis. I’m a detective, the private kind. Got sick of the police beat and set up shop in Grindstone Heights – a neighborhood so slummy that mysteries sprout from cracks in the pavement like crimson daisies. Got a case? I’ll beat the streets until the clues scream my name. I’m Detective Fork, and this is one of those mysteries…
The last trouble that passed through CEO Kraus Macaroni’s mind was a high-grade oxidation bullet. The spoon was sprawled on the dock planks like a discarded banana peel. A dusty red crater consumed a quarter of his polished bowl. Molten tributaries flowed over his bulging eyes and pooled in the curled tips of his French moustache.
The body entranced me, a tragic and forbidden masterwork. Macaroni’s spindly arms twisted like broken toothpicks in the depths of his silk shirtsleeves. His ornate handle, carefully etched with flowers, was blanketed in mud from passing trucks. The void screamed out at me from his glazed pupils.
“Macaroni’s a millionaire inventor. Has a monopoly on micro vacuum tubes. Had…” Chief Slice pulled his cap down over his serrated face and clenched his cliff-like jaw.
The Chief worked out compulsively when stressed. His regal blue police jacket barely contained his hulking handle. His badge was ready to fly off and impale an innocent bystander. It was the first I’d seen Slice since he rose to his new job on account of a corroded ticker in his predecessor.
“I know who Macaroni is,” I reminded him. The Chief nodded solemnly. He’d been there when they cut my brother down from the rafters. The chain had ground Bobby’s neck down to a sliver. One of his coat pockets had contained a neatly folded, rose-scented ultimatum from his wife. The other, a fresh pink slip from MacTech Industries.
“Macaroni’s widow, the actress. She wants you on the case, Fork.” The Chief radiated so much hesitation that it nearly blew off my hat.
“Why would she want that?” I asked. Kraus’ eyes continued boring into my forehead.
“She’s says you’re the best.”
“Think you can handle that, Detective?” Slice passed like an eclipse over Macaroni’s frozen expression of terror.
My upper lip hardened. “Macaroni ground down his employees like erasers. He sucked out their juice and spit out the shells.” I thought of Bobby, how unfinished hopes hung over his casket like a concrete cloud. “But no one deserves this.”
The Chief slapped my trench coat’s storm flap. “It’ll be nice to work with you again.” He stepped back. “She does want to meet with you first.”
I cracked a smile and nearly bit my cigarette in half. “I guess even the best gotta discuss fees, don’t they?”
— ♦♦♦ —
Macaroni’s widow stopped by my office later that night. I instinctively flipped my fedora off my prongs and set it on the desk when she slinked through the doorway.
Mrs. Macaroni wore her mourning dress disturbingly well. Black couldn’t hide the fact that she had curves like an orchestra bass. Her dress glittered like onyx raindrops. It suffered from a fabric drought, exposing her rigid arms and sculpted lower handle to the elements. A cloud of honey blonde hair bordered her oval face and batwing eyelashes. Macaroni’s widow forged a fine line between tablespoon heft and demitasse daintiness. She wore a black choker.
I focused on the word “widow” and pushed away my inappropriate but nagging observations. The silent film era was gone, but its dramatic style lived on in her.
She floated toward me. The door swayed closed, brittle window blinds shuddering. I stood up and straightened my vest and bowtie. “Mrs. Macaroni. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”
She inhaled deeply and leaned on my desk. Several moments departed before she could speak. “Kraus always admired tales of your crime-solving in the papers. He said you should have your own funny strip.”
Monochrome pulp flashed past my brain. A faint smile escaped my reserve. “Flattering, if perhaps a little overzealous.”
I eyed the framed newspaper article that clung to my wall. “Did Kraus say anything about the editorial I wrote?”
Sylvia looked away, lost in the tendrils of lamplight that filtered through the blinds. “He was hurt by it. He thought you were unfair about the working conditions at MacTech. But he understood why you did it. He also felt guilty about your brother’s death.”
I quietly ground my knuckles into the wood grain of my desk. Sylvia ran her fingers absently over the smooth beak of the falcon statuette propped behind my nameplate.
She recited, “I’ve got fists of fury and can shoot a spot of rust off the thin end of a knife from across the Silver River.”
“Kraus said that about me?”
“No,” Sylvia said with a barely there, raised eyebrow. “I got that off your business card.”
My steel cheeks briefly burnished when I recalled my novice marketing efforts. “Mrs. Macaroni, the police are doing a fine job investigating this case. I’m sure they’ll find your husband’s killer.”
“It’s Sylvia,” she corrected. “And I want you. Money is no object. Kraus wouldn’t have wanted anyone else on his own murder case.”
All three of my prongs shivered. “Okay,” I relented. “Of course, Sylvia.” I slid a notebook across my desk and picked up a dagger-sharp pencil. “Did he have any enemies?”
Sylvia snorted. “Plenty. But I think this was random.”
I sucked in a long puff from my cigarette. “Why do you say that?” I didn’t want to tell her about the professional-level bullet that had blasted a cave in her husband’s skull.
“I told Kraus to stay away from the docks. He loved the evening river breeze. Said it boosted his creativity.” Sylvia’s lips tightened over her teeth. “There’s some disfigured deviant that prowls there. I know he must have done this. You’ll capture that defect, detective.”
I never made promises to clients. But I was tempted. “I’ll do my utmost, ma’am.”
She grabbed me with her frigid gaze. “I know you will.” That was an order, not a pep talk. She once again diverted her eyes to the fading glow of the sleeping city outside my window. “You’ve lost someone, Detective. That why I want you on this case.”
I nodded. “Wish I could tell you it gets easier, Sylvia. But it’s like caking polish on rust.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Over the next hour, I gently squeezed whatever facts I could from Sylvia before her well of normalcy ran dry. In its place were muttered words and stifled tears.
Sylvia excused herself and passed by the cobwebbed desk that greeted clients in my waiting room. She pulled her fur coat off the key hanger corkboard that clung to the wall. I decided right then to invest in both a secretary and a coat rack. Sylvia left my office like a sorrowful wisp. I was off to the docks to bring her justice.
— ♦♦♦ —
I swung my blunt gray, modified T-150 Teardrop into the parking lot of MacLeod’s shipping warehouse. The whitewall tires spit out streams of gravel from beneath sweeping fenders. The V16 beast rumbled to sleep and I stepped out into the dank evening ether. Kraus was gone, sleeping the night in cold storage. A streetlamp blared onto the masking tape outline that crudely recorded his twisted form on splintered planks.
Behind the warehouse, a towering vessel steamed up the Silver River. The night sky was clear, revealing the hungry cosmos at our doorstep. Lunar light reflected off the Saturn Building, which stood like a lord over all other structures in the Silver City skyline. A tilted ring encircled the seamless skyscraper near its pointed pinnacle. It looked ready to puncture the blood red, harvest moon.
I sensed my attacker approaching the instant I strayed from the incandescent streetlight. He was an opaque mist in the corner of my eye, lurking in the murky depths of the warehouse lot. His violent intentions carved through the stillness of the night. I ground my teeth. He grew close; my muscles tensed into quartz.
He brandished a wobbling, diamond-sheathed switchblade. His clawed fingers reached up for my sleeve. He was spectral white, a beacon of danger in the dark. I let him get so close you could barely slide a napkin through the gap.
He warbled “Gimme money!” and pounced. I spun around and chopped the inside of his wrist with my forearm. The knife tumbled from his grasp. I grabbed his throat and lifted him off the ground. He was compact, shorter than the average fourth grader. He swam in a crookedly buttoned Hawaiian shirt. I got a good look at his face and gasped. “What the hell? A spork?!”
Spork – an unnatural blend of spoon and fork. The silverware drawer wasn’t supposed to mix, at least to puritans scared of the ambiguous new utensils that would result. I had seen sporks before, but not often. The stigma left many poor souls wandering the edge of society. They had to scrape out a living – or stab it, in this case.
The spork’s eyes – one crooked and several times more dilated than the other – grew wide. “I’m sorry! I thought you was a pushover!”
I tightened my grip on his collar. “Who are you?!”
“It’s Johnny,” he said like I recognized him.
“Do you know anything about the murder that happened here last night?” I growled.
“I didn’t do it!” he pleaded. “But I saw it! A fork did it!”
“Oh, really? Any other witnesses that can corroborate that?”
Johnny began to shake. “No! Just me and the fish.”
“The fish?” I thought Johnny had tossed away his last marble. Then something opposite the murder scene lassoed my attention.
I dropped the spork to the ground. Johnny had tried to rob me at knifepoint; Kraus’ death didn’t fit his M.O. “Scram, kid,” I urged. “I’ll be watching you.” He practically cried thanks and scrambled back into the night. I kicked his weapon and it spun over the dock into the Silver River.
The “fish” that Johnny mentioned was actually a whale. It was the size of a trout and composed of painted tin. It sat within the display window of Maritime Bank, enjoying a wide view of the docks that brought sailors in to cash their paychecks. I noticed a moonlit glint in the creature’s smiling mouth and leaned in for a closer look. A camera lens rested on the beast’s tongue. I pressed my prongs against the glass and detected a faint whir and a click from within. Had Moby Dick, Jr. witnessed the homicide?
— ♦♦♦ —
“Detective Fork, you might have something quite exciting captured in these photos. Well worth you thundering down my door in the middle of the night.” Ralph Bullion managed his darkroom with the same calculated precision as his bank. He carefully counted the seconds the latest print remained in its chemical bath. When time was up, he retrieved the print with glimmering, non-sentient tongs. Ralph flicked off the fixer. Then he snapped the paper like a crisp dollar bill into a shallow bin of the freshest Silver City tap water.
I crossed my arms and shifted my handle against the counter I had been leaning against for more than an hour. “How does a salty dog bank afford a security camera? I’ve never seen such a thing.”
Ralph smirked back at me. The haunting red glow of the room reflected off his goggles like a Martian sunset. “That’s the irony of the situation. MacTech.”
“Oh. That is interesting.” My crime senses hummed like a tuning fork.
Ralph turned back to his bins and steadily tapped them with the fingertips of his rubber gloves. “Professional-grade still camera feeds to a movie camera reel. Electric button-pusher clicks the shutter every 15 seconds. Chances are if there’s a break-in, you’ll see something. Although the most exciting thing that usually happens is that spork buying dope.”
“Sounds like a lot of effort for little return. You turned your own office into a darkroom?”
“It’s a pilot program. MacTech pays us to implement it. They hope one day to move from stills to some type of film. Of course, now…” Ralph nodded his quartet of prongs, counting out the seconds while he talked. “I hope the program continues. Always wanted to work with film. But father insisted the family business was for me.” He snorted and flung another print into the water. I think his timing was off.
Ralph plucked a photo from the water, shook it and clipped it to a clothesline strung across the room. “You do realize we’re rushing a bit. These prints won’t be optimal.”
“I’m not looking for a gallery showing, Ralph.” I stepped closer and squinted at the print in the auburn light.
Ralph rubbed a glove against his chemical-spattered smock. “I believe this is the sequence you want.”
Kraus Macaroni stood frozen under the streetlight in the ghostly image, captured in the fleeting last moments of his life. I wondered if his soul had taken refuge in the photo. His eyes darted left, his brow furrowed. To his right was a hazy blur, lurking in the darkness.
“What is that? His assailant?”
“It’s out of focus. Must have moved,” said Ralph. “But I think the next photo shows something.”
I pointed to the water tank, but couldn’t take my eyes off Macaroni. Such a thin veil separated us from the great dishwasher in the sky. Maybe only 15 seconds in this case. “Let’s see the next photo.”
“But it’s not ready,” Ralph protested.
“Flip it now, Ralph!”
“Alright, alright!” The bank manager snatched the print with his tongs, snapped the water against the wall and clipped it next to the previous photo on the line. I leaned in closer, focusing through the dusky red light.
The camera perfectly captured Kraus’ demise. The rifle blast had snapped his head aside like a broken lollipop, steel shavings raining across the air. His face was twisted into the same grimace I had seen on the dock planks. The photo fully revealed Macaroni’s assailant, gun lifted pointblank at Kraus.
He was a fork like Johnny said. Three prongs. He wore a white fedora, a Queen of Hearts playing card slipped into the onyx band. His matching trench coat swung around him. He fired the rifle with hands clasped in black, fingerless gloves.
The assassin’s coat was a Basingstoke. The triangular storm flap encased the fork’s shoulders like a knight’s pauldrons. Its sharp lapels lashed out like ferocious claws, highlighted with stark black piping. I knew the style well. I had three in my closet.
The clothes weren’t the only thing familiar about the killer. His eyes reflected back the hate that once overcame me whenever I thought of my brother’s fate.
Ralph stepped away, brandishing the tongs. “It’s you, Detective. Oh, god…”
“It can’t be me,” I whispered. “It can’t be.”
A tornado of shouts and commotion slammed into the bank lobby. It plowed into the nearest wall and barreled down the door. Office lightning seared into me like an electric sword. Untreated prints sizzled like fried eggs. Chief Slice burst into the darkroom, pistol raised at the brim of my hat. Two officers, a dual-tined snail fork and a churchkey bottle opener, hovered behind him.
“Point toward God!” the Chief ordered. I slowly raised my arms. Slice swung inward and promptly yanked my revolver from the leather holster that hung over my vest. It felt like he had ripped off a limb. “Detective,” he stated, “we need to talk.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The bottle opener – Officer Kapak, I vaguely recalled – pulled a rifle from the trunk of my car. “The tip was right, Chief. This could have fired the bullet that killed Macaroni.”
I strained against the handcuffs. “That’s impossible!”
Slice pulled down his cap. He couldn’t look me in the eyes. Instead he stared at the damning photograph in his hands. “You’ll be treated fairly, Fork. I promise.” Before I could argue, he swiped a thumb toward the other officer.
The fork, Slimak according to his nametag, jittered when he approached me. “If you could please, Sir…”
“Don’t sweat it, officer. You’ll rust.” I brushed past him and marched toward the waiting black-and-white. Slimak opened the door like a chauffeur and I dropped into the back seat. He lightly closed me in. I noticed Johnny watching me from retreating shadows while dawn broke over the city.
— ♦♦♦ —
Silver City blocks blurred past the squad car window. Paperboys flung Sentinels like grenades at downtown brownstones. Fish vendors laid the freshest catch on newly delivered ice. The city started its average day, a flickering motion picture that played while my freedom slipped away.
I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up the photo. My grainy, monochrome duplicate grinned back at me with murderous fury. Many dessert forks looked alike, but few had my style. I started to compile a mental list of menswear shops he might have visited. But his eyes – they weren’t off the rack. They were unique, just like the ones that judged me in the mirror each morning.
The squad car pulled around 1st Precinct station, a brick fortress that could hold back a squadron of hammers. Slimak led me toward the secure rear entrance, away from the parasitic press that hung to the station’s street-side veranda like leeches on the belly of a gator.
We entered the narrow back hallway and fleetingly passed the detectives’ bullpen, my old home base. Frozen glances and harsh whispers greeted my arrival. “Blamed Macaroni for his brother’s death… coldblooded revenge… disgrace…”
Slimak guided me into the holding pen, two opposing jail cells slopped with white paint just like the walls around them. “You’ll need to stay in here a little while until the detectives can talk to you, uh, detective.”
“And then I’ll be right back here,” I told the buzzing light fixture on the ceiling.
The officer said nothing and nudged me toward the cell on our right. I stood there like Everest. “Hey, do you mind if I go in the other cell? Always preferred the view.”
Slimak seemed to consider 50 different questions. I just cracked a smile. “Uh, sure, detective,” he finally acquiesced. “That’s fine.”
Office Slimak slid back the bars and unfastened my cuffs. I glided into the cramped cell. He quietly secured the door and nodded briskly. Then he left me alone in the bright, barren room. I grasped the bars and pressed my hat between them, the clammy iron barrier nearly fogging my face.
“Bobby,” I said after a quiet interval, “I think I’m in real trouble here.” He was a vague shade in my peripheral vision, lounging on the bench in the opposite cell. Hints of his shredded neck assaulted me; his head crooked unnaturally toward his shoulder. His suit was tattered and worm-eaten. I tried to focus on the grated floor.
“However it happened, brother, it’s tasty revenge.” He smiled, revealing blood-stained teeth.
“They think I did it. Looks the hell like I did. But I couldn’t have.” I tried to unravel my yarn ball of memories.
“Where were you that night?” Bobby asked. “Working as usual?”
“Of course,” I admitted. “I was at my desk, alone. Not sure until what time…” I pressed a palm into my eyes.
“You have no alibi,” Bobby said. “Can’t even exonerate yourself.”
I tried to find focus in the stark white bars. Was it two nights ago that I was at my desk? Or was it the night before that? The days bled into a menagerie of sameness.
Bobby leaned forward. The whites of his sunken eyes blazed as brilliantly as the sun. “I think maybe it was you, brother. And I love you for it.”
The still image of Macaroni’s death flashed across my mind once again. But this time I saw it from within. My finger pulled the rifle’s trigger. My own savage eyes witnessed the glorious explosion of molten blood.
I couldn’t hold back a grin. I yanked it back into a frown with my fingertips.
“You see it now, don’t you?” Bobby whispered. “You blocked it out, but it all came back around. You finally did what you’ve longed to do. What needed to be done.”
For the briefest time, I believed him. But there was glee in his voice. “This isn’t you, Bobby.”
Bobby sat back and shrugged. His expression curled back into vacancy. “It’s how you left me.”
I felt the fog begin to recede. “I am not a killer, Bobby. Someone’s setting me up, and I’m going to find them.” I shook the cell door and the lock raged back at me. “But I can’t do it from this icebox.”
I stood back and examined the bars. The brotherhood of police was folded a thousand times into my steel. But I wasn’t about to entrust them with my liberty when the only solid evidence was stacked against me like a teetering pile of lumber. I needed to use my head, and I meant that literally. I didn’t ask Slimak for that cell out of whimsy. I had discovered its defect during my days on the force, one that command had been too cheap to fix. I hoped their claws remained clenched on the checkbook.
I lifted off my fedora and tossed it on the bunk. The gap between the bars and the cell door padlock could barely fit a signed confession. I twisted my head and slipped it into the space as far as it would go. I sucked in a mouthful of stale jail oxygen. Then I slammed my prongs down into the lock. The bolt, a sliver too short for its strike plate, blasted backward. With a decisive click, the cell door snapped open.
My skull vibrated like the bells of Silver City Cathedral. Freshly torn scrapes on my prongs cursed my name like shipwrecked sailors. I stuffed my hat back on to silence them.
The opposite cell was empty. My brain sparkled; my adrenaline cannon-fired. I wasn’t going back in that cell and I wasn’t sticking around for martinis.
I stamped out of lock-up and into the outer hallway like I owned the deed to the building. Silver City’s finest buzzed about their business a few short feet away. Officer Kapak loomed over the nearest desk, his giant tooth gnawing absently on a tin of sardines. One glance up from his typewriter and I’d be toast for his pilchards. There was no parading through the station. I ducked further down the slim hallway, where rickety wooden chairs offered little comfort to crying moms posting bail. They sat empty. Aside from me, it’d been a slow day.
Kapak coughed and got up from his desk, nearly stirring an earthquake. “Gotta take a shake break,” he mumbled.
The nearest bathrooms were just behind me, outside lock-up. The hallway boxed me in like a panther in a lunch pail. Kapak lurched closer to the doorway, rumbling the tiled floor. My only escape was the dead-end path toward the waiting area.
Behind the chairs, the open city lured me through a bay window that read “POLICE” in backwards letters. I dashed toward it, handle pumping like an industrial piston. I threw my forearms over my face and dove toward the window. It hung there like a gently swaying lake.
Glass exploded over me and screamed. It shattered into a galaxy of shards. I somersaulted out onto the sidewalk. Thousands of clear daggers spilled around me, a cloud of fierce, biting snowflakes. I hopped up and peered through the jagged hole. Kapak’s eyes bulged at me from the dimness of the station. His reaction hung mid-air, a wrecking ball about to smash a blissful tenement. I needed every second I had.
I barged around the corner, the quickest route toward Fremont Avenue where taxicabs swarmed like bees. The cops would spill out like fighter planes in a moment, but I’d be gone. I ducked across an alley and raced behind the Silver City Library. I needed to put at least one block behind me.
I was almost there. Just a few more yards past the library’s marble columns and I’ve arrive at the blessed street. That’s when I ran straight into Chief Slice.
He was smoking a cigar, aimlessly contemplating the universe and probably what to do with me. The imprisoned me; he didn’t expect to see my frenzied face out in the wild. Slice pulled his gun in a seamless motion and spit his cigar onto the broken blacktop. “Fork, what the hell?!”
“I didn’t plug him, Chief! You know that!”
I could see the fact of my escape dawning on his face. Slice’s eyes went feral and his grip stiffened on his pistol. “I don’t know that. Your brother…”
“Then I don’t care what you believe,” I hissed. “Shoot me if you’re so compelled, because I ain’t going back in there. Not until I find who set me up.”
“That’s our job,” Slice argued.
“No, your job right now is to arrest me and sink my ship for good. Do it, I don’t care. But not until I end this.” I brushed by Slice, feeling the potential bullet plunging into my head with every step.
Inharmonious yells crept closer from the police station. “Dammit,” Slice spat, lowering his gun. “I’ll push ‘em in the other direction, but you’ve got a couple of hours, max. Then I lay down the dragnet.”
I nodded at Slice. The brotherhood we shared was higher than the law we upheld. He knew me better than I did. I held onto that confidence and sprinted toward a yellow taxi parked in front of the library. The driver set down his coffee and grasped the wheel.
“Bleaker Street, third block,” I ordered. “Drive like your tailpipe’s on fire.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I wrested open the window and swung from the fire escape into my office. I probably had minutes before cops staked out my building. I yanked open my desk’s bottom drawer, opened the chocolate box within and pulled out the revolver. I dropped the gun into my empty holster and strode into the waiting room. I snatched my motorbike keys, then stood back and observed the pegboard closely. It confirmed the disturbing thought that had been prickling the back of mind.
I raced back down the fire escape into the alley and unlocked my garage bay door. The olive frame and chalk white tires of my motorbike anxiously greeted me inside. The slight hint of oil in the stale air tickled my nostrils. I dropped my fedora in the saddlebag and pulled an oblong helmet over my prongs. Even if they recognized me, they’d have to catch me.
The Army-issue bike howled to life and I thundered out onto the Silver City streets. I swerved through traffic lines, watching morning commuters blur past. A squad car rushed by two intersections ahead, probably on the way to my rickety house in Sheffield. No matter; I was heading to the rich part of town.
City blocks relaxed into rustling trees as I tore into Platinum Heights. I’d been down this street before, driven methodically by the Victorian estate at the end of the cul-de-sac. Many times, back then, I had thought about stepping onto the covered porch and slamming my fist into the heavy oak door. Whether I threatened, punched or shot the person who answered was a matter of pure fantasy. Today, though, I was finding another way into Kraus Macaroni’s house.
I settled the bike into a quiet crawl and parked it several doors down from the Victorian. I pulled my hat on but carried the helmet under my arm while I walked. This street was always quiet, the residents who were present buried deep in their labyrinthine mansions.
I tossed my helmet onto the manicured grass of the Macaroni estate and vaulted over the sharpened fence. There were no housekeepers milling about, no mourners. The house was draped in the purgatory left by recent death.
The driveway was empty but a cherry red Model J about the length of a blue whale hibernated in the garage. I glided around the mansion and peeked in the corners of window frames. The delicately decorated downstairs looked like an uninhabited dollhouse.
I jostled the back door and the lock resisted. So I fitted the motorcycle helmet over my fist and punched in the glass. Why not sprinkle a little breaking-and-entering over my already boiling crime stew? I gently rested the helmet against the porch siding and let myself in.
Enormous framed prints of Sylvia surrounded the gilded sitting room. Gauzy lightning framed stills of her most famous characters – Cleopatra, Delilah, Helen and Belle Starr.
Bedrooms hold our darkest secrets. The winding stairs creaked gently while I journeyed upstairs to the lavish master suite. All I could hear was the maddening drip of water in an antiquated sink, somewhere further down the hall. I slid through the master suite’s slightly open door.
No one drowsed behind the bed’s lace curtains, delicate as a spider’s web. I pulled open the suite’s dual closet doors and rifled through a tightly packed row of outfits. Party dresses, ballroom gowns, bright spring numbers and even a few smart suits. But I saw no trench coat that matched my own.
A dressing table occupied most of a wall, its mirror frame a golden arch that reached for the ceiling. I sat on the bench, the plush cushion seemingly robbed from a sultan’s palace. The drawers held enough cosmetics to doll up the Union Army. I slid aside a silver tray that sat atop the table. Underneath was a manila folder. I ground my teeth when I saw what was inside – divorce papers, signed by Kraus.
I glanced up and saw myself in the mirror – standing in the bedroom doorway, pistol drawn, scowl on my face as savage as when I gunned down Kraus Macaroni. My double was damned convincing even when spotted outside the confines of a black-and-white photo. I leaned over on the bench and crossed my arms, gently nudging a hand toward my gun holster.
“Feels like I’m looking in a mirror,” I told my double’s reflection. The other Detective Fork pressed the door closed behind him and floated forward like a specter. His gun pointed steadily at my back; his expression never changed.
“You’re the only one actually here,” he said in a voice that sounded like me with a head cold. “You are one crazy piece of flatware.”
I grinned and tightened the grip on my gun. “Just might be. Many forks can pass for one another, but you and I share a spot on the mold. So what should we do? Call up P.T. Barnum?”
“No,” he said, “only one walks out.” He fired the gun and shattered the mirror. But he was a sliver of a second too late. I had already rolled to the side, pulled out my gun and aimed it straight between my doppelgänger’s eyebrows.
The other fork glanced over, gun still pointed shakily at the mirror. “Who do you really think is the better shot?!” I growled. “Move that god-damn gun an inch and you’re dead! Lose it!” The other Fork opened his fingers and the pistol fell to the hardwood floor.
I lunged for my double, grabbed him by the throat and body-slammed him onto the bed. He clawed at my hand pressing down on his neck. I tossed my gun onto the frilly pillows. With my free hand, I grabbed his face and tore the flesh away from his head. The hat was part of his rubbery forehead. His bugged eyes and glistening cheeks stretched and ripped like I was gutting a bass.
Underneath the tattered remnants of the mask, Sylvia Macaroni gasped at me, her expression a whirlpool of fear and anger. “Why, Sylvia?!” I snapped, easing my grip so she could talk. She weakly slammed her fists into my arm.
“Everyone knew you hated Kraus!” she choked. “They were just waiting for you to snap!”
I clamped a pair of handcuffs across one of her wrists and latched the other half to the bedframe. I released Sylvia and she rolled away from me, sucking the air. Her hair fell in a sweaty clump across her face. She yanked at the bedframe, the handcuffs clattering.
“You swiped my extra car keys, planted the gun. But how did you create that mask?”
She beamed up at me. “Experimental rubber by MacTech. The rest was an amazing performance for our security camera. Did you like the part I wrote for you?”
My steel felt like it was about to go molten. “Why did you kill him Sylvia? That was… barbaric.”
“He was going to leave me!” she rasped. “Cut me off!”
“Kill him and you get it all; don’t have to settle for half. You did this over money?”
She strained against the cuffs and reached for my coat. I swatted her away. “I wanted to create my own studio. Star in pictures again. He wouldn’t allow it!”
I turned toward the nightstand and picked up the phone’s receiver. “You never gave up on acting…”
“No one wanted me!” she cried. “Said I’m too old. I’m no good for talkies. They’re wrong! I was going to prove it!”
She sobbed behind me and punched the mattress. I glanced over at the bullet hole in the mirror. “Well, Sylvia, you excelled in one final role. I’ll give you that.” I dialed the police station. As far as I knew, both of us were getting tossed in the back of that black-and-white.
— ♦♦♦ —
The covered porch of the Macaroni estate cast nebulous shadows down Chief Slice’s blade. I could barely see his scowl, but I felt it. I bowed my head and lifted my wrists. I’d gladly take a rap for busting out of that cell. But I’d be forked if I was going down for cold-blooded murder.
Slice spun my hands away. “I don’t know what to say, Fork. Your little passion play made us look like idiots. You could have shared your suspicions.”
I meditated on the swaying front yard ferns. “Sylvia stacked the deck with jokers, Chief. I had to bet on something else.”
“You only really trust yourself. That why you broke off from SCPD in the first place,” he pointed out.
“Chief, I’m not sure I trust anyone. She almost had me believing I killed Kraus.”
“I knew you didn’t,” the Chief stated. “Deep down, I knew.”
I smiled and jabbed a cigarette between my teeth. “Good to have the king of cops in my corner. Does that mean I can walk?” I waved a lit match toward my cigarette.
Slice frowned. “Yeah, she confessed. So get the smelting hell out of here. You have no idea how much paperwork you caused me.”
“Have a rookie type it,” I suggested. Before he could respond, Slimak and Kapak marched through the door with Sylvia handcuffed between them.
“Amateurs,” she snarked at the officers. “You didn’t even take Fork’s gun when you arrested him.”
“Sure they did,” I assured her. I pulled my pistol from its holder and aimed it at Sylvia. Slice shuddered. I pulled the trigger and a jet of ice-cold water blasted the sleeve of her coat. “Cool off, Sylvia. It’s all I had in my office on short notice.”
She registered the deception and raged against the officers. They braced her from crashing into me. “Your brother was shiftless trash, Fork! He did the world a favor by swinging from a chain!”
I puffed out a dark cloud of smoke. “Sylvia, what’s amusing about all of this is that Kraus changed his will before you killed him. Even if I took the fall, you wouldn’t have gotten a quarter.”
“What?” Her teeth ground together like the gears of a clock. “He couldn’t have!”
“That’s right, baby,” I assured her. “You were a broke has-been no matter which path you chose.”
“I will blast your face off!” she screamed. “I will find a way! I will get out and scatter your steel all over the city docks just like Kraus!”
“Get her out of here,” Slice ordered, waving at the police car parked in the driveway. The officers wrangled the shrieking murderess off the porch.
Slice peered at me from under his cap. “Is that true about the will?”
I flicked away some embers and shrugged. “I have no idea.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Another Silver City night blanketed the streets of Grindstone Heights. The ghostly glow of streetlamps peeked through the blinds in my office. A bottle of turpentine whiskey bled out into my coffee cup. I took a sip and squinted into the purple shadows across the room. “Are you there, Bobby?”
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was finally at rest. A prickly thought – that Sylvia had done me a favor – seared my subconscious. I winced and took a deep swallow of liquid spirit to chase away the phantoms.
I pulled an eight-by-ten out of my desk drawer. The frame was cheap tin mottled by time. But the contents were more precious than platinum. I ran a finger over the frame, let the image fill my mind: Bobby and I when we were boys, all smiles, arms around each other. Pausing for the camera before running off to enjoy another game of stickball in a summer that seemed eternal.
Briefly I thought of Kraus, how Bobby had pleaded with him for financial help when he was struggling. Kraus has seen it as a sign of weakness, an intrinsic character flaw. Bobby’s fate coalesced at that moment.
A copy of Kraus’ murder picture rested under my desk lamp. I stuffed in into a folder and tried to bury the anger in my filing cabinet. There was no longer any point in malice. It was just me now, alone at my desk with memories captured on fading photo paper.
Murder – straightforward or indirect – all we’re left with are the shades of its victims.