Story by Mark A. Nobles
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
The sunlight slinked through the window blinds and into the office quietly and uninvited. Major Broiles lay passed out on the couch. Muffled, low toned snores passed through his lips on each lazy exhale. His clothes were wrinkled, spotted in cigarette ash and wreaked of whiskey. When he woke, he would be hungover as hell, which meant today would start off pretty much like any other day.
At least this afternoon the Major would wake up in his own home, or rather, his own office. He had skipped the rent on his apartment months ago and had been sleeping in his office and dodging the landlord, not because the Major owed him money, he didn’t, at least not for this month, but the landlord didn’t like tenants sleeping in the offices. It was “low rent,” he said and “you don’t crap where you eat.”
I know… The ‘crap where you eat’ one makes no sense, especially considering in this paper mache building only the cockroaches outnumber the rats and the Hyde Park address made Skid Row look like Beverly Hills. It wasn’t exactly high toned real estate.
The rent is cheap and the other tenants, a few divorce attorneys with questionable law licenses, accountants with no qualms about juggling your books, and private dicks, keep to themselves. As long as he doesn’t catch you sleeping in your office, the Midwestern transplant landlord just counts his cash and looks the other way.
Major David Broiles was an erstwhile motion picture producer turned drunkard. His birth name was Alan Weaver but when he came to California over 40 years ago, like everyone else, he changed his name. Alan Weaver became Ned Levine but his Texas drawl did not quite fit the moniker so he changed it to Charles Omer. Omer had to change when the Renfield scandal broke and he had to lay low for a bit. He was back, six months later as Major Broiles, head of Miracle Films.
In the picture business you can introduce yourself to the same person, three times with three different names at the same cocktail party. Since no one is who they say they are, it doesn’t matter who you say you are. You can be Archibald Leach one day and Cary Grant the next and no one bats an eye.
Suddenly, there came a rapping, more than a gentle tapping on the Major’s office door. Startled from his blackout, the Major jumped and snorted. Regaining his bearings he looked towards his door. The silhouette of the Snowman, a short, round, Deep South transplant from two doors down shone through the frosted glass. His name was Williams or Williamson, and he cooked books for several small time hoods. The Major never bothered to commit to memory other tenant’s actual names. Instead he gave them various nicknames mostly based on physical appearance. The Snowman had moved to California twenty years ago because he found the climate in Atlanta bad for his health. It seems being gay in Georgia was a disease and the prescription down there was regular, steady beatings.
The Major drew a deep breath and rose from the couch. The Snowman rapped three more times on the glass and impatiently shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other. “Simmer down. I’m coming, for Christ’s sake,” mumbled the Major. The words came broken and cracked. The Major coughed and hacked up a wad of phlegm the size of a ping-pong ball. With nowhere to spit, he swallowed. He opened the door without looking at or addressing the Snowman, he simply about faced and returned to the couch.
“Well good afternoon to you too, Major,” snipped Snowman.
“What do you want?” said the Major, as he slowly rubbed his eyes and face. “I’m busy.”
“Oh, I can see how busy you are,” said Snowman. He stood firmly in the doorway. His southern sensibilities did not allow for entering a room uninvited. “Another late night meeting at some major studio?”
“Just state your business and leave me to mine.”
“I am merely an errand boy for Mr. McGee.” The Snowman always held the ‘e’ way too long in McGee. He stood silently, holding an envelope.
“Hand it over and good day,” said the Major.
The Snowman walked into the room like he was entering a dark, dangerous back alley. Stopping in front of the Major, he gingerly held out the envelope. The Major had his head in his hands, still attempting to shake the concrete cobwebs from his brain. After a few seconds it became evident that the Major was not going to reach for the letter. He awkwardly dropped it on the couch.
“Well,” the Snowman said. “I suppose you are welcome,” and with that pronouncement, he turned and left, leaving the door open.
The Major cleared his throat once again, swallowed and looked around the room. “Jesus, man, were you raised in a barn?” He rose and closed the door. Walking back to his desk he spied the letter on the couch. Seeing it as if for the first time, he turned, took the two steps out of his way to retrieve it, grunted when he reached down, and continued to his desk.
He shuffled the rejection letters and unopened, returned manuscripts on his desk until he found his sterling letter opener. Opening the envelope with surgical precision, he removed the letter. Reading McGee’s scribbled cursive was challenging on a good day. Focusing with tequila blurred eyes was a massive chore.
“Godamighty,” he exhaled.
After a herculean effort to squint and focus, the Major read the letter:
“Asshole, meet me at 140 W. Myrrh at 5pm. There’s half a yard in it for you if you are anywhere near on time. You know the drill.”
The Major glanced at the clock on the wall. He was amazed the second hand was still turning, as he couldn’t remember the last time the clock had been wound. It was already ten after four. No way he could make it to Compton in 50 minutes. He crumpled up the letter and tossed in in the bucket.
His stomach rumbled. He looked at the desk calendar; it was ten days before rent was due. He reached in his jacket and took out his wallet. Moths didn’t fly out but they would have if life worked like the cartoons.
The Major reached down into the bucket and retrieved the letter. He read it again then stuffed it, along with his wallet, into his coat pocket. He muttered a word not fit for print and headed out the door.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Major occasionally did low level surveillance work for McGee, which mainly consisted of standing in alleys or sitting in coffee shops or diners with a picture of some wayward husband or crooked business partner and waiting endlessly for them to go in or come out of some building. Tailing a suspect was rarely, if ever, part of the job. McGee made it clear he did not trust the Major for such highly skilled gumshoe work. The Major usually stood or sat until either McGee returned or the suspect came or went, at which time the Major would hoof it to the nearest pay phone and drop a dime to McGee.
Shin McGee was the odd duck of the Major’s building. He seemed to be doing pretty well for himself and kept an office in Hyde Park because he chose to, not out of economic necessity like the Major, Snowman and the other schmo tenants.
After stopping at the liquor store for a bottle of breakfast, the Major walked fifteen blocks and hopped a bus, then trudged that last three blocks over to Myrrh. The Major was late. McGee did not seem surprised.
“Jeezus, Maj, can’t you ever show up on time?” said McGee.
“Get a more reliable errand boy next time. That fay didn’t give me the info in time to make it any sooner than I did,” replied the Major.
“Whatever, Maj. As far as you’re concerned we’re all just turds floatin’ in your bowl, ain’t we. Sure as shit ain’t nuthin’ ever your fault.” McGee struck a match, lit a Camel and tossed the burnt stick to the pavement before turning his back to the Major to resume his vigil. There were nigh on fifteen Camel butts and sixteen half burnt match sticks littering the pavement.
“Try not to screw me over on this one,” said McGee. “It’s worth a lotta dough. Industrial espionage. The fellas that hired me said they were from a company called Fantastic Chemco but they looked like government types if you asked me. Except for one egghead,” McGee took a deep draw on the Camel. “Boy, was he a fidgety bastard. Looked like he was the guest of honor at a hanging.”
“Maybe I should hold out for more than fifty,” said the Major.
“Easy there, Maj. If I increase my take, there might be a bonus in it for you. Minus your tardiness.” McGee reached into his overcoat and withdrew a small notebook and pen. “Write down a description of everyone that goes in and out of that building. Everyone.” When the Major did not reach for the notebook, McGee slapped it to his chest.
“I know,” said the Major as he took the notebook.
“Sure you do,” replied McGee. Turning away from the Major and facing the building, McGee continued. “Third story, fourth and fifth windows from the left. Shades are up now and there hasn’t been much activity. There is a picture in the notebook, it is a few years old but he looks pretty much the same.” McGee paused and turned to the Major. “You taking all this in?”
The Major grunted.
“This Jasper’s been dormy for the last two nights. Call me if he vacates. There’s a phone at the south end of the block in front of the bodega. Otherwise, I’ll be back at 2am. Are you good for that long?”
Another grunt from the Major.
“I’ll take that as affirmative,” and with that McGee proceeded down the alley.
“Just one thing,” said the Major. McGee, four steps away, turned and faced the Major. “Is this cat dangerous?”
McGee sighed. “Doubt it,” he said. “He’s just some test tube jockey at Fantastic. They think he’s stolen some secret formula. Probably laundry detergent that makes whiter whites or your dishes sparkle. Some shit like that. Strictly white collar crime, Maj. No rough stuff.” McGee stood silent for another beat or two.
When it was apparent the Major had nothing more, McGee exited out the back of the alley, leaving the Major standing alone. The traffic along Myrrh was light and sporadic, both pedestrian and auto. No one moved past the window in the apartment for a solid two hours.
At ten after 9pm, approximately fifteen minutes after sundown, the suspect walked to each window and pulled the shades. The Major got a good look at him. He matched the photo close enough. Slight build, clean-shaven, flat top haircut, basically, he made ordinary look stunning.
By 11pm the alley rats began to scurry behind the Major and the streets were completely empty. Only three people had entered the building on the Major’s watch. Two women and one man. They all had keys; no one had to be buzzed up and no one had exited.
The Major began to fidget. He had neglected to bring a flask or buy an extra bottle at the package store. Without a few pulls of whiskey, the tremors would begin to set in soon.
Sudden movement caught his eyes as the suspect walked in front of the left window shade. His gait was jerky and when only half in the frame he collapsed and fell. The Major stood straighter. The shades on both windows shook. Apparently the suspect was rolling violently on the floor, hitting the wall periodically. The subject was down, out of frame for a full fifteen seconds, then, a second figure, much larger than the suspect, rose from the floor and passed, unsteadily, by the right window shade.
“What the hell…” thought the Major.
This unexpected action brought the tremors on full force. The Major cursed. He knew the location of most every liquor store in LA but had no mental map of Compton. While he contemplated leaving his post in search of a bar or package store, the hulking figure passed, from right to left, by both window shades, a few seconds later the lights in the apartment went dark.
The Major was now in a pickle.
As he feared, a hulking man, now wearing a buttoned up overcoat with the collar turned up, and a black fedora pulled down covering his eyes, quickly lumbered out the entrance of the apartment building. The Major had no way to be certain, but he felt to his quick, it was the same man who had somehow taken down the suspect in the apartment.
The Major didn’t dare follow the man but waited until he turned left off Myrrh and headed north on South Mayo. The Major quickly, well, as quickly as his whisky shakes legs allowed, scrambled down the block to the phone booth. He dropped a dime, and called McGee. The phone rang eight times before McGee picked up.
“Hello.” McGee sounded drowsy.
“Shins, you’re going to be pissed at me.” The Major tried to contain his excitement and camouflage the alky tremors in his voice.
On the phone, McGee sighed heavily. The Major could almost hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line. “What the hell did you do now?”
“Nothing. That’s the problem. I don’t really know what to do.”
“We’ve discussed this before, Maj. Just give me the facts.” McGee had been soundly sleeping when his phone rang. He was standing, barefoot, in his office, wearing only slacks and sleeveless undershirt, holding the phone in one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other.
“I was watching the apartment, no one came in or out of the building. The subject drew the shades around sundown. About five minutes ago he was attacked…”
McGee interrupted, “Attacked? What the deuce, I thought you said he was alone, no one in or out.”
“That’s my point, McGee, I’m telling you the facts but the facts don’t add up. He was alone, as far as I could tell. Suddenly, right in front of the window, he went down. The shades got knocked around like there was some sort of struggle, and then another gink got up and walked past the other window. No sign of the subject since.”
“If the shades were drawn, how do you know there was a second guy? Did you see them both together?” inquired McGee.
“I didn’t, but no way to mistake the two. The second guy is twice as big, easy.” There was silence on the line as the Major waited for McGee to reply.
“Let me get the picture,” McGee tried to shake the cobwebs out of his head and repeat what the Major had told him. “Some big galoot got into the apartment, you don’t have any idea how, and attacked the subject.”
“And then he left,” added the Major.
McGee had been getting dressed as he spoke with the Major; he was slipping on his suit jacket as he heard this last bit of the story. “The hell, you say!” He shouted.
The Major winced and pulled the phone away from his ear.
“I don’t suppose he left, dragging a rolled up rug or maybe a big ass bag of laundry?” McGee was still shouting.
”No, you dope, he wasn’t dragging out a body. He just left,” said the Major. “He was wearing a flogger and brimmed hat pulled low. I couldn’t get a good look at his face. He faded east on Myrrh and turned north on Mayo. Then, I walked straight down and called you.” The Major heard the dial tone in his ear. He hung up the phone and left the booth. McGee was on his way.
McGee arrived and he was pissed. “So, exactly where is the subject?” he demanded.
“Still in the apartment… I guess,” replied the Major.
“I guess is not an answer. You’re supposed to know, Maj.” McGee looked close to rage.
“I saw him in the window frame. He fell. The big guy got up but the subject never did.” The Major was reciting facts, like he was supposed to, the alky tremors were making it harder and harder for to him to concentrate.
McGee looked up and down Myyrh. He looked razor sharp but mad as a hornet. “And you say the big guy left the building.”
“Yes, like I say, I never got a good look at his face but I’m pretty sure he left and headed north up Mayo.” The Major pointed in the direction the big fellow headed.
“I guess and pretty sure don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, Maj.”
The Major tried to shrug his shoulders but with the shakes he looked more like an epileptic stripper trying to shimmy.
“I told you what I saw, straight skinny, Shins,” replied the Major with all the dignity he could manage. “But I can’t see everything from out on the street. You’re asking me to interpret what happened inside the apartment, away from the windows and what I saw was a cluster,” the Major paused. “It could be anything.”
“I suppose,” muttered McGee. “But you’re sure it wasn’t a white elephant that roughed him up?” McGee was looking directly at the Major’s shaking hands.
“Eat a peach, Shin. I’m not bing.”
“Well,” McGee looked up and down the street, then, up to the apartment windows. “What to do. What to do.”
McGee and the Major stood in the mouth of the alley. McGee pondered the predicament and the Major shifted from one foot to the other, fighting the screaming mimi’s.
“Alright,” McGee said, “Just stay here and keep doing what you’re doing. I’m going to try and catch up to the pug.” McGee drew a heavy sigh and looked the Major up and down. “Here,” he said as he reached into his overcoat breast pocket. “Take the edge off.” McGee handed the Major a flask of whiskey.
“Thanks, Shins,” the Major said sheepishly. He took the flask but waited to open it until McGee was well down the sidewalk headed to the corner.
He drained the flask in one tilt, replaced the cap, and turned to stare up at the dark window shades. His instincts told him he was staking out an empty apartment. Considering his present professional and economic situations, however, it could not be said his instincts were all too reliable.
For a solid twenty minutes he stared across the street while leaning against the brick wall in the mouth of the alley. Finally deciding to take action, the Major struck out across the street and headed straight for the apartment building. He walked to the rows of buzzers and raked his hands down two rows, buzzing as many apartments as possible in one swipe.
He stood back and waited. Five seconds later the front door buzzed and the Major grabbed the handle and entered. He was in. He didn’t exactly know what he was going to do but he had decided the subject was dead, dying or gone. While dead or dying were the two most logical assumptions, a gnawing in his belly that wasn’t cheap alcohol eating at the lining kept telling him the subject had somehow left the building and, Shins be damned, he was going to find out.
He climbed the stairs to the subject’s floor and walked down the hallway counting the doors to what he had calculated to be the subject’s apartment. Reaching his destination he knocked three times and waited thirty seconds. No answer. He rapidly knocked three more times just to be sure the apartment was empty.
He reached in his trouser pocket and pulled out a pocketknife, looked up and down the hall, stuck the blade in the door lock and twisted and jimmied. After a moment jigging, the lock gave and the door opened. The Major hurried inside.
The apartment was sparse. A few Ben Franklin Five and Dime knickknacks scattered around on thrift store end and coffee tables. No pictures hung on the walls. Strictly Goodwill furniture and not much of that.
What struck the Major as odd was the lack of personal belongings. No pictures on the desk, no mail lying around, no hat by the door, no coffee cups left by the sink. As the Major moved across the living room and into the bedroom, there was nothing to show a person actually lived in the apartment. The bedroom was just as sterile. The Major rifled through the chest of drawers and found neatly folded underwear, socks, and undershirts. The subject lived tidy and Spartan.
The closet scrambled the Major’s noodle. There were seven pairs of shoes. Four size eight, two brown loafers and two black dress, neatly lined up next to three pair of size twelve shoes, two loafers and one black dress. The rack held seven suits. Four size 38 regular and three size 56 long. It seemed the subject had a rather large roommate.
The Major furrowed his brow and thought, “Why do people furrow their brow when they think?” Then the lights went out.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Major came to in an armchair in the living room. His head thumped a tribal rhythm. He had no idea how long he had been out. His head felt thick, like it was stuffed with soiled laundry. Two men stood on either side of his chair. They were not particularly large or exceptionally tough looking, still, the Major thought it best not to make any sudden movements. A large man in an expensive looking but ill-fitting suit sat uncomfortably on the couch across the room from the Major. A small, pale thin man stood off to the side fidgeting with a white handkerchief.
“Good evening, Mr. Weaver, or, should I more accurately say, considering the time, good morning.” said the large man on the couch. The big man spoke softly. The Major thought his accent was northeastern. Boston, maybe Philly, the Major’s knowledge of northeastern accents was negligible.
“What the hell?” said the Major. He rubbed his temples in an effort to quell the throbbing.
“Jim,” said the big man to one of the mugs standing on either side of the Major, “perhaps our intruder would like a drink.”
The man took a step towards the kitchen. “No, Jim, I doubt Mr. Weaver is in need of water. Perhaps a nip from your flask.” The man reached in his coat pocket and removed a flask and offered it to the Major. The Major accepted, twisted off the cap and tossed it back. He gagged violently. It was gin. The Major hated gin. He squelched the instinct to vomit and choked down the alcohol. His head cleared a little but the rhythm continued to beat at his temples.
“I prefer to be addressed as Major. Only my mom called me Mr. Weaver,” said the Major.
“That is odd, sir,” said the big man, “but since I don’t give a good god damn and I don’t believe our relationship will be given time to mature, I think I’ll just address you however I see fit.”
“Suit yourself,” said the Major.
“Let’s get down to the business at hand, shall we?” said the big man.
The Major shrugged. He was still desperately trying to shake clarity into his head. The gin, despite almost making him vomit, had helped a little. Not as much as a shot of whiskey would have, but it helped. He needed to stall a bit to regain his wits.
“Why are you in Mr. Pavalkis’s apartment?” asked the big man.
“Pava who?” replied the Major.
“Dainius Pavalkis. The occupant of this residence.” The big man let show a trace of impatience in his voice.
“Oh, sorry. I was not aware of his name,” said the Major. “I’m not sure I can say, mister…”
You need not know my name, Mr. Weaver,” said the big man. “You need to answer my questions.”
“Well, while I would like to answer your questions, I’m not sure I am at liberty to do so. At this time.” The Major felt like he was trying to tap dance while wearing feather pillows strapped to his feet. If this was going to be a battle of wits he felt naked and unarmed.
“If you are concerned about your associate, Mr. McGee, you can put those concerns to rest as Mr. McGee is no longer a part of the equation.”
While the Major tried to figure out what the big man was implying, the small man with the kerchief interrupted. “Excuse me,” he said. “I knew I recognized you and when you said you preferred to be called Major, it just came to me. You aren’t the Major David Broiles, are you? The Hollywood producer at Miracle Films?”
The Major spread his hands to make a bigger impression. “If it’s a good film, it’s a Miracle!” he said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, given his situation and condition.
“I knew it,” exclaimed the man. “I love your pictures, Major. When is the next one coming out? It has been a while, unless I’ve missed one.”
“We are currently interviewing investors, if you are interested in getting into the picture business.” The Major was never one to miss a pitch opportunity.
“Enough!” shouted the big man. “We have other business.” The room fell silent and the small man tucked his chin into his chest and continued fidgeting.
The Major had gathered about half his wits, which these days were about all he could usually muster. “What did you mean about my associate no longer being part of the equation?”
The big man leaned forward on the sofa. “I became dissatisfied with Mr. McGee’s production. He unfortunately proved to be slow and unproductive and when he brought you into the endeavor, well, I had to let him go.”
The Major was not sure if these were veiled inferences that Shins had been bumped off or merely fired from the case. He was sure he did not want to press the matter.
The big man continued, “The question at hand is what to do with you, Mr. Weaver.” The big man leaned back in his seat. The two goons on either side of the Major shifted on their feet as if getting ready for something. The Major was concerned that something would be to beat him to a bloody pulp, or worse.
The door burst off its hinges with such velocity it shot straight out, teetered for a half second then fell flat. A hulking, large figure stood in the doorway. No one moved. No one reacted.
The figure was naked, hairless and a dull, feces mixed with blood, brown/orange color. It walked into the room making a scraping sound as its thighs rubbed together. The two bruisers moved towards the figure with a definite lack of alacrity and enthusiasm. The Major sat in his chair, motionless. The room was silent. From the Major’s perspective, it seemed everyone moved in slow motion.
The first goon approached the figure and swung a powerful right haymaker. The figure reached out with his left hand and caught the goon’s punch by his wrist and twisted. Blood oozed from the goon’s wrist, out between the figure’s fingers. The mighty beast then lifted the goon’s right arm over his head and repeatedly scraped the goon’s right armpit with his right forearm, rubbing it raw. Blood and bits of skin fell to the floor. The figure let go of the goon and he dropped to the floor, passed out from the pain.
The second goon approached from the figure’s blind side and landed a powerful right cross. As the goon’s fist scraped the figure’s face the goon squealed in pain. He held his fist up close to his eyes. All the skin and muscle was scrapped off his proximal phalanges. The goon opened his mouth but no scream escaped. The figure crouched and thrust his right arm between the goon’s thighs. His rough skin tore through the goon’s pants and left open wounds as he ripped through the skin and flesh. The second goon also fell and passed out from pain.
The rough, hulking figure turned his attention to the big man on the couch. He walked slowly to stand in front of him. The Major followed the figure and turned his eyes to the big man. He was dead where he sat; clutching his chest, spittle running down his chin from the corner of his mouth. He must have had a massive heart attack sometime during the scuffle.
The little man saw his chance and he took it, running at break neck speed out of the apartment. The figure did not move his gaze from the dead big man.
The Major decided to make his break as well. He rose from the chair, watching the figure intently. The figure was motionless. The Major walked slowly to the door. Once in the doorway, the figure deliberately turned his head to look at the Major. As his head turned, the folds of his sandpaper skin made a soft, slow scratching noise.
The two locked eyes for half a tick. The figure blinked and the Major left.
The Major was two blocks away from the apartment building when he happened upon the crime scene. There was an ambulance and several police cars, all with lit, flashing cherries.
In this town everyone is either an actor or screenwriter. The Major recognized one of the cops as a guy who tried to peddle a slapstick farce to Miracle Pictures, two, maybe three years ago. It was so unfunny, it was almost hilarious. The Major almost produced the damn thing.
What were the odds that a crime scene this close to the figure’s apartment had something to do with that rough beast? The Major figured they were fairly high. He approached the flatfoot.
“Written any more scripts, Rob?” said the Major, hoping he was remembering the name right.
Startled, the cop turned towards the Major, recognizing him, he smiled. “Jeez, Major, long time no see,” the officer replied. “Naw, I’ve given up the screen trade, to rough for me. I’ll stick to the streets.”
“To bad, you had promise, kid, real promise,” lied the Major. “So, what’s the skinny?” The Major gestured down the alley where the paramedics were loading up a body onto their stretcher.
“Damnedest thing, Maj. Somebody or something, if you believe the victims, has been going around attacking people, giving them nuclear noogies, we’ve been calling them. Rubbing them raw in the armpits and thighs.”
“The hell you say,” said the Major.
The policeman and the Major stepped aside as the paramedics pushed the victim by on a stretcher. The man was barely conscious and groaning in pain. He had an ice pack between his thighs and a blood soaked bandage on one breast.
“The last two poor saps had terrible titty twisters as well,” said the cop. “It has been a real rash of attacks.”
“Ain’t that something?” muttered the Major. Standing in the crowd by the ambulance, the Major spotted the small man from the apartment. The two locked eyes for a moment. The small man flashed his eyes up the street, then backed into the crowd.
The Major said his goodbyes to flatfoot Rob and walked down the block. About a hundred yards from the crime scene he found the small man standing in a storefront entryway.
“Listen, scrawny,” the Major began but the small man raised his palm and silently cut him off. He reached into his overcoat and for a moment the Major thought he was healed.
Instead, the small man retracted two manila envelopes and held them outstretched. The Major reached out and took possession. The small man then flashed out of the storefront, passing the Major much quicker than he imagined the small man could scurry.
The Major did not examine the two envelopes. Standing alone in a darkened storefront gave him the willies. He quickly hoofed it the two remaining blocks to his bus stop and went back to his office.
— ♦♦♦ —
A year later the Major was walking up South Broadway toward the Arcade Theatre. He always liked to take a long, slow walk up the street to one of his premiers so he could take his time admiring the marquee.
“The Soring!” it read in big black letters. “A Rough Thriller From Miracle Pictures!”
The Major was back in the screen trade where he belonged. A three picture distribution deal had allowed him to get an apartment and hire an assistant for the office. He was still in Hyde Park but the address didn’t matter. He was a player. South Broadway and half of LA was plastered with handbills for The Soring, written and directed by Alan Smithee, another of the Major’s pseudonyms.
One envelope had contained chemistry mumbo jumbo for a Fantastic Chemco project called Epidermis Estamin. It was supposed to have created a cream to toughen overly sensitive skin. It had worked too well. Pavalkis had been the lead chemist on the project. An accident in the lab had left him with skin as rough as 24 grit sandpaper. Apparently the condition came and went. Whether Pavalkis could control the appearance of the condition, the Major never learned. Pavalkis was never found and the attacks had stopped as suddenly as they began.
Shins was also never heard from nor seen again. The Major figured the big man had rubbed him out.
The second envelope had contained a script. Everybody in LA thinks they’re an actor, director or a screenwriter and the small man turned out to be no exception. He was an industrious little peckerwood as he had managed to bang out the screenplay while helping the big man track down Pavalkis. The script was near perfect. It chronicled Pavalkis’ tragic transformation into the Sandpaper Monster. The Major didn’t know what was true and what was fiction. He didn’t care. The small man had titled it Epidermis Estamin after the real Fantastic Chemco project but the Major had changed that clunker to the much snappier, The Soring.
As a teenager back in Fort Worth, the Major would often pick up extra cash by shoveling horseshit in the corrals during the annual Fat Stock Show. He would often watch the Tennessee walking horses get their legs or hooves rubbed with kerosene or diesel fuel in order to irritate the horse’s skin and force them into an exaggerated, “Big Lick” gait. They called it ‘soring’ a horse and while the Major thought it was cruel, he had to admit the horses looked pretty prancing in the arena.
In the end, all the Major had to do was retitle the script and cut a few locations to make it fit the budget and presto, he was back in the game.
As he walked under the marquee and entered the theatre for the premier, a reporter from one of the local entertainment rags approached him, “Major, what are your expectations for The Soring?”
“It’s gonna be a cotton pickin’ smash!” exclaimed the Major. “Quote me in two-inch headlines, a cotton pickin’ smash!”
Flashbulbs popped and people laughed as they all made their way into the theatre.
Across the street, a lone figure, cloaked in a long overcoat and pulled down fedora stood and watched the scene in silence. He turned and lumbered down South Broadway.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Kadar committed a sacrilege during the reign of Ramses the first. What that sacrilege was is a mystery but it was bad enough to seal his body with the scarab on his chest, a dark spell inscribed on it. The spell is said to have entrapped his soul in the sapphire. He would never cross the Styx, never to have peace.”
“I have convinced Inspector Hanes not to throw you in prison.” Amon leaned on his desk, his eyes sparkling. “We had quite an argument over it but I won. You see, I need you to find it for me.”
McFerrin protests, “Uh-huh. Sounds like it’s one of those do it and we’ll dismiss charges. Don’t do it and we see the inside of an Egyptian prison for a few years, right?”
“Can it Brian, let’s hear what Amon wants.” Dixon said in a low voice.
And with that, the adventure begins. A ragtag party headed off into the harshest elements of the desert on a quest from which not everyone will survive.