WAGES OF S.I.N. by Nied Darnell
“Carrie Nation had an axe,” I said to the solid brick wall. It had seen better days, but so had the rest of this end of town. Alleyways hereabouts tended to echo with the ratta-tat of Chicago lightning, and this one looked like it had served as an execution backdrop recently.
“Was a battle-axe, you moron,” a voice growled. There was a displacement of reality and an elf, not a miniscule model but one of the shorter versions, materialized. Seemed to be taking his ease, propping his spine against a leaning tower of empty crates with a poor man’s Ed Hooper rendition of tomatoes slapped on the side. An unlit gasper bounced from the corner of his smacker. “Get the damn passwords right, Dolin,” he spat.
The dewdropper looked like the kind of kid who knew his onions. Thin, wiry, duded up in short pants, frayed braces, and a shirt that looked like it’d been dipped in a cauldron of tea rather than a tub of boiling water and soap flakes, but I knew a bypasser when I saw one.
“You gonna let me in or not, you changeling-wantabe?” I snarled. “I been sent for.”
“The Rump himself.” I let a smirk quirk my mouth, showing him some teeth. Smoothed my John Gilbert moustache with a couple fingers. I’d heard the gesture described as arrogant, as vane. Truth was, I was just making sure the damn thing wasn’t about to curl off and turn my mission into a reenactment of St. Valentine’s Day. The one without smooches, if you get my drift.
“What’s The Man want with a lowlife like you?” Shorty demanded as he lit the smoke.
“Congenial company?” I suggested. “Intelligent conversation?”
“Like you got either, Dolin,” he said but he did tilt his chin at the wall. No door put in an appearance, but a door-sized gap did. I’d barely passed through when it vanished.
The first thing I saw on the other side was a span of gam that would give the Brooklyn Bridge a run for its suspension. The rest of the doll was a real Bug-eyed Betty, but even a bucket of makeup can’t improve the mug of a giantess, which is what this jane was. Given her size and fashion choices, there was enough red fringe swaying on her dress to make a sailor seasick.
“Dolin,” she greeted. The voice rolling from between her lipsticked smackers had a lot in common with the sound of boulders bouncing down a mountainside. “The boss was beginnin’ ta wonder whether you were gonna show.”
“Like I wouldn’t,” I scoffed. “You got a bootlegger’s special for a parched fella to down?”
“Sure, honey. Refresh my mind though. You partial to brown or brown plaid?”
She meant whiskey or Scotch. “Surprise me,” I offered. “I need an escort back to The Rump’s office?”
“Naw. He’s expectin’ ya. Just knock on the door. You know the one.”
Whether she meant I knew which door or the knocking sequence didn’t matter. I was overly familiar with both.
The hallway leading to The Rump’s private niche had two guys fondling Chicago typewriters rather than just packing pistols. Wondered if the boss was expecting trouble. If so, my visit needed to be quick and to the point – preferably not that of a stiletto or a more imaginative shiv. “Boys,” I murmured. “I been summoned.”
That might make it sound like I’m a demon or something like, but if I had been the trip would have been faster. As I’m 100% human, I’d swung aboard a traction carriage and done two transfers to make the cross-city trip.
“Ya carryin’?” one of them demanded.
I spread the lapels of my jacket to show no weapons were snugged in shoulder holsters. Pulled my sleeves up far enough to convince them no knives were sheathed on either forearm.
“He’s clean,” the second one said.
I wasn’t actually, but as long as they didn’t pat me down, they’d never find what remained hidden.
The first one jerked his head, indicating that I could pass.
The Rump has run things in this and other parts of town since his arrival. I’ve worked for him in the past, but I’m still surprised at what’s slumped behind his desk each time I visit. He’s been auditioning different aspects for over a year. This time out the legs resting on the desk top looked like stilts, they were that long and featured specially made spats to cover ridiculously large, narrow shoes. Wondered how he managed to move on the things or even get in or out of the office with that much height going, but I’m not stupid enough to ask for details. He’s not from Capital City but he’s not from anywhere else either. Just popped in one day as though he was traveling on John Carter’s astral projection coat tails on a trip home from Mars. Look at him too long though and you’ll get the same sort of eyestrain watching the blended reels Teleview supplies.
“’Bout time you showed up,” The Rump snarled.
“It’s not like I live around the corner,” I said and dropped uninvited into the chair reserved for the more daring visitors. Swung my right foot to rest on my left knee and brushed a bit of alley flotsam from my trouser cuff. It was all ploy, giving the impression I was at ease but putting the switch blade snugged in the heel of my plodders close at hand. “So, what’s on the plate this time? The tick you sent didn’t mention ‘nothin’, just gave the time. A signature would be nice. Could be I’m supposed to be someplace else.”
“Ticker tapes can be monitored, Dolin. ‘Sides, who else ever employs you?” the stilt man demanded.
He had me there. The Rump paid well enough that a guy like me didn’t bother advertising their services elsewhere.
“The job?” I reminded.
He tossed a bit of newssheet my way. The ragged edges indicated a hasty tear rather than a civilized snip had trimmed it out. It was an advert for the sort of rouge flappers fancied but I could feel the spell on it. I flicked it with a fingernail and buzzed it with a breath to morph to its true form. Still an ad, but now it was pushing a speakeasy that served as my second home. Doubted The Rump knew that as I didn’t go by Dolin there. Didn’t look like Dolin there either. Now that it was cleared of magic, the advert he’d handed me downplayed the moonshiners’ specials in favor of pushing a songbird’s sultry stylings.
“I heard this dame does more than sing,” he said. “She deals in gold.”
“Real gold, fairy gold, or hot gold?” I asked.
“Hot.” Which meant its value was clouds above that of regular gold and didn’t dissipate at dawn like fairy gold. No, this was just masquerading as gold in monetary value and it was damn dangerous. It was honoium, the bee’s knees of wealthy and poor alike.
It came from the hive labs in whatever form the buyer fancied: powder, liquid or something that resembled shreds of tobacco that glittered like they were sprinkled with pyrite or mica. The most popular form resembled pollen, honey gold toned pollen, which wasn’t surprising since bees reportedly from Ersetu, the ancient Assyrian world of the dead, produced the stuff. You can blame Howard Carter’s team for inadvertently opening the portal to Ersetu during an archaeological dig. Those that imbibed honoium claimed it was better than illegally imported absinthe or high-quality cocaine. Fretful scientists ran tests that showed it was a mind control substance and then they blew up, because that was the nastiest side effect of the stuff. It caused the long-term user to explode. Get just a couple political hotshots addicted and governments fell – usually taking everyone in the vicinity with them.
It was also radioactive, ergo the designation as hot gold. Cops with detectors had a field day narrowing in on addicts. The sellers were a bit more circumspect. They carried their merchandise in containment boxes.
Society as a whole condemned the stuff, which simply made it as popular as I hear Josephine Baker’s performances in nothing but that feathered skirt are in Paris.
“Whadda want a thing like that for? It’ll kill ya,” I said. Hell, that stuff could radiate everybody’s lights out if the users held a convention!
“I got an alien buyer,” he said.
“Alien as in not from this planet or alien as from another place on this planet?”
“And the reason they want it?” I pushed.
“You don’t need to know,” The Rump said.
“Yeah, I sorta do,” I countered.
“I’ll tell you why you don’t need to know,” he said, and mentioned the numerical value of the kale the job paid.
“Guess I don’t need to know,” I agreed.
As the giantress arrived with a tea set and poured us both a cup of something that was tea only in color but would strip varnish off a Chippendale wardrobe at twenty paces, we toasted the deal.
~ ~ ~
When I left The Rump’s joint, I was still able to navigate on my own power, but I wasn’t about to tempt fate by hurrying. Hugged the edge of a few streetlamp glows, then slipped into the shadows. Frank Baum’s heroine isn’t the only one who can effect a change with a click of her heels. I snapped my brogues together in Bellamy salute style and ceased to be that scoundrel for hire, Dolin, and reverted to who I really was: Gwendolyn Grimm. As a bobbed hair brunette in high heeled Mary Janes, cloche hat, and fur collared coat over a mock Jeanne Lanvin flapper special, I sashayed from the shadows with barely a paused step. As Dolin I’d had to take local transit but when The Rump’s tick had come in, I’d sent off a tick myself to arrange transport away from his neighborhood.
My partner, Kip Holland, was slouched against the rear bumper of a flivver that had seen better days. The same could not be said of the Indian motorcycle parked behind it.
“In this weather, you chose to pick me up on this,” I said, flicking my hand toward the bike. It might look like an average Indian, but it had modifications the factory had never dreamed of including, one of which was a parachute for landings when it went airborne. And I’m not referring to jumps but to actual flying.
Kip snagged me close with one arm. “You forgot something,” he said and peeled my moustache off. “That’s better.”
I was not opposed to what he did next, but we were on a timetable. “I’m already late for work, Mr. Holland. You’ll have to cease and desist the hotsy-totsy.”
Kip sighed but released me. “That’s one tough order, Gwen. You taste like high powered hooch, and I’ve had a teetotalling type of day.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’re headed to the Whisper, darling,” I assuaged as he threw a leg over the cycle, and I hitched my already short skirt up higher to slip into place behind him. He revved the engine; I wrapped my arms around his waist and tucked my cheek against his back. I was due on stage and windburned cheeks were not something my magic managed to disguise.
The Whisper Club is a better class speakeasy than The Rump’s joint. It’s harder to find and there are no elves doing duty as password keepers. It also caters to criminals with more sophisticated tastes. They feel safe schmoozing there. It’s located in the under-under basement of the Capital City Library and warded with the best spells greenbacks can buy. More than a few of them are really nasty mouse traps, too. I ought to know. My family were the main concoctors. None of the clients have tripped to the fact that every employee in the joint is an agent of SIN, the supernatural intelligence network founded by the Grimms.
Yes, the original, or perhaps best known, Grimms, my great uncles a couple times over, Wilhelm and Jakob. In collecting all those European folk tales, they inadvertently uncovered the core of magic and the creatures who used it. Not all of them, it turned out, hailed from Earth.
One of my older cousins runs SIN these days and Albert Grimm has one of the slipperiest minds around when it comes to luring and snagging things like The Rump. It was at his behest that I’d been taking on jobs as Dolin, learning what would entice the criminal kingpin from Hell, or some region close by.
The plan was a take on the old tale the great uncles had recorded, though the story was 4,000 years old before they heard it. It’s a con job. A girl who can supposedly spin straw into gold but then requires aid from an imp who demands her first born in payment unless she can learn his name. That’s the gist of it. We’d slipped a rumor aboard that someone had discovered a way to create synthetic honoium and the link to the secret rested in the hands of a platinum blond songstress. I did duty as that warbler, twerping nightly at the Whisper Club. Kip was my assigned bodyguard. He could play angels from the heavens with his trumpet. Literally. Angels are really mean backup, too.
The Rump wasn’t the only rat Albert planned to snag though. He wanted to sweep the town clean. Me, I just wanted to survive. Emancipated and doing a man’s job was good for a girl but living past the job was even better. There were a lot of Black Bottoms, Charlestons, and tangoes I still wanted to dance.
Even though the neighborhood was better, when the Indian cruised to a stop and I hopped off, Kip dropped both the kickstand and a winged guardian in place. The angel wasn’t visible, but the bike was though no longer accessible to the shiftier sort of citizen abroad at night. We showed our library cards at the door and headed down the elegant Old-World sweep of staircase to the reading room. The librarian on duty looked like a sweet, timid, gray-haired spinster, her skirts a decade behind those now featured in the Sears catalogue. I knew she kept twin Beretta Model 1915 semi-automatic pistols within easy reach.
“Evening, Aunt Prudence,” I greeted, handing my library card to her.
“Horrid weather, Gwen dear,” she said, holding a jeweler’s loop to her eye to scrutinize the glyphs beneath my signature on the card, then those barely visible in the palm of my hand. “I can feel a change coming in my bones.”
She meant those she threw to scry the future. They didn’t always tell the truth, but she swore by them. Aunt Pru returned my card and put Kip through the same scrutiny, then directed us toward the stacks on the lower level. The guards there were not elderly or female but tall, broad shouldered, and capable of holding back a battalion of gremlins. If gremlins ever arrived in such numbers. My partner and I produced our cards, hands, and endured a head-to-toe scan by glamour reduction glasses before being shown through a veil that made it look like we were walking straight through a wall of neatly shelved books. On the other side of the veil, the sound of guests conversing, tableware tinkling, the band playing, and a team of shrill voiced, skimpily clad jazz babies tap dancing their gold-digging hearts out, washed over us.
With Kip’s tall, lean form screening me from the room, I went jazz baby myself, turning my dark bob into a crimped, nape brushing mass of platinum and my previous flapper rags into something Zelda Fitzgerald would fancy. The gown was little more than fringe and beading on a token bit of silk. Even the garters holding my silk stockings in place just above my displayed knees would catch the light when I went on stage.
Kip didn’t have to morph. He was already snazzed up in a dark tuxedo with wide satin lapels, white shirt and weskit and a dark bow tie. The tie set him apart from the wealthy guests at the tables, all of whom were sporting white neck wear, and in some cases, white gloves as well. Usually the older men. Kip’s fair hair was waved like silent film star Gary Cooper’s rather than be parted in the center like so many other younger men’s. He looked the proper escort for a sultry songbird, which was the part I played. To perfection, I might add. Modesty is not a trait cultivated by any Grimm in the family business, which is SIN, of course, whether presented in acronymic capitals or in lower case letters.
~ ~ ~
I did two sets before the marks arrived. The Big Cheese was doing a Capone impression, a couple of torpedoes bookending him and a chippy clinging to his arm. She was dripping ice; the palookas were trying to live down being fingered and trimmed of their gats at the door. But then the only folks packing heat at Whispers are the bar staff.
The waiter delivered a round of hooch served up in Grandma Grimm’s best Royal Albert teacups. She’d bought a service for 250, so we were well stocked for the hoity-toity imbibers. The boss man bent his ear with a request. Cousin Fritz gave me the nod. I upped the voltage of my smile.
Once the band and I finished doing Jones and Kahn proud with “It Had to be You”, Kip followed me off the stage and stuck close when I sashayed to a full stop directly behind the twist’s chair. “Absquatulate, sister,” I snarled at her.
Rather than move, she turned to her sugar daddy. “Are you goin’ ta let her talk to me like that, doodles?” she demanded.
Doodles jerked his chin up, irritated that she’d used a pet name in public, one he obviously wished she’d forget. “You heard her, toots. Scram. The lady and me’s got business ta discuss.”
Toots huffed but she moved a chair to her right. Without saying a word, Kip indicated that she needed to keep moving and sat down next to me.
“Word on the street is you got connections, little lady,” the Big Shot said.
I shrugged. “I don’t do business with fellas lacking names.”
“John Smith.” He offered a pudgy hand.
I ignored it. “You can do better than that, Jack. I’m pretty sure you know mine.” How could he not? It was plastered across a placard on stage. The Capital City Jazz Cats with vocal stylings by Miss Pepper Saltash. At least, it was what I answered to at the Whisper.
“We don’t get your name, the discussion here is over,” Kip growled. “Capice?”
The big man pondered.
Kip pushed back his chair.
“Okay, okay. Vic Basalto.”
Kip sat back down. “What sort of connections do you think Miss Saltash might consider sharing with you, Vic?”
Basalto’s expression said it all. If he got a chance, my fair-haired Valentino had made it to his list of inconvenient folks to bump off. “Hot gold,” he said.
“The real stuff or the better stuff?” I asked.
“You got better stuff than honoium?”
“Said so, didn’t I? It’s not cheap though,” I cautioned and told him the current price for a single bit of forgetfulness.
Basalto snorted. “Doll, for them kind of shekels, you gotta prove your stuff is better.”
I turned to Kip. “Prove it to him,” I ordered.
My partner did a quick scan of the joint, skimming over the faces of people at the tables. He stopped looking when he came to my third cousin (though some Grimms had attempted to make him a second removed – both assassination attempts had failed, of course). Percival Grimm is a master at looking like he’s a happy honoium eater. At least I think Percy is play acting. One never knows with nearly twice removed relatives. Still, he’s a solid player when on the job.
Kip signaled one of the waiters as he slipped a thin receptacle from his inner pocket. It wasn’t wide. If you could get the shaft of a hat pin down it, a minor miracle would have taken place. It was a gorgeous piece of workmanship. A touch Art Deco in the design, enameled in a lemon drop shade and capped with a hinge so small we ordered the whole assembly from a consortium of pixies no taller than my pinky finger. Everything they turned out was a work of art. Few noticed that the end of the thing had a lot in common with the tip of a well-honed letter opener.
The waiter accepted the unique container as though it was no more important than a calling card and delivered it to Percy’s table. My cousin perked up even more when his eyes fell on the gift we’d sent over. He gave a “ta” gesture toward our table and popped the cap. Instantly a pastel lemon vapor drifted from the interior and homed in on Percy’s nostrils. He inhaled deeply, sucking it in, and dropped face down in the bouillabaisse. It took a team of waiters to keep him from downing in the broth, then they whisked both the soup bowl and telltale container away. His head resting on the table, Percy appeared to dream on, an idiotic expression of bliss on his mug.
“Works fast,” Basalto noted. “Every dose come in those spiffy things?”
“Why do you think it’s so expensive?” I said. “This stuff isn’t honoium but something dreamed up by rocket scientists, ‘cept there weren’t no rockets involved. Leastwise that I heard tell. The lab where it’s brewed is tucked in some pocket dimension. You heard of them?”
The boss man grunted. “I heard of ‘em.”
“Then you know when we say this stuff is outta this world, we ain’t kiddin’,” Kip said.
“If the stuff bumps gowed-up guys like that off, the market’ll get diluted real fast, sweetcheeks,” Basalto said. “Why would I wantta buy stuff like that?”
I leaned toward him. Ran a finger down his lapel. “Because you already deal in something that does the same thing. Honoium. Why do you push it? Because those on the junk bring in ten more buyers eager ta lose their cares in something more dangerous than bathtub gin or cocaine. You know what the war did to people. They’re still trying to shake those memories and our stuff does that for them, without the side effect of blowing them to Kansas and back.”
Since he hadn’t offered me a drink, I helped myself to a sip from his teacup. “It takes special packaging to hold the stuff. Whether in gas or powder form, it eats through anything else after a day or so. Pretty little thing though, isn’t it?” I picked up the container Cousin Fritz had returned to our table. Gripped it in a telling fashion. “It not only serves as a dandy shiv, it appeals to the daddies and jazz babies alike. The higher class they are, the faster they got their hand out.”
“If you’re interested, the contest begins tomorrow afternoon at five,” Kip said. Rather than hand the card with the address and password on it to the mug, he let it rest between two fingers, teasing our mark with it.
Basalto’s eyes were on the card but then his mind caught up to what Kip had called the meeting.
“Whadda ya mean a contest?” he snarled.
I pushed my chair back. Stood up. “Just that, sugar. The galoot who wins this deal has to do two little things. Bring the required lettuce and tell me the name of the stuff I’m selling.”
~ ~ ~
We knew Basalto was hooked by the way he grabbed the card from Kip’s hand. I did another turn on the bandstand then Pepper Saltash bowed out for the remainder of the evening and Dolin went on duty again. It was time to show the other rat our tainted cheese.
“Back already?” The dewdropper at The Rump’s place still had a gasper hanging off his lip, but the remains of a lot of Lucky Strike’s littered the ground where he stood.
“He gave me a job, I did the job. Let me in,” I growled.
He grumbled but didn’t demand the password, just opened the wall. The giantress was prowling the room, looking for some marks of her own. I gave her a wink and braved the goons in the hallway. Oddly enough, they didn’t give me any lip this time either. The stilt man had put the word out. Dolin’s on a mission, let him be.
I did the special knock on the office door. There were enough combinations to it, the echo in the hall made it sound like some of those shrill voiced dancers from the Whisper had followed me and were tapping their little larcenous hearts out.
“Yeah?” The Rump snapped.
I took it for an invite inside.
“Found the dame, talked to the dame, got the whisper,” I said.
“You got the whisper at the Whisper?”
“It’s what they deal in best,” I said and handed him the card. “There’s an auction that ain’t an auction tomorrow. Here’s where you gotta be and the amount you gotta bring.”
“You mean where you gotta be and the amount you gotta bring,” he countered.
“Not the way the babe said it works. See, it ain’t really an auction in the general sense of the word. It’s a contest. Yeah, you gotta have the cash, and a lot of it. But more important, if you want the goods, you gotta tell her what it’s called.”
“She don’t know what it’s called?”
“’Course she knows. She also knows what she’s got. I saw a demonstration of how well it does its thing, and you want this stuff, boss. You really want this stuff,” I said.
He waved one of those weirdly elongated mitts at me. “Go find me the name, Dolin, or you’re dead.”
“Great motivation, but it won’t hold marbles with the Saltash gal. Says she’ll know whether it was you that found the name or not by the way the sound of it rings in your voice. Believe me, she’ll know. Now cough up the rest of my fee. I got sweet things to spend it on.”
Once the kale was in my pocket, I was out the door, into the shadows and back to being myself. Kip was waiting with the Indian. It wasn’t home to a welcoming bed that we were bound, though. It was back to the Whisper. There was a sting going down the next day, and I was the wasp assigned to deliver it.
~ ~ ~
The trouble with being a one trick magic user is it’s so limiting. I’m good at doing glamours for myself and building different personalities for each – let’s face it, Dolin and Pepper Saltash have things in common but not even a pip like that Georgie Jessel would cotton to them being the same person. Dolin’s not only a fella, that glamour is taller than I am as a dame, though I make up a bit of the difference with high heeled dancing shoes. My cousin Albert, Mr. Deviousity, has been urging me to try expanding my repertoire. Not with further versions of myself, but by throwing a glamour over some other sap on the payroll. He points out that at times, it might be handy to have Kip not looking quite his usual handsome self. While I’ll agree that is a good idea, I’m a bit leery of trying to change someone else’s looks just in case things go hinky. ‘Specially to my own private sheik.
Considering my partner hadn’t landed on Vic Basalto’s list of guys he’d like to invite to the races, I was beginning to wish I had done test runs on glamouring someone else. I could always enlist Percy as the victim – in the event “victim” suited the result of my tampering best – but with the bidding contest barely an hour away, it wasn’t the time to be wishing I’d cottoned to the idea weeks, maybe months, ago.
The mock auction was being held in the meeting room of Wolf, Hagg and Hood, Legalese Brokers. Mr. Wolf was a tall, dashing rogue. I judged him to be in his early thirties. He had a smile that sweet young twists and the fire extinguishers watching over such prey would both consider the cat’s meow. A grifter if I ever saw one. Old Hagg was short, alderman shaped, and still sportin’ mutton chops, though they’d surpassed gray and gone snowy. He didn’t look jazzed about running Albert’s flimflam on gents who not only dealt in dope but came with an entourage of droppers unlikely to hand over their heaters. Miss Hood had mouthpiece written all over her. It was easy to see she as a kitten with a noddle for spotting if something was dodgy. Her idea of being dolled up was conservative business with a long string of nicely matched oyster marbles tumbling down her balcony. In different glad rags and a touch of flapper paint she’d be quite the sheba. I’d bet a double sawbuck that Cousin Albert thought the same. This wasn’t the first time Wolf, Hagg and Hood had hosted one of the boss’s sucker conventions.
Wolf was the only one of the three who seemed to appreciate my Pepper Saltash rags. Enough that Kip and he did that male sizing up thing. Wolf looked amused. Hagg scowled. Hood sighed, sounding a bit disgusted. I stayed in character and twinkled all around.
“How many guests are we expecting?” Hood asked. “Mr. Grimm didn’t say.”
“Half dozen butter and egg men but they’ll each have a couple of mugs with ‘em, maybe even a moll or two,” I said. “Call it twenty plus our brunos.”
“A double baker’s dozen then,” Wolf murmured. “We’ll need more chairs.”
“Naw,” Kip drawled. “Let the droppers stand. Which of you is on orphan paper duty? There’s nothing worse than getting chiseled with phony money on our own con.”
“That would be my department,” Wolf said.
I checked the ticker on my wrist. A nice little Tiffany number, small face surrounded by diamonds and sapphires on a conservative black grosgrain band. It was on loan. Albert had taken it from his safe with strict instructions that it come to no harm. Pepper Saltash needed to look like she had lettuce to spare, and nothing said that like a piece from Tiffany’s. It was now barely thirty minutes until we kicked off this show. “Time to settle in, folks,” I told the gathering.
The trio of mouthpieces escorted us to a space that could easily host an old-fashioned society ball. Tall ceiling with a couple glittery crystal chandeliers dangled over a stretch of table that would require the folks at one end to communicate with those at the other with bullhorns or a couple of Bell’s ameches. I gestured to the thing. “This is going to put us behind the eight ball when we should be tightening the screws, Miss Hood. There’s no spot to duck out of range if any of these eggs tries to plug me. There another place half this size?”
“There can be,” the shyster gal said and snapped her fingers. The table sucked itself down until it had a nodding acquaintance with a poker set up rather than a slab for baccarat punters. Seven chairs surrounded it. The room shrunk a bit too, but still left plenty of space. It’s never a good idea to have well-heeled punks from different factions rubbing shoulders as they prop up the walls. We didn’t need to give any of ‘em a reason to reach for their roscoes.
I glanced a Kip. “’Nuff room for the wing squad?”
He looked toward the ceiling. “Those dangling bits of crystal might tumble if brushed by feathers.”
Miss Hood made a motion, like she was chasing a pesky bug away. What went away were the chandeliers, replaced by brass fixtured Aladdin Mars electric pendant lights. A definite fall in class but cheaper to replace if necessary.
Kip gave her a wink. “That’s Jake, honey. Thanks.”
Hood gave him a nod any of the queens left over over there would envy.
“Any of you three packing?” my partner asked.
Wolf let twin Remington M95 double derringers shift into his hands from hidden gizmos up his sleeves. Hagg wrestled a long barreled broomhandle Mauser from his jacket pocket. Hood had the more impressive presentation. She whipped an Ithaca autoburgler from thin air.
No question about it. If I knew my Cousin Albert, he had her pegged as the cat’s pajamas. Made me wonder why she wasn’t holding down a desk at SIN Central.
In the spirit of goodwill, Kip and I showed them ours: standard Grimm issued Colt .45 M1911s.
I glanced at the Tiffany again. “Our guests should be arriving shortly,” I warned.
The lawyers returned to their offices. Kip whistled up the heavenly fuzz.
~ ~ ~
I’d only needed to lure Basalto and The Rump into the trap. Other agents had dealt with the other four participants. The additions weren’t much different than Basalto, so there’s nothing to add about them. Once most of them would have been on the nut, but it had been a long time since any of them had scrounged for a dime, and they had the hired muscle to back up that supposition. Basalto was the only one who brought his squeeze. The twitch of her hips as she passed the rest of the men showed she was liking the attention, then she saw me. Maybe it was the amused smirk on my face that sent her smile into a relapse.
The Rump was the last one in the room, and it wasn’t an easy maneuver for him. Once inside he obviously appreciated the tall ceiling, but his knees were at table height. One of the thugs trailing him pulled the remaining chair far back from it, but The Rump still looked like he was perched on a piece of nursery room furniture. Slouched back, his stilts stretched out, his dogs were the only thing making it beneath the table. Made him seem anti-social, sorta disconnected from the proceedings.
“Let’s get right to business,” I suggested without preamble. “I’ve got a product to push but the fellas I represent want to deal with just one of you, which is why we’re calling this a contest. It’s gonna work a bit like poker. Starting bid is whatever you want to make it. If you bet the farm and don’t have the name of the product, you’re either out of the game or will have to foot a higher bill.”
“Yer saying that if I got more’n one label ta spit, if the first one don’t work, everybody at the table gets a try ‘fore my next opportunity comes up?” a guy in bottle bottom cheaters asked.
“You’re on the trolley,” I said.
“That’s hokum, doll,” another insisted.
“That’s the way this is playing out, chum,” I countered. “But just to prove this ain’t gunk, I’ll let you go first. What’s the bid?”
Wolf had followed the lot into the room and taken a stand on my left. Kip was on the right and looking at his ease as he surveyed the crowd. Wolf slipped a notebook from an interior pocket of his suit coat, flipped it open and waited with fountain pen poised.
The putz named his price – “hundred thou mazumas” – and got razzed by his competition.
“Would that be in dollars, guineas, francs, lira, marks, pesos, rubles, yen, or shekels?” Wolf inquired. When the man stared at him, the lawyer added to his inquiry list. “Personal or cashier’s check, stocks, bonds, gem stones, precious metal bullion or cash?”
Oddly enough, it was cash. Wolf warned him that every bill would need to be authenticated should he have the winning bid.
I asked for the name of my merchandise. Considering we’d decided not to bother giving the faux drug a name, his answer was wrong. I shifted my gaze to the man on his left who matched the bid and didn’t supply a name I fancied either. The Rump raised the bid by a buck, which meant the next man had to up his offer, but only did so after giving the grotesque immigrant the evil eye. We went into round two. By round five, real estate, race winning thoroughbreds, private islands, yachts, a first born, and first-class blackmail material on men in top ladder government positions were offered to up a bid. Was really tempted by that last. The only thing I said no to was slaves, and as it was The Rump who offered them, I wasn’t sure whether he already had a collection of them on Earth or intended to import them from another planet or dimension.
Basalto’s squeeze left the room to either check her lipstick or take a swig from a flask. During her absence one of the wall supports referred to her as a quaff. The flat tire next to him had come through the door with the quaff and her dappy. He suggested a rearrangement of the leaner’s features. It was all it took to start a bar fight, and it didn’t seem to matter that we were lacking a bar.
Kip waded in to break it up, angels at his back. Wolf tucked his tallying gear away and slugged the nearest thug then worked his way across the room.
Vic Basalto saw the unexpected opportunity as it swung open and pushed to his feet. Rather than join in the melee, he grabbed me in a choke hold and pressed a heater to my temple. All he had to do was clear his throat to get everyone’s attention.
“This discussion is ended, gents,” he said. “It don’t matter what the stuff’s called, it’s mine. Ain’t that right, Saltash?”
Across the room, the ditz paused in the open doorway. Miss Hood materialized – or so it seemed – behind her and mimicked Basalto’s stance, her arm around honeybun’s neck and the Ithaca resting against her frizzed bob of Clara Bow curls.
Hood wasn’t looking at Basalto though. Her eyes were on mine, then they shifted briefly to her hostage.
Maybe the two of us could go on the stage, I thought once the realization of what she wanted me to do surfaced. We could do a mind reading act, because what she was mentally broadcasting – or might as well be doing – was . . .
I used the twist for my test victim and tossed the Pepper Saltash glamour at Basalto’s babe and then hastily created one for myself that looked like her.
“Doodles!” I cried. “What are you doing?”
I felt Basalto’s jerk of surprise. Saw that across the room Hood had lowered her gun and her arm and was whispering threats in the jane’s ear. As the chippy forced a smile onto what she didn’t realize was Pepper Saltash’s dolled up lips, Basalto’s grip slackened.
I’m a Grimm. We don’t look gift horses in the mug, we mount up. I yanked back my Pepper Saltash glamour and went to work.
My elbow found his gut. An angel manifested on his right, chopped the gun from his hand, breaking his wrist so neatly, I heard the bone snap. Not to be left out of things, I did a dancer’s high kick to Basalt’s pride and joy. He went down, curled up like he was trying to pass as a comma. The angel put a regulation Army boot clad foot on him to keep the big cheese in his place.
Across the room, the boss man’s tomato tried to snag a new sponsor with a dramatic wrist to her brow and graceful sink to the floor. Not a one of our contestants paid her any heed.
“Two million bucks, my yacht, the villa and casino in Monaco, and five hinky photographs of J. Edgar Hoover,” a swarmy fella in a bespoke suit offered.
I glanced at the remaining group of prospective buyers. Enough signs of resignation and murmured words of a colorful nature stirred the air to let me know they all passed.
“While I’m particularly interested in that latest addition,” I allowed, “you still gotta tell me what the stuff’s called.”
“Death,” he said.
“I like it,” I admitted, “but that ain’t it.”
It wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. His hands slammed down on the table. “What the hell are you playing at?” he snarled and called me a name I am too much of a lady to repeat. Kip broke his jaw in retaliation. Probably had a bit of angel gusto helping him hammer his point home.
Hagg’s portly form surfaced in the doorway. “The late arrivals are here, Miss Saltash,” he announced, and let what looked like the entire staff of the local copper clubhouse rush into the room. Fortunately, they didn’t run out of handcuffs.
Unfortunately, when the collection was counted, The Rump was not among them.
~ ~ ~
“Not a bad haul,” Cousin Albert allowed from his cushy seat behind the broad desk, “though disappointing that Dolin’s specific mark slipped the noose.”
“I got him there. If you couldn’t keep him . . .” I let the rest of the sentence find its own conclusion.
“It just means Dolin’s still in play,” Albert said.
“Too dangerous,” Kip insisted. “You don’t want to get Gwen bumped off, do you?”
Albert seesawed his hand. “Depends on the day. But it’s that way with our relatives. Gwen would agree.”
“Particularly in your case,” I answered then sighed. “Dolin’s gonna need a doozy of a reason why he got snookered by Saltash.”
“Tell it to Sweeney,” Albert advised. I wasn’t sure whether he was dismissing the need or meant I should visit Alice Sweeney in the phonus balonus department. “You survived the con, we snagged the human contingent, so I suppose you deserve a few days off.”
Neither Kip nor I bothered to thank him. If Albert felt the need, he’d send a tick to pull us off holiday.
The sun had set. The angels had gone home, or wherever. It was just my partner and me as we exited SIN headquarters. The Indian was awaiting our pleasure.
“Mr. Holland,” I said, turning to my fair Valentino. “It seems to me that someone was interested in some hotsy-totsy not long ago. Would that still be on the agenda?”
Kip put his arm around me. “That would depend on who I’m taking home. Is it my clever partner Gwenn Grimm, the sultry Pepper Saltash, or that scoundrel Dolin?”
I let the glamour dissipate from my left hand. The ring wasn’t of fairy gold, though it had been scraped from the earth by a team of seven dwarf miners. I didn’t let it free from enchantment often, but this seemed an excellent night to do so.
Turning into Kip’s arms, I linked my wrists behind his neck and grinned. “Such a difficult choice but how about this time you make it your wife?” I suggested.
Wages of SIN © 2018 Beth Daniels / Nied Darnell
Cover design by Beth Daniels, Graphic from Dreamstime
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, recording, or file sharing, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission from the author. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.