I handed her a cup of coffee, pitch-black and strong enough to wake the dead. As she reached out for it, her baggy t-shirt drooped forward enough that my eyes were inadvertently drawn. I tried to avert them, but I was already busted. She rolled her eyes and began dumping sugar into her mug.
“Hey, Detective Stray-eyes, I’ve got a boyfriend.”
“First of all, it’s not like I meant to look—natural reaction. Second of all, I thought you said he got eaten by a demon.” It’s one of those things you can’t help making jokes about, even if you hate yourself for causing her the look of hurt.
“You wanted a nice guy, you would have kept lookin’. As it is, you stopped at my door…twice.”
She finally stopped with the sugar dumping, and I realized that she had emptied half of the container. It’s one of those glass cylinders with the metal lid and the little pour flap, the kind they have in diners. I thought about telling her to take it easy on the sugar—I had just swiped that one. It doesn’t matter how smooth you are, if sugar dispensers start disappearing every time you walk into a diner, they’re going to get suspicious. I was still feeling kind of dick-ish about the eaten boyfriend remark, though, so I kept my mouth shut about the sugar.
I didn’t waste time with sugar, so I was already on my second cup. You might think that waking up to a dame holding a blade at your throat would pump you full of enough adrenaline to keep you awake for awhile, but considering how crazy my life had been lately, it was like waking up long enough to hit the snooze button.
The coffee was helping, though. I hadn’t bothered to ask her why she was in my apartment yet, and I hadn’t bothered to ask her why she had a knife to my neck. Once she got off me, I went to make coffee. She sat on the couch quietly while I filled the pot, dumped in the grinds, and had myself a couple shots from the whiskey bottle I keep in the cabinet above the sink.
While I was reasonably sure she wasn’t here to kill me, I still locked the door when I went in to pee. I examined myself in the mirror, affirmed that I looked like hell, and then went back out to the kitchen for coffee.
“So you’re probably wondering about that,” she said, as she took a sip of her coffee.
“About what? About you breaking into my place and threatening my life?”
“I’m a little curious.”
She took a drink of her coffee, cringed, and then took another drink. I dumped some whiskey in mine and then knocked it back.
“Geez,” she said. “So you’re like a hardcore alcoholic, huh?”
“I’m a hardboiled private eye, toots—I gotta reputation to live up to.”
“Is calling me things like ‘toots,’ part of that reputation?”
“Nah. I just do that because it irritates you. So about the cranial circumcision you were about to perform?”
“Actually, I just came back to see if you had changed your mind about helping me. But when I saw the residue of the damned at your door, I thought maybe they had already gotten to you.”
“Of the damned. Hellspore. Mental anguish leaves a pretty nasty psychic sludge. It’s like the tar that builds up in your lungs every time you smoke one of those nasty cigarettes. You end up covered in it if you spend any amount of time in Hell.”
I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, but the idea of lining my lungs with tar seemed like a good one, so I fished a cigarette out of the crumpled pack in my pocket.
She coughed. “You have to do that?”
“Yeah. It’s part of this ancient curse. Long story, don’t ask.”
“Are you serious?”
“No. But like I told you before, I’m a hardboiled P.I., and this is what we do.”
“Can we at least go outside?”
“It’s ten degrees out there.”
“I need to show you something, anyway.”
I grabbed my coat and followed her out to the fire escape. My apartment, like most of the city, is a complete shithole. But standing out on the fire escape, above all the other buildings in the area, looking out at the sea of lights, you can almost believe in dreams again.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“Like most things, only from a distance. What did you want to show me?”
“I’m not psychic.”
“Me neither—hence the question about what you wanted to show me.”
“I mentioned that thing about psychic sludge earlier. I’m not psychic.”
“I mentioned that it was ten degrees out here. If you brought me out to show me how you can remember things we talked about earlier, consider me impressed. Let’s go back in.”
“Can you shut up and listen for a second. I know you’re an asshole, but can you crank that down a notch and try for a second to be a private investigator?”
“I’m always listening, sweetheart. You got something important to say, say it.”
“There’s something wrong with me. I don’t know how it happened. My mom, she used to talk about colors—typical crazy person talk, you know? But then I started seeing them, too. I thought I was losing it, you know? But the difference is, I can…show people.”
“The crazy colors?”
“I’ve been seeing them for three years now. The demons have been following me for two. They’ve been chasing me for the last couple of months.”
There was a flower pot by my feet on the metal grating of the fire escape. There’s no flower in it, and I reason that it’s because flowers grow better in soil than they do in cigarette butts. I dipped my cigarette in the saucer of milk by the window sill. There were two hisses—one as the cherry extinguished, and one from the cat who always got pissed off when I did that.
“Shut up,” I told the cat. I dropped the cigarette into the flower pot. Lizzie picked the cat up from the shadows.
“You have a kitty?”
“Little bastard won’t go away. I give him my leftovers.”
“What about the milk?”
“I use it to put my cigarettes out. Listen, are you gonna show me this devil vision shit or what? I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I got things to do.” Mainly, sleep.
“You really have to be prepared. I mean, I explained it to Justin for almost a year, and he still went a little crazy for a while.”
“My boyfriend. The guy we’re looking for.”
“Is he worth it?”
“Don’t get all pissed off, all right? I got the pleasure of meeting one of the guys tailing you—I’m assuming that’s where I picked up that hellspore you mentioned earlier. Bad business, not finding out about that right away, by the way.”
“I was going to show you first.”
“And if I had been talked into siding against you? You’re standing out on a fire escape holding a damn cat, I’ve got a pistol, you could have been dead a hundred different ways.”
“Relax,” I told her. “If I was going to kill you or kidnap you or whatever, it’d be done by now. If you’re my client, you need to take some precautions, that’s all.”
“So you want to hear about the Hellspore?”
“At this point, you might as well show me. But first tell me about Justin going nuts.”
“It’s…weird. If you saw it in a movie, you probably wouldn’t be impressed. You’d just think it’s a city overrun with neon lights. But it isn’t about what you see, really, it’s about what you feel while you’re seeing it. Justin did okay at first, but then he just started freaking out.”
“Freaking out, how?”
“Like a person who is scared of elevators, trapped in an elevator.”
I lit another cigarette. “How do you do it? How do you show me?”
“With Justin, I just looked into his eyes.”
“And you came about this method how?”
“I accidentally did it to a mugger once.”
“I hate this city.”
I turned and looked out at the city. She stood beside me, staring out at the canvas of night and lights, stroking the cat. I was glad that she didn’t say anything as I smoked—showed she had some sense. There was a feeling of importance about the moment that I didn’t much care for. I flicked my cigarette out into the darkness, took a drink from my flask, and turned to her.