Wild Cards Excerpt
May 29, 2011
The Rat Race
by Cherie Priest
Leo braced the phone against his ear with his shoulder while he rubbed at his eyes and groaned. He muttered, "Jesus Christ, not another one."
"Another what?" asked the woman on the other end of the line. When he didn’t reply fast enough, she demanded again, "Another what, Dad?"
"Another streaker. Tinkerbill’s bringing her in."
The unclothed party in question was pretty, blonde and in her twenties. She was also glowing with a fizzy pink aura; but the aura couldn’t be construed as clothing, and anyway, the sparkles had been Bill Chen’s contribution. They’d wear off by morning. Probably.
Leo dropped the receiver away from his mouth and hollered past it, "Somebody get that kid a shirt or something!"
Bill blindly grabbed a squad jacket off a coat rack as he ushered the protesting prisoner toward booking. He threw it over her shoulders but she almost shook it off when she turned around to tell him, "You’re making a mistake! I … I didn’t just grab my keys and leave the house like this, you have to believe me!"
"I believe you," Bill said it deadpan, with his peculiarly childish voice. Speech like that shouldn’t issue from a man of his size and shape-six and a half feet from toes to cap, and wide as a firehouse door. He shuffled his beefy shoulders and shook his head, prodding the still-mostly-naked woman barefoot along the dirty floor of Manhattan’s Fifth Precinct.
They don’t call it "Fort Freak" for nothing.
Leo returned his attention to the phone and said, "Melanie, I’m sorry, honey. You’ve caught me at work, here. You know how it is."
"Oh, I understand. How can my pitch possibly compete with a room full of naked people?"
"Just one. One naked person."
"Look, Dad. Quit putting this off."
"But what if I don’t want to move to …" he fished around on his desk, looking for the brochure she’d sent him a week before. He found it buried beneath three or four unofficial "in" stacks of reports, court documents, file notes, and case reminders. The paperwork drifts smothered everything, including the nameplate identifying him as Detective-Investigator, 1st Grade: Leonard Storgman.
His daughter impatiently supplied, "West Palm Beach."
"Yeah. Florida." With the vibrant sales brochure finally in hand, he skimmed the tagline: First planned adult community exclusively for jokers! And he sighed. "I know you’ve worked real hard, pulling this together, but I don’t think I’m ready for an old folks’ subdivision."
Leo stuck a finger in his shirt collar. He pulled the sweat-dampened cloth loose and let it fall back against his neck. September’s dank mugginess pressed inside the old building, and the precinct’s vintage air conditioners valiantly wheezed and rattled, but did little else to address it. He nearly shuddered at the thought of such excessive warmth all year-round.
"You don’t think you’re ready to retire either." Melanie’s voice shifted, slipping from hard-nosed community planner to wheedling daughter in a snap. "Dad, I wish you’d just think about it. Come down south! It’s nice here, and I live here-and it would make me feel better to know you’re nearby, in case something were to happen."
"I’m turning sixty-two, not ninety-two. I’m not going to slip in the tub and break a hip."
"I’m not trying to imply-"
He cut her off. "Sweetheart, I know you’re trying to help. But I don’t need help yet. I need some time to think, and …" his end of the conversation derailed abruptly, distracted by a pair of swinging hips in a pencil skirt, spotted across the precinct floor. He mumbled, "Hang on a second."
The hips disappeared behind a column. It wasn’t just the shape of the hips that had his attention; it was something about the gait of the walk, and the curve of the body. He knew that walk. He knew that body.
The woman emerged from the far side of the column, her backside facing him for a moment while she paused to speak to someone. Then she said "So long, David," and turned around, and paused. She scanned the room.
Leo watched. He cataloged her like a piece of evidence.
Her hair was shorter now, and smoother, and a little darker-almost a true brunette. The full curve of her cleavage and the dip of her waist were a little more pronounced. One hand on her hip. One hand hanging at her side. Posture off-kilter, just enough to look casual.
Her big black sunglasses were identical to the ones he’d seen her wearing last; but that was twenty-five years ago. Funny, how styles come back around. Funny, how he would’ve known her anywhere, even after all this time.
The lens-covered eyes settled on him. The corner of her mouth crept up, pulled by a string of nostalgia until it’d drawn her lips into half a smile.
From the phone Leo heard: "Dad?"
He said, "Honey, I have to go." He hung up. Slowly he stood, matching his rise to her approach-so by the time she was in front of his desk, he was on his feet. He said, "Wanda?"
And she said, "Leo." Wanda Moretti pushed the sunglasses up onto her head, then changed her mind and folded them into her purse. "Been awhile, hasn’t it?"
"Yeah. You uh … you look great."
"Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself."
Leo Storgman did not often feel self-conscious. He’d had plenty of time to get used to his appearance-two decades since his card had turned. But he fidgeted now, scratching at the back of his sticky, wet neck, jostling the houndstooth newsboy cap he often wore. It sat comfortably between the thick horns that curled out from either side of his head.
"Aw, now. You don’t … you don’t have to say that. You haven’t changed a bit-not a goddamn day. We both know I can’t say the same."
"I didn’t say you hadn’t changed. I just said you didn’t look bad." She didn’t bother to hide her appraising gaze. "I’d heard, and I’d wondered. But you still look like you."
"Eh. Wasn’t born looking like this." He made a little gesture with his hands, displaying the way they’d become bone-white, almost translucent except for the scum-green liver spots that speckled his knuckles. Similar patches blotched across his mostly bald head, right down into the ring of graying hair that held his hat like a nest. "But it could be worse."
He was careful to pin his eyes to hers, if only to keep from looking over her shoulder, or over his own shoulder-at the crowded, chaotic room. Many of his fellow civic servants had drawn much stranger and worse transformations.
By the soda machine he saw beat cop Rikki Michealson, a small, greyhound-shaped woman using her slender, paw-like hand to press for a Dr. Pepper. Leaning against the wall beside her was Lu Long, with the bulky, elaborate head and upper torso of a Chinese dragon. He was wrestling with the tab of a Pepsi can, his heavily clawed fingers ill-suited to the delicate task. And beside the captain’s office door Leo spied public defender Charles Herriman, his flippers flapping at his latest case files. It almost looked like he had the situation under control, until his cell phone rang and the juggling act fell apart.
Wanda reached for the back of the chair that faced Leo’s desk and asked, "You mind if I sit down?" Without waiting for him to respond, she took the chair and settled into it, putting her purse and an expensive-looking leather satchel on the floor by her feet.
"For old time’s sake?" he asked.
"For old time’s sake, sure. And official business too-something weird, that’s for damn sure. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t know if I’d find you here. Couldn’t remember exactly how old you are."
"Still have five months on the clock."
"I hope they’re an easy five months. I’d hate to see you go out with a bang."
"Easy. Sure." He glowered mournfully at the drifts of paperwork and loose filing, and told her, "This week alone we’ve got streakers, inconveniently coincidental burglaries, and an uptick in the usual gang bullshit. The Werewolves and the Demon Princes never do get along, but it’s getting nasty out there."
Wanda shook her head and sighed. "You remember that case back in, oh, I don’t know. Must’ve been eighty-nine or ninety. That gangbanging joker who got real high and then ate somebody’s poodle?"
Leo let out a short bark of a laugh. "Yeah, I remember it. Haven’t thought of it in years. Did you do the court-reporting on that case?"
She said, "No, wasn’t me. I was gone by then."
"I heard you got married again." He’d heard she’d married up.
"Yeah, back in eighty-eight, but it didn’t stick. And I left court-reporting, too. Went into real estate instead."
"Like you always said you would. I remember you talking about it, but I didn’t know you’d gone off and done it."
She grinned. "Got my license and started moving houses, condos, what have you. It worked out better than sitting around a courtroom, tapping ’till my fingers were raw. Kept the kids fed better, too."
"How’re they doing, anyway?"
"Grown, mostly. Moved out, thank God, all four of them. What about your daughter?"
"Melanie." He cocked his head at the phone. "That was her, just now. She’s gotten into community development planning." He picked up the flyer again and handed it to her.
Wanda said, "Hmm. Jokers only. That might have its perks. Or drawbacks."
"I don’t know what to make of it yet. Mellie wants me to move down there, closer to her. Once my time’s up here, you know."
Wanda hadn’t lowered the flyer yet. She looked at him over the top of it and asked in a very pointed fashion, "Just you?"
Leo cleared his throat and reclaimed the flyer. "Just me. Vicki …" it was strange, saying his wife’s name. "Vicki died of breast cancer back in ninety-eight."
Wanda said, "Oh God, Leo. I’m sorry to hear that" like she meant it.
Wanda had never been the jealous type, as far as Leo knew. And that one ill-advised night they’d shared back in the old days … it’d never gone anywhere. Vicki had never found out about it either, a fact which Leo considered one of the sole earthly evidences that there might be a God.
Leo said, "Sometimes it feels like she died a million years ago, and sometimes I forget, and start pouring her a cup of coffee in the morning." His wife had been good to him-better than he’d deserved. Even when his card turned, all she had to say was, "I didn’t marry you for your looks. I won’t leave you for them either." He changed the subject. "What really brings you out here, Wanda? It’s been a long time."
"Like I said-partly for old time’s sake. And partly," she reached down to that leather satchel and pulled it into her lap. "This." She lifted the flap and drew out an envelope. From it, she extracted thirty or forty singed sheets and spread them out on the desk in loose, brittle stack. "Pardon the smell."
"What am I looking at? Besides burned paper?"
"Transcripts, or pieces of them. From an old case, somewhere between ’75 and ’79. Most of these are water-logged or burned beyond usefulness, but the clerk at the courthouse saw this and they called me." She pointed at a corner, where a blue pencil had scrawled "WM."
"My initials. Other than that, you can only read a little bit, here and there. They asked me if I could tell what case they’re from."
Leo looked up from her initials to ask, "They don’t know?" But before she could answer, he had another one lined up. "Were these damaged last week, in that courthouse fire?"
"You got it. The fire didn’t do much damage, but it made a real mess. And look." She pulled another sheet forward, and pointed at a string of letters that stood out among the other lines of smudged, smeared, water-destroyed print. "Right here. I’m pretty sure that says ‘Detective Storgman.’ So I was hoping you could help me answer their question-maybe recognize something I’m missing."
"Huh," he said, peering down at the document. "I think you’re right. Then this is probably a case from seventy-nine. I didn’t make detective until December of seventy-eight."
"Okay, that’s helpful. Narrows the window quite a bit."
Leo touched the fragile pages gently, scooting them around with the tip of his finger and hunting for places where the words were not burned or washed away. "It’s hard to tell. Except." He used his pinky to point at a spot that wasn’t very clear. "You see this part?"
Wanda came forward and craned her neck around, leaning in a way that set her breasts right at Leo’s eye level. He struggled not to notice.
"Right here. It says ‘Augustus.’" Then he wondered aloud, "What the hell was that kid’s first name? I remember it was fucking ridiculous." He snapped his fingers. "Bernard. Bernard Augustus."
"It’s not ringing a bell," Wanda said dubiously.
"Because nobody ever called him that. Everyone called him ‘Deedle.’" Leo leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. Wanda sat back in her seat too, which was a goddamn shame.
She said, "Deedle. Now that I remember."
He bounced slowly, thoughtfully, in the chair. "These must be the trial transcripts from the Rathole murders."
Wanda shook her head. "No, they wouldn’t be trial docs. It’s coming back to me now. That kid never made it to trial. These are more likely from an arraignment hearing."
"Yeah, you’re right, come to think of it. He escaped."
"Not for long." She put her hand up to her face as if to lean on it, but nibbled gently at her thumbnail.
"No, not for long." He paused, still thinking. "That was one hell of a case. My first murder, and I was wrong-it wasn’t seventy-nine. It was the tail end of seventy-eight."
Wanda considered this for a moment, and said thoughtfully, "You know, those files were all about to be moved out of hard copy storage and scanned onto CDs. They were going to be dredged up for the first time in decades, before they burned."
Leo said, "So?"
"So, they were going to be read. Dr. Pretorius has a whole new class of happy young lawyer wanna-bes who were set to scan this old stuff for class credit. And some of the more interesting cases would come to the classroom for teaching materials. History of joker law, such as it’s been."
"This is all that’s left?" he asked, indicating the soot-flaking papers.
"Might as well be. But I couldn’t help thinking, when the clerk was going on about the fire, how amazingly convenient it was-just these years, right where a group of eager young proto-lawyers were supposed to go digging."
Leo stopped bouncing and gathered up the brittle papers. He handed the small stack back to her. "What are you getting at?" he asked, as if he couldn’t tell.
She began the task of stuffing them carefully back into the envelope. "All I’m saying is, maybe the Rathole’s worth another look. Another quick look," she specified. "Don’t you have a cold case unit around here, or something?"
"The Rathole’s not a cold case. It’s closed. A credible suspect was arrested-"
She interrupted, "A convenient suspect. Who then conveniently died."
"He was good for it."
"Maybe he only looked good for it. And you still have five months left on the clock." She looked so eager, there in her fitted suit with her legs crossed at the knees.
But Leo said, "Wanda, it’s been thirty years. Everybody who isn’t dead has forgotten everything important. I’m glad I could help, but don’t get worked up about the Rathole now. It’s a waste of time."
Excerpt from WILD CARDS XXI: FORT FREAK, coming from Tor in June, 2011.
Copyright © 2010 by Cherie Priest, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.