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“Hello. My name is Joey and I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m sober, I swear it. Three years, three months. But today…” Here Joey paused, looking for words that would not sound like a joke.
“Say it Joey,” Maureen said, gently.
“I was seeing stuff. Birds taking pictures through my window. My tea cup was talking to me.”
“What was in the tea, Joe?” Sam asked from the back row.
“Now Sam,” Maureen said, in that soft plump voices of hers that could freeze the marrow of the hardest drunk who ever stumbled into a church basement. “It’s Joey’s time to share. Joey, we believe you.”
“I’m not sure I believe me,” Joey confessed. “I’ve been loopy all day. Ever since that dame walked…”
“I believe you mean a woman, Joey,” said Maureen in a voice like that seemed to rest on twenty feather beds, and bit into his soul like a kitten ravishing a sardine. “We don’t use derogatory terms in this meeting.”
“Sure,” he said, “the dame was a woman. And that woman was some dame.”
“Do you remember our little talk about inclusivity and sensitivity, Joey?” Maureen’s voice was soft as the head on a hundred pints of Guinness. “You will have to leave if you can’t be accepting of everyone. Perhaps you have been drinking after all.”
“Only tea,” Joey asserted.
“From a talking cup!”
“Shut it Sam, or I’ll shut it for you!”
“I think our time is up,” Maureen said, sounding like the fall of endless waves of silk into a still pond. “Fold up the tables and chairs before you go.”
“But I haven’t done with my share,” Joey protested.
“You most certainly have,” the silken cascade whispered, the pond now frozen to a glassy sheen over which the silk slid in endless frigid waves.
Sam caught up with Joey as they emerged into the bitter night. Battered taxis squealed past on darkened street. Yellow light from a guttering street lamp formed a small pool at their feet. All up and down the street similar pools glowed dully, like portals to other worlds, grimy worlds without wonder or beauty.
“You were winding the old hag up, weren’t you,” Sam said, taking Joey by the arm.
“I don’t fool around in meetings. Not even hers.”
“Birds taking pictures. Talking tea cups. You were high then.”
“That’s the thing Sam, I think I was high. But I didn’t take nothing. I swear I didn’t.”
“Tell me about the dame.”
“Like Christina Hendricks meets Cruella De Ville. Told me the earth was flat and her husband was from the future.”
“I know the type.”
“You know that type? She’s not a type, she’s a cartoon.”
“You want to keep this to yourself, Joey.”
“I know it makes me look bad…”
“Did you take the case?”
“What did she want you to do?”
“Follow her husband.”
“Why? What were you looking for?”
Joey struggled to remember. Something about the Illuminati. What were they anyway? Something from a movie. He decided not to say the word to Sam.
“She gave me a blank check,” he said.
Sam stiffened. “A check? Show it to me.”
Joey pulled out his billfold and handed the creased check to Sam. Sam held it up to the pale street light and gazed at it intently.
“Well, its a blank check, alright,” Sam said. “Mind if I hold on to it?”
“What do you mean hold onto it. It’s my retainer.”
“It won’t do you much good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like you said, it’s a blank check. Look.”
Sam did not give the check back but held it between his massive thumb and fingers where Joey could read it in the dim light.
“Yeah,” Joey said, pointing. “The amount is blank.”
“It is,” Sam replied, “but so is the signature.”
Sam moved his massive thumb so that the signature line was clearly visible. It was a simple ruled line, blank as the horizon after a ship carrying a departing lover has sailed out of sight.
“It’s one of those that the bank gives out when you open an account, until the personalized ones come from the printer. You have to print your name and address on them yourself. Those lines are blank too. No account number. No nothing.”
“But I took it to the bank. I showed it to my buddy, John. He said it was signed. He said it was his wife’s signature.”
“You took it to the bank? Then what is it still doing in your billfold?”
Something icy touched Joey’s heart then. Up till now his memory has seemed clear. Crazy, but perfectly clear. But he had no answer to Sam’s question. Something was missing. Something did not add up.
“But I did —” he began, and then trailed off. He reached into his pocket for the immaculate white iPhone he had bought that afternoon, desperate that it should be real. The cool heaviness of the glass and plastic comforted him. He did not pull it out. He did not want Sam to see it. Under Sam’s gaze it might turn out be be an old broken Blackberry.
“You couldn’t have cashed this anyway,” Sam said. “Look Joey, I think you had better leave this with me. It’s police business now.”
“Fraud. You were passed a bad check. I’ll look into it for you. May take a while. Go home and forget about it.”
“Look, Sam, I’m not a cop anymore, but I know how the system works. I taught you a thing or two, back in the day. How are you going to investigate a blank check? You don’t even have a name.”
“What name did she give you?”
“It was —” Joey paused. He could have sworn she had told him. He never forgot a face or a name. It was a matter of professional pride. The only kind of pride he had left. “Chris, maybe. Crystal?”
The only word that came into his head was “Bacon.” But that had been a joke, hadn’t it?
“It must be in my notes. I’ll bring them by the station in the morning, if you really want to pursue this. I mean, I feel a fool, but I haven’t actually done any work on the case yet, so no money for no work isn’t exactly fraud.”
“You’re right,” Sam said. “I’d just forget about it if I was you.” He put the check into his inside pocket.
“Give me my check back, then, if you don’t think there’s anything too it.”
“It might be connected to some other cases we are looking into.”
“Can I help then? I’ve got a bone to pick with that dame. I think maybe she slipped me something. ‘Cause I haven’t touched a drop. I swear to you I haven’t.”
“You know it doesn’t work that way, Joey. You work your side of the street and I’ll work mine.”
“Come on, Sam. There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“You should go find a paying client and let me worry about this.”
“Well, if you want to follow it up, fine. I’ll bring my notes by the station in the morning.”
Sam frowned, but then shrugged and said, “Sure, if you want to. Might help. Then forget about it, okay.”
Sam held up a hand and whistled. One of the squealing cabs veered abruptly, lurched to the curb, and slowly settled. Sam took out his wallet, showed his badge to the driver, handed him a couple of twenties, and said. “Take him home. He’s had a few too many. See he gets inside his place before you leave.”
“Sure, Chief,” the cabby said.
Joey was maneuvered into the back seat, Sam’s huge hand behind his head, like a perp being placed in a squad car. The door was slammed shut with a sound between a child’s scream and a subway car rounding a sharp bend. The car heaved itself forward into traffic. Joey looked back a moment. Sam was standing in dim light under the street lamp, the blank check once again in his hand, held up to the light.
In the morning he went early to his office, where he found the tea cup to be as silent as the broken computer. His notebook lay open on his desk. Yesterday’s notes were almost unreadable, like they were written by a drunk. He sat down and tried to copy them more legibly. The dame. The Illuminati. Something about a disc. Will text details.
He pulled out his new phone and opened the text log. There was nothing. Of course. New phone, new number. His old SIM card had once belonged to Fred Flintstone. It wouldn’t work with his iPhone. The genius who sold him the phone had held the old SIM between two fingers, as if it was something smelly that someone had left on his doorstep, and had dropped it into a shredder where it popped and cracked twice and was gone.
It must have something to do with the disc, Joey decided. It wasn’t much to go on, but he decided to go down to the station anyway. Sam seemed to know more about this case that he was willing to say. Maybe he could get more out him this morning than he had been able to do last night. His head was clearer now, at least. If the dame had dosed him somehow, it seemed to have worn off.
The desk sergeant greeted him as he entered the familiar lobby of the station, with its peeling olive paint and the smell of sordid desperation. “Hey, Joey, keeping sober?” The sergeant had taken him to his first meeting, back in the day, after everything fell apart.
“Keeping sober,” Joey replied. “Paul, can you tell Sam I want to see him. I have the notes I promised him.”
“Sam?” the sergeant asked. “Sam who? There’s no Sam on the force here, Joey. You know that.”
There was a whirring of wings, and the bird that had been sitting pecking crumbs on the sergeant’s windowsill was suddenly gone.
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Text (c) 2022 by G. M. Baker.
Header image by Erica Drayton.
Seven degrees of Crystal Bacon 🥓 Great job, Mark!
Raising a smiling glass of the black stuff for the Guinness simile