Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Dirty Job Chapter 6

6 VARIABLE SPEED HEROES In the alley behind Asher's Secondhand, the Emperor of San Francisco hand-fed olive focaccia to the troops and tried to keep dog snot from fouling his breakfast. â€Å"Patience, Bummer,† the Emperor said to the Boston terrier, who was leaping at the day-old wheel of flat bread like a furry Super Ball, while Lazarus, the solemn golden retriever, stood by, waiting for his share. Bummer snorted an impatient reply (thus the dog snot). He'd worked up a furious appetite because breakfast was running late today. The Emperor had slept on a bench by the Maritime Museum, and during the night his arthritic knee had snaked out of his wool overcoat into the damp cold, making the walk to North Beach and the Italian bakery that gave them free day-old a slow and painful ordeal. The Emperor groaned and sat down on an empty milk crate. He was a great rolling bear of a man, his shoulders broad but a little broken from carrying the weight of the city. A white tangle of hair and beard wreathed his face like a storm cloud. As far as he could remember, he and the troops had patrolled the city streets forever, but upon further consideration, it might have just been since Wednesday. He wasn't entirely sure. The Emperor decided to make a proclamation to the troops about the importance of compassion in the face of the rising tide of heinous fuckery and political weaselocity in the nearby kingdom of the United States. (He found his audience was most attentive to his proclamations when the meat-laced focaccia were still nuzzled in the larder of his overcoat pockets, and presently a pepperoni and Parmesan reposed fragrant in the woolly depths, so the royal hounds were rapt.) But just as he cleared his throat to begin, a cargo van came screeching around the corner, went up on two wheels as it plowed through a row of garbage cans, and slid to a stop not fifty feet away. The driver's-side door flew open and a thin man in a suit leapt out, carrying a cane and a woman's fur coat, and made a beeline for the back door of Asher's. But before he got two steps the man fell to the concrete as if hit from behind, then rolled on his back and began flailing at the air with the cane and the coat. The Emper or, who knew most everyone, recognized Charlie Asher. Bummer erupted into a fit of yapping, but the more levelheaded Lazarus growled once and took off toward Charlie. â€Å"Lazarus!† the Emperor shouted, but the retriever charged on, followed now by his bug-eyed brother in arms. Charlie was back on his feet and swinging the cane as if he was fencing with some phantom, using the coat like a shield. Living on the street, the Emperor had seen a lot of people battling with unseen demons, but Charlie Asher was apparently scoring some hits. The cane was making a thwacking noise against what appeared to be thin air – but no, there was something there, a shadow of some sort? The Emperor climbed to his feet and limped into the fray, but before he got two steps Lazarus had leapt and appeared to be attacking Charlie, but he soared over the shopkeeper and snapped at a spot above his head – then hung there, his jaws sunk into the substantial neck of thin air. Charlie took advantage of the distraction, stepped back, and swung the cane above the levitating golden retriever. There was a smack, and Lazarus let go, but now Bummer launched himself at the invisible foe. He missed whatever was there, and ended up performing a doggy swish shot into a garbage can. Charlie made for the steel door of Asher's again, but found it locked, and as he reached for his keys, something caught him from behind. â€Å"Let go, fuckface,† the shade screeched. The fur coat Charlie was holding appeared to be swept out of his hand and was pulled straight up, over the four-story building and out of sight. Charlie turned and held the cane at ready, but whatever had been there seemed to be gone now. â€Å"Aren't you just supposed to sit above the door and nevermore and be poetic and stuff?!† he shouted at the sky. Then, for good measure, added, â€Å"You evil fuck!† Lazarus barked, then whined. A sharp and metallic yapping rose from Bummer's garbage can. â€Å"Well, you don't see that every day,† said the Emperor as he limped up to Charlie. â€Å"You could see that?† â€Å"Well, no, not really. Merely a shadow, but I could see that something was there. There was something there, wasn't there, Charlie?† Charlie nodded, trying to catch his breath. â€Å"It will be back. It followed me across the city.† He dug into his pocket for his keys. â€Å"You guys should duck into the store with me, Your Majesty.† Of course Charlie knew the Emperor. Every San Franciscan knew the Emperor. The Emperor smiled. â€Å"That's very kind of you, but we will be perfectly safe. For now I need to free my charge from his galvanized prison.† The big man tipped the garbage can and Bummer emerged snorting and tossing his head as if ready to tear the ass out of any man or beast foolhardy enough to cross him (and he would have, as long as they were knee-high or shorter). Charlie was still having trouble with the key. He knew he should have had the lock replaced, but it worked, if you finessed it a little, so he'd never made it a priority. Who the hell thought you'd ever have to get in quick to escape a giant bird? Then he heard a screech and turned to see not one, but two huge ravens coming over the roof and diving into the alley. The dogs arfed a frantic barking salvo at the avian intruders and Charlie put so much body English into wiggling the key in the lock that he felt an atrophied dancing muscle tear in his hip. â€Å"They're back. Cover me.† Charlie threw the cane to the Emperor and braced himself for the impact, but as soon as the cane touched the old man's hand the birds were gone. You could almost hear the pop of the air replacing the space they had taken up. The dogs caught themselves in mid-ruff; Bummer whimpered. â€Å"What?† the Emperor said. â€Å"What?† â€Å"They're gone.† The Emperor looked at the sky. â€Å"You're sure?† â€Å"For now.† â€Å"I saw two shadows. Really saw them this time,† the Emperor said. â€Å"Yes, there were two this time.† â€Å"What are they?† â€Å"I have no idea, but when you took the cane they – well, they disappeared. You really saw them?† â€Å"I'm sure of it. Like smoke with a purpose.† Finally the key turned in the lock and the door to Asher's back room swung open. â€Å"You should come in. Rest. I'll order something to eat.† â€Å"No, no, the men and I must be on our rounds. I've decided to make a proclamation this morning and we need to see the printer. You'll be needing this.† The Emperor presented the cane to Charlie like he was turning over a sword of the realm. Charlie started to take it, then thought better of it. â€Å"Your Majesty, I think you'd better keep that. It looks as if you might be able to use it.† Charlie nodded toward the Emperor's creaky knee. The Emperor held the cane steady. â€Å"I am not a worshiper of the material, you know?† â€Å"I understand that.† â€Å"I am a firm believer that desire is the source of most of human suffering, you're aware, and no culprit is more heinous than desire for material gain.† â€Å"I run my business based on those very principles. Still, I insist you keep the cane – as a favor to me, if you would?† Charlie found himself affecting the Emperor's formal speech patterns, as if somehow he had been transported to a royal court where a nobleman was distinguished by bread crumbs in his beard and the royal guard were not above licking their balls. â€Å"Well, as a favor, I will accept. It is a fine piece of craftsmanship.† â€Å"But more importantly, it will permit you to make your rounds in good time.† The Emperor now betrayed the desire in his heart as he let fly a wide grin and hugged the cane to his chest. â€Å"It is fine, indeed. Charlie, I must confess something to you, but I ask you to grant me the credulity due a man who has just shared witness, with a friend, of two giant, raven-shaped shades.† â€Å"Of course.† Charlie smiled, when even a moment before he would have thought his smile lost somewhere in the months past. â€Å"I hope you won't think me base, but the second I touched this, I felt as if I had been waiting for it my whole life.† Then, for no reason that he could think of, Charlie said, â€Å"I know.† A few minutes before, inside the store, Lily had been brooding. It wasn't her general brood, the reaction to a world where everyone was stupid and life was meaningless and the mere act of living was futile, especially if your mother forgot to get coffee at the store. This one was a more specific brood, that had started out when she arrived at work and Ray had pointed out that it was her turn to wear the vacuuming tiara, and insisted that if she wore the tiara, she actually vacuum the store. (In fact, she liked wearing the rhinestone tiara that Charlie, in a move of blatant bourgeois sneakiness, had designated be worn by whoever did the vacuuming and sweeping each day, and no other time. It was the vacuuming and sweeping she objected to. She felt manipulated, used, and generally taken advantage of, and not in the fun way.) But today, after she'd put the tiara and the vacuum away and had finally gotten a couple of cups of coffee in her system, the brooding had gone on, building to full -scale angst, when it began to dawn on her that she was going to have to figure out this college-career thing, because despite what The Great Big Book of Death said, she had not been chosen as a dark minion of destruction. Fuck! She stood in the back room looking at all the items that Charlie had piled there the day before: shoes, lamps, umbrellas, porcelain figures, toys, a couple of books, and an old black-and-white television and a painting of a clown on black velvet. â€Å"He said this stuff was glowing?† she asked Ray, who stood in the doorway to the store. â€Å"Yes. He made me check it all with my Geiger counter.† â€Å"Ray, why the fuck do you have a Geiger counter?† â€Å"Lily, why do you have a nose stud shaped like a bat?† Lily ignored the question and picked up the ceramic frog from the night before, which now had a note taped to it that read DO NOT SELL OR DISPLAY in Charlie's meticulous block-letter printing. â€Å"This was one of the things? This?† â€Å"That was the first one he freaked out about,† said Ray matter-of-factly. â€Å"The truant officer tried to buy it. That started it all.† Lily was shaken. She backed over to Charlie's desk and sat in the squeaky oak swivel chair. â€Å"Do you see anything glowing or pulsating, Ray? Have you ever?† Ray shook his head. â€Å"He's under a lot of stress, losing Rachel and taking care of the baby. I think maybe he needs to get some help. I know after I had to leave the force – † Ray paused. There was a commotion going on out in the alley, dogs barking and people shouting, then someone was working a key in the lock of the back door. A second later, Charlie came in, a little breathless, his clothes smudged here and there with grime, one sleeve of his jacket torn and bloodstained. â€Å"Asher,† Lily said. â€Å"You're hurt.† She quickly vacated his chair while Ray took Charlie by the shoulders and sat him down. â€Å"I'm fine,† Charlie said. â€Å"No big deal.† â€Å"I'll get the first-aid kit,† Ray said. â€Å"Get that jacket off of him, Lily.† â€Å"I'm fine,† Charlie said. â€Å"Quit talking about me like I'm not here.† â€Å"He's delirious,† Lily said, trying to pry Charlie out of his jacket. â€Å"Do you have any painkillers, Ray?† â€Å"I don't need painkillers,† Charlie said. â€Å"Shut up, Asher, they're not for you,† Lily said, automatically, then she considered the book, Ray's story, the notes on all the items in the back room, and she shuddered. It appeared that Charlie Asher might not be the hapless geek she always thought him to be. â€Å"Sorry, boss. Let us help you.† Ray came back from the front with a small plastic first-aid kit. He peeled back Charlie's sleeve and began to clean the wounds with gauze and peroxide. â€Å"What happened?† â€Å"Nothing,† Charlie said. â€Å"I slipped and fell in some gravel.† â€Å"The wound's pretty clean – no gravel in it. That must have been some fall.† â€Å"Long story.† Charlie sighed. â€Å"Ouch!† â€Å"What was all the noise in the alley?† Lily asked, needing badly to go smoke, but unable to pull herself away. She just couldn't imagine that Charlie Asher was the one. How could it be him? He was so, so, unworthy. He didn't understand the dark underbelly of life the way she did. Yet he was the one seeing the glowing objects. He was it. She was crestfallen. â€Å"Just the Emperor's dogs after a seagull in the Dumpster. No big deal. I fell off a porch in Pacific Heights.† â€Å"The estate,† Ray said. â€Å"How'd that go?† â€Å"Not well. The husband was grief-stricken and had a heart attack while I was there.† â€Å"You're kidding.† â€Å"No, he just sort of became overwhelmed thinking about his wife and collapsed. I gave him CPR until the EMTs came and took him off to the hospital.† â€Å"So,† Lily said, â€Å"did you get the – uh – did you get anything special?† â€Å"What?† Charlie's eyes went wide. â€Å"What do you mean, special? There was nothing special.† â€Å"Chill, boss, I just meant will we get the grandma's clothes?† He's it, Lily thought. The fucker. Charlie shook his head. â€Å"I don't know, it's so strange. The whole thing is so strange.† He shuddered when he said it. â€Å"Strange how?† Lily said. â€Å"Strange in a cool and dark way, or strange because you're Asher and you're out of it most of the time?† â€Å"Lily!† Ray snapped. â€Å"Go out front. Dust something.† â€Å"You're not the boss of me, Ray. I'm just showing my concern.† â€Å"It's okay, Ray.† Charlie looked like he was considering how, exactly, to define strange, and not coming up with anything that was working. Finally he said, â€Å"Well, for one thing, this woman's estate is way out of our league. The husband said he called me because we were the first secondhand store in the phone book, but he doesn't seem like the kind of man to do something like that.† â€Å"That's not that strange,† Lily said. Just confess, she thought. â€Å"You said that he was grief-stricken,† Ray said, dabbing antibiotic ointment on Charlie's cuts. â€Å"Maybe he's doing things differently.† â€Å"Yes, and he was angry at his wife, too, for the way she died.† â€Å"How?† Lily asked. â€Å"She ate silica gel,† Charlie said. Lily looked at Ray for an explanation, because silica gel sounded techno-geeky, which was Ray's particular field of geekdom. Ray said, â€Å"It's the antidesiccant that they pack with electronics and other things that are sensitive to humidity.† â€Å"The ‘Do Not Eat' stuff?!† Lily said. â€Å"Oh my God, that's so stupid. Everyone knows you don't eat the ‘Do Not Eat' stuff.† Charlie said, â€Å"Mr. Mainheart was pretty broken up.† â€Å"Well, I guess so,† Lily said. â€Å"He married a complete fucktard.† Charlie cringed. â€Å"Lily, that's not appropriate.† Lily shrugged and rolled her eyes. She hated it when Charlie dropped into Dad mode. â€Å"Okay, okay. I'm going outside to smoke.† â€Å"No!† Charlie jumped out of the chair and put himself between Lily and the back door. â€Å"Out front. From now on if you have to smoke you go out front.† â€Å"But you said that I look like a child hooker when I smoke out front.† â€Å"I've reassessed. You've matured.† Lily closed one eye to see if she could better glimpse into his soul and thus figure out his true agenda. She smoothed over her black vinyl skirt, which made a tortured, squeaking noise at the touch. â€Å"You're trying to say I have a big butt, aren't you?† â€Å"I absolutely am saying no such thing,† Charlie insisted. â€Å"I am simply saying that your presence in front of the store is an asset and will probably attract business from the tourists on the cable car.† â€Å"Oh. Okay.† Lily snatched her box of cloves off the desk and headed out past the counter and outside to brood, grieve really, because as much as she had hoped, she was not Death. The book was Charlie's. That evening Charlie was watching the store, wondering why he had lied to his employees, when he saw a flash of red passing by the front window. A second later, a strikingly pale redhead came through the door. She was wearing a short, black cocktail dress and black fuck-me pumps. She strode up the aisle like she was auditioning for a music video. Her hair cascaded in long curls around her shoulders and down her back like a great auburn veil. Her eyes were emerald green, and when she saw him looking, she smiled, and stopped, some ten feet away. Charlie felt an almost painful jolt that seemed to emanate from somewhere in the area of his groin, and after a second he recognized it as an autonomic lust response. He hadn't felt anything like that since Rachel had passed, and he felt vaguely ashamed. She was examining him, looking him over like you would examine a used car. He was sure he must be blushing. â€Å"Hi,† Charlie said. â€Å"Can I help you?† The redhead smiled again, just a little, and reached into a small black bag that he hadn't noticed she'd been carrying. â€Å"I found this,† she said, holding up a silver cigarette case. Something Charlie didn't see very often anymore, even in the secondhand business. It was glowing, pulsating like the objects in the back room. â€Å"I was in the neighborhood and something made me think that this belonged here.† She moved to the counter opposite Charlie and set the cigarette case down in front of him. Charlie could barely move. He stared at her, not even conscious that to avoid her eyes he was staring at her cleavage, and she appeared to be looking around his head and shoulders as if following the path of insects that were buzzing around him. â€Å"Touch me,† she said. â€Å"Huh?† He looked up, saw she was serious. She held out her hand; her nails were manicured and painted the same deep red as her lipstick. He took her hand. As soon as she touched him she pulled away. â€Å"You're warm.† â€Å"Thanks.† In that moment he realized that she wasn't. Her fingers had been ice-cold. â€Å"Then you're not one of us?† He tried to think of what â€Å"us† might be? Irish? Low blood pressure? Nymphomaniac? Why did he even think that? â€Å"Us? What do you mean, ‘us'?† She backed away a step. â€Å"No. You don't just take the weak and the sick, do you? You take anyone.† â€Å"Take? What do you mean, ‘take'?† â€Å"You don't even know, do you?† â€Å"Know what?† Charlie was getting very nervous. As a Beta Male, he found it difficult enough to function under the attention of a beautiful woman, but she was just plain spooky. â€Å"Wait. Can you see this thing glowing?† He held out the cigarette case. â€Å"No glow. It just felt like it belonged here,† she said. â€Å"What's your name?† â€Å"Charlie Asher. This is Asher's.† â€Å"Well, Charlie, you seem like a nice guy, and I don't know exactly what you are, and it doesn't seem like you know. You don't, do you?† â€Å"I've been going through some changes,† Charlie said, wondering why he felt compelled to share this at all. The redhead nodded, as if confirming something to herself. â€Å"Okay. I know what it's like to, uh, to find yourself thrown into a situation where forces beyond your control are changing you into someone, something you don't have an owner's manual for. I understand what it is to not know. But someone, somewhere, does know. Someone can tell you what's going on.† â€Å"What are you talking about?† But he knew what she was talking about. What he didn't know was how she could possibly know. â€Å"You make people die, don't you, Charlie?† She said it like she had worked up the courage to tell him that he had some spinach in his teeth. More of a service to him than an accusation. â€Å"How do you – ?† How did she – â€Å"Because it's what I do. Not like you, but it's what I do. Find them, Charlie. Backtrack and find whoever was there when your world changed.† Charlie looked at her, then at the cigarette case, then at the redhead again, who was no longer smiling, but was stepping backward toward the door. Trying to stay in touch with normal, he focused on the cigarette case and said, â€Å"I suppose I can do an appraisal – â€Å" He heard the bell over the door jingle, and when he looked up she was gone. He didn't see her moving by the windows on either side of the door; she was just gone. He ran to the front of the store and out the door onto the sidewalk. The Mason Street cable car was just topping the hill up by California Street and he could hear the bell, there was a thin fog coming up from the Bay that threw colorful halos around the neon signs of the other businesses, but there was no striking redhead on the street. He went to the corner and looked down Vallejo, but again no redhead, just the Emperor, sitting against the building with his dogs. â€Å"Good evening, Charlie.† â€Å"Your Majesty, did you see a redhead go by here just now?† â€Å"Oh yes. Spoke to her. I'm not sure you have a chance there, Charlie, I believe she's spoken for. And she did warn me to stay away from you.† â€Å"Why? Did she say why?† â€Å"She said that you were Death.† â€Å"I am?† Charlie said. â€Å"Am I?† His breath caught in his throat as the day played back in his head. â€Å"What if I am?† â€Å"You know, son,† the Emperor said, â€Å"I am not an expert in dealing with the fairer sex, but you might want to save that bit of information until the third date or so, after they've gotten to know you a little.†

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