An aluminum and acrylic box was my sentry station at the entrance to a parking lot. In this bombed-out New England mill town, parking lots covered the downtown area like scabs on a six year old boy. As the local economy collapsed commercial building owners were faced with taxes which exceeded the income potential of their property. In response they razed the building, put up a small, barely weatherproof booth, a tin sign, and declared it a parking lot. Not that there was much call for parking with so few functioning businesses. Except for other parking lots.
Kat had a friend who had a friend who had a cousin, or something, anyway, someone needed an attendant to collect parking fees. I was in need of employment, so a match was made. And now my days were as long and as excruciatingly boring as any ever recorded in the history of mankind. My body was healing at a reasonable pace, but my mind was shriveling to a raisin of its former glory.
Mid afternoon was the worst time, when traffic in and out of the lotceased altogether. I had finished reading the morning paper for the third time and was studying the details of my eyelids when, out of nowhere, the mellifluous voice of the charming young lady whispering in my ear turned into a throaty roar. Blessedly, it passed and the miss returned to her seductive tones. I was just about to succumb completely when she coughed, in a sharp, ear piercing staccato. If that was not bad enough, she slapped me hard in the back of my head. Hard enough to wake me up. She coughed again. Except I was awake. And being shot at.
I threw myself off the stool, and landed amid a pile of broken Plexiglas and newspaper on the kiosk floor. I could hear a car engine revving fast somewhere in the parking lot. Tires squealed, and the car raced by the booth, smashed through the guard arm and hurried away down the street. I chose to read the paper for yet a fourth time as it was conveniently on the floor of the booth. Conceivably, I might be there still if the paper were not being increasingly obscured by the blood pouring from my head.
For a few tense moments, because I needed added tension at this point, I was debating whether I should risk another encounter with my attackers, or risk not bleeding to death in this most ignominious landscape. I decided that this was the last place I wanted to be caught dead ,and stumbled out in to the parking lot where I was barely missed by an enormous white Lincoln screeching to a stop with its chrome bumper kissing my left knee. The burly driver leapt out and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Rick!! Are you okay?”
Oh, it was Kat. I was a bit confused.
“Rick!!! You’re bleeding, are you shot?”
My mind was clearing a little and I reached up to the well of blood at the back of my head, then carefully examined the fresh blood on my fingertips.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
Kat looked into my eyes. Then he slapped me across the cheek. Hard.
“Hey! What are you doing?’ I was about to reach up to feel the insulted cheek, when I saw the blood on my hand, again.
“Kat! I’m bleeding, I’m hit. I need to get to a hospital.” I started out screaming, but ended up swaying..
Kat grabbed me by my arms and gently lowered me to the ground, where I rested my back against the cursed toll booth.
In the distance sirens foretold the impending arrival of the ambulance and police. The fire department showed up right behind for good measure.
A familiar face looked down at me as I lay on the gurney in the Emergency Room. “Mr. William’s, I told you not to leave the hospital.” It was the intern who so vigorously objected to my hasty departure just three short weeks ago.
In case you were the slightest bit concerned, I will tell you that I was not shot. The gallons of blood caking my hair, soaking my shirt, distorting my otherwise fine features, issued forth from a small gash in the back of my head, hardly big enough to warrant a single stitch. The doc was sure it was from a piece of broken Plexiglas, not a bullet. Within a few hours, a mere nanosecond in emergency room time, Kat was loading me into the front seat of the Lincoln and we were headed back to my abode. I just kept my eyes closed, and ignored Kat’s monologue of vituperative invective against innocent pedestrians, while trying to forget my day.
Back in the church basement Kat boiled some water for tea while I showered and changed. Clean, and slightly refreshed I joined him in the kitchen for tea and oatmeal raisin cookies.
We sat in silence, save the slurping and crunching and the occasional noncommittal “mmmm”.
Kat finally burst out. “You don’t have anything stronger here, do you?”
I was startled. “Um., I might have some gingersnaps in the cupboard.”
“No,” he growled, “ stronger than tea.”
“Ah, yes, under the sink, Irish Whiskey, Bushmills.”
Kat retrieved the bottle and poured himself a large measure on top of the dregs of his tea. Then he topped of my tea as well. Raising his cup to me in a silent toast, he took a long drink, smacked his lips in appreciation, and settled back into his chair. I sipped at mine delicately, in consideration of my condition, and the pain medication I was taking.
As the warm tea and whiskey worked its wonders I relaxed and slumped back in my chair as well.
Kat and I sat in quiet contemplation, until I could not take it anymore. I had more questions than I had mouths, but there was one that nagged at me most.
“How did you get to the parking lot before the cops?” It seemed a fair question.
Kat was in mid-bite and answered with a shrug. “I was sitting around the corner, listening to a police scanner. I heard a call, citizen reporting gun shots, and I just assumed...”
“You were waiting around the corner? And you assumed the shots were fired at me?” I was getting steamed. “You expected me to be killed?” I was rising from my seat as my voice grew louder.
Kat leaned back, tipping the chair precariously on its two hind legs and gave me a look that one might give to a naughty child. He did not speak until I sat back down and was quietly seething.
At long last he drew a deep breath, folded his hands across his ample belly, and spoke in measured tones.
“I thought it might be possible that you would be a target, but I was hoping the whole thing had passed over..”
“I think we have an answer to that.” I sarcastically interrupted.
“Um, yeah,” Kat continued. “Anyway, I didn’t have anything solid, just a hunch, so I stayed close whenever I could.”
Kat was casual, in counterpoint to my ever increasing aggravation. “I have to work, occasionally, too.” He waved his hand in the air as if to dismiss my concern.
I plunged ahead, determined to get an answer to at least one of my questions.
“And who, exactly, am I a target of?” Another fair question, to my mind.
“Well, you know,” Kat was not looking in my eyes, but suddenly seemed intrigued by the way the cupboards met the ceiling at such a precise ninety degree angle. “ I am not sure, exactly.”
“Okay” I could play along. “Who, approximately, am I a target of?”
“Well,” Kat grew more fidgety, “it isn’t the O’Casey gang. And it isn’t the Latin Knights.”
“And you know this, how?”
Kat looked hurt, then got huffy. “I AM a detective.” And after a long pause he added, “I asked them.”
After yet another pause he continued, soto voce, “But they seemed afraid of whoever it is.”
It was at this point that I finally lost all control and started ranting.
“What in hell did I get into here? Three weeks ago I was happy, living each day with no concern about anyone trying to kill me, my body was contusion free and my greatest worry was where to find a more reliable supply of marmalade. Today someone tried to kill me FOR THE SECOND TIME, and I don’t know who, or why or what I did or how I can stop it. And you’re no help, you keep sending me to my near doom .”
As I was talking Kat was absent-mindedly fishing through the pockets of his ratty tweed jacket I paused and watched in rapt fascination. Apparently there was a large hole in his left outside pocket as I could see the silhouette of his great fist rummaging about along the lower seam of the jacket much like a lumpy mole under a rough-wove lawn. At last, after it seemed he had explored the every last nook and crevice his hand re-surfaced, clutching a crumpled cigarette pack. He shook one out and placed it between his pursed lips. His hand once again disappeared into the depths of his outerwear, no doubt in search of a source of ignition.
Kat eventually noticed the gap in the conversation, and making a rolling gesture with his free hand he told me to continue. Unfortunately, I had by this time completely forgotten what I was saying. Instead, I became fixated on the stuffed paper cylinder hanging from his lips.
“I never knew that you smoked, Kat,” I said in a questioning tone, which conveyed more curiosity than I cared to admit.
Kat did not break his thus far futile quest for fire. “Oh, I don’t.” The unlit cigarette waggled in his mouth as he spoke like a chastising finger. “Except after sex.” A sly grin framed the nicotine stick still begging for a flame.
I quickly raised my hands to stop him. Both hands. Waving frenetically. “Please, I don’t want to know. This is beyond the scope of the employee-employer compact”
Kat waved off my protest. “I didn’t say it was recent sex.” His eyes took on a dreamy cast. “But, it was very, very good.” His voiced drifted off as he spoke.
“Listen,” I was still trying to stop him, “Whatever happens between you and the missus is really none of my concern.”
“Please don’t bring up the missus,” Kat grimaced as if a slightly warmed knife had been menacing his midriff area. “She only serves to ruin the moment.”
“Surely you don’t mean to say that you have been, dare I say, dallying?’
Kat grinned like he had eaten an entire flock of canaries, all in mid-song. “I should hardly think that a man who has been seen publicly squiring the wife of a top public servant, and I need not mention, said public servant has been recently murdered under very mysterious circumstances, is in a position to moralize about my, as you say, dallying.”
“Might I remind you,” my voice was trembling, “It was not a dalliance that evening with Mrs. Marlin, it was a job, a job that you sent me on, a job that lead to me getting beaten to within an inch of my life, a job that has lead to me being locked up here, a virtual prisoner in my own home?”
“Not to quibble, but I think you should consider yourself a very real prisoner for the moment.” Kat had a very annoying habit of fixing on a single, irrelevant point and carrying on about it, ignoring the primary focus of the conversation. The fact that this particular conversation had no primary focus did not serve to make his comment any less aggravating.
Kat’s peripatetic paw had progressed from his sportscoat inward to his shirt pocket, then shifted to his pants pockets, port and starboard, fore and aft. His brow grew ever more furrowed as his frustration mounted, and the cigarette bouncing in his lips was tracing cursive curses in the air. Finally he withdrew his hand and held it, open palm up, close to his face, and stared into it with utter disbelief that his very own hand should betray him and remain hopelessly empty.
“Um, you wouldn’t happen to have a match?” Kat continued patting himself all over, creating an odd rhythmic beat and raising an increasing cloud of dust about his person. If a small flock of Mexican free-tail bats had been driven forth, I would not have been the slightest bit surprised. Apparently the appeal of tweed was its ability to hide dirt and stains, in this case perhaps for years.
“No, I don’t smoke.” I was quietly relieved, as the room was developing a distinctive funk that could only be aggravating by stale cigarette smoke.
“Oh, I am sorry to hear that,” Kat took the impotent cigarette from his mouth, gave it one last longing gaze, then crumpled and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. “Once it is safe for you to leave this place, I will fix you up with a nice woman.”
“I really don’t smoke.” I was growing exasperated. “And I could live without you fixing me up with a woman. Live longer, based on recent events.”
Kat waved his hand dismissively. “What were we talking about before you distracted me?”
“I can’t remember.” I slumped down into the chair. “Listen I’m beat. I can’t think clearly right now.” My shoulders fell forward and I closed my eyes.
My repose was brief, as a sharp knocking at the basement entrance echoed through the apartment. Kat got up and made his way to the door. When he opened it I could see the Smith Brothers framed against the black night. Sort of a Grant Woods meets Edvard Munch. They conferred with Kat for a few animated moments. Animated for them, anyway, I am sure I saw a hand move. Kat reached into his sports coat, pulled out his wallet, looked down in surprise as a packet of matches fell out to the floor, and handed some bills to Wilbur. Or Orville. He/he stuffed them into the pocket on the bib of his overalls, then they both touched the bill of their respective seed caps, turned as one, and disappeared into the night. Kat called something inaudible to me after them, and closed the door. He returned to the kitchen where I could see the worried look on his face.
“Pack a bag, boychik, it is time you left town. Wilbur and Orville will be back in an hour for you.”
“Why? What happened?”
He gave me a look that asked loud and clear “Have you not been paying attention to anything?”
“Uh, oh, yeah, a change of scenery will do me good.” My mind was racing. “Um, Kat?”
“What? Get packing!” he barked.
“Where am I going?”
“Wilbur and Orville are taking you to their family home.”
“And that is where?”