Duke Foster looked down at his attire. He was wearing a dress shirt and a tie and was seated in a stained, blue swivel chair at a large pressboard table with several identical people all dressed like him. A bald man in a suit prattled on in incomprehensible gibberish. He glanced out the window and saw vigilantes with strange powers going head to head with a robot. The man in the suit barked at him. Every time he looked out the window he’d get another unintelligible admonishment. Behind the barking man was a never-ending loop of arcane graphs and spreadsheets. Duke’s head burned. Outside of the room, a custodian was playing ping pong off of a filing cabinet with a ball bearing. Snap, ping, snap, ping, snap, ping. The sound drilled into Duke’s head, pounding against his brain. The burning increased with every hit. The man in the suit was babbling at him again for not paying attention. He grabbed his head as the burning became more intense. He screamed.
When Duke awoke he was groaning into his pillow. His eyes cracked and it was dark inside his trailer, save for a single beam of light that indicated it was close to noon. Snap, ping, snap, ping. The sound from his dream was still ringing in his ears. He got up and splashed water on his face. Shook his head. Dug around in his ears with his pinkies. The sound persisted. As Duke shook off the fog he became aware that sound was coming from outside. He threw open the door to the trailer, standing in the doorway in ripped cargo shorts and a black t-shirt, that was beginning to develop the ruddy complexion of not having followed the washing instructions on the tag. Skip was standing in front of Duke’s trailer, firing a BB pistol at a row of empty cola cans lined up all along Skip’s car across the gravel way.
“Morning, Duke,” Skip said, plinking a BB off a Pepsi can. He checked his watch. “Yep, still morning.”
“What time is it?” Duke grumbled.
“Eleven fifty-four. How was sleep?”
“Boring. I get bored in my sleep now.”
“You sure did a lot of it.”
“Only six hours.”
“You were up all night again? You’re going to beat the crap out of the wrong people if you keep that up.”
“If some asshole wants to hold up an old lady, he’s the right people.”
“They’re not all lone wolves, there’s like hierarchies and stuff,” he jabbed his hands in the air like he was outlining the floors of a building, “some boss is going to get pissed you keep manhandling his employees.”
“Then I’ll kick the crap outta him too.”
Skip snorted and fired off another BB at a Mountain Dew can. It exploded in a fountain of warm, fizzing, green liquid.
“Oh shit,” Skip ducked, “a live one.”
Duke watched the sickly fluid, running in glossy, bloated tendrils down the side of his trailer.
“You didn’t know it was full when you set them up?” Duke asked.
“There are two possible scenarios,” Skip said, locking eyes with Duke and shooting another can off his car. “One, and this is most simple one, I didn’t set them up,” he claimed another can. “Two, somewhat more elaborate, but equally plausible, I set them up last night after I blacked out drunk and then passed out when I went in to get my BB pistol.”
Duke stared at the cans, bobbing his head, “I got twenty bucks on number two.”
“I’d see that bet, but that’s where my twenty bucks is too. Go see Kim, she’s taking that action. You driving tonight?”
“I drove last night.”
“In between orders, you pummel pickpockets? Or the other way around? The order will determine what end of the junkie spectrum you fall on.”
Duke sounded like a lion sighing and glared at Skip.
“So is it the only time you feel alive or is it chasing a dragon?”
“Are you trying to talk me out of it?”
“Honestly, I have no idea what I’d be talking you out of. What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know why you try to get yourself killed every night?”
“These punks can’t scratch me.”
“Yeah, but sooner or later you’re gonna run into the type of shit those weirdos get mixed up with. You’re gonna run into some guy with...metal...eyeballs...or some shit…”
“Calm down, dude,” Duke said. “I’m not going to run into any of that beating up small time creeps.”
“Hierarchies, Duke, Hierarchies,” Skip gave a more emphatic air illustration of a building. “On the other hand, what’s the point in beating up small timers. If you’re out there to do something you’re gonna want to work your way up the chain,” his fingers walked up the steps to his air building.
“You think I’m gonna start looking for bigger fish?”
“It’s the logical progression.”
“At that’s when you think I’m gonna get myself killed?”
“Probably. I’m not so dumb that I think I can talk you out of anything, but…” Skip looked at his feet, “maybe you could use some backup.”
“No. I roll solo.”
“Unless it’s a cosmic cowboy with a sword or some chick that shoots lasers out of a compound bow. I have skills...a skill that could help,” he looked at Duke as he shot another can.
“You can shoot cans off a car.”
He walked toward Duke as he shot the last three cans off the car, “yeah. A gun doesn’t care what it’s pointed at.”
“You want to shoot people?”
“Not to kill. It doesn’t have to be bullets. It could be tranq darts. I just think it’s dumb for you to do it alone.”
“What happens when they shoot back?”
“Two tours says I’ll be fine.”
“You were a sniper.”
“That’s it. That’s my niche. I’ll be the sniper with a tranq gun, packing enough juice to drop a silverback,” Skip squinted at the ground, rubbing his chin.
Duke frowned and chuckled, “then I’m calling you Renfield.”
“What?” Skip grimaced. “No.”
“If you’re doing this I’m calling you Renfield.”
“We’re not going to be a theme group. That’s lame.”
“If you’re stuck on a theme how about Harker.”
“No. Renfield. It’s my one condition.”
“As long as you never introduce me that way.”
“Have to. It’s your codename. Keeps your identity safe on the street.”
“And just as I’m about to put out some asshole’s lights, I’ll say, ‘Here’s another delicious roach for you, Renfield’.”
“That’s the life,” Duke drifted into his trailer. “Eight o’clock. Be ready,” he shut the door.
Linc waited for the phone to ring or someone to walk through the door and jingle the bell. He’d be content with armed robbers breaking in and holding up the place. He wasn’t certain if people robbed funeral homes or the private detective that had set up shop in the utility room around the back. He wasn’t certain if people even knew he was there. A Facebook group, Linkedin profile, and Pinterest page had so far netted zero clients. He was in the negatives if you considered the person who walked in trying to sell him life insurance.
“Who sells life insurance at a funeral home?” he thought, “maybe I’m missing the angle.”
It took Burke three hours to get Hare to agree to this arrangement. He called in every favor he had. The bell on the door jiggled and Linc sat up straight, fixing the unruly hair on his latest body. Mr. Hare stood over his desk, looking down with sunken dark eyes. His long, gaunt face hung loose on his skull and his thin lips scowled.
“It’s been three days and you haven’t secured a single client,” Hare said. “Can I have my utility closet back?”
“It’s only been two days,” Linc replied.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” Hare counted the days on his long, spider fingers.
“Two and half days. It’s only 11:30.”
“It’s six minutes to noon.”
“The lunch rush should be starting soon.”
“Lincoln, I agreed to let you indulge your little fantasy as a favor, no, several favors to Mr. Burke. I made no promises as to how long I’d let you play detective. Seeing as how your game has run its course I’d like my utility closet back.”
The phone rang. Linc gave Hare a haughty grin.
“It’s a telemarketer,” Hare said.
Linc lifted the receiver, “Linc Otis, pirate...private investigator?”
Hare crossed his arms and gave a hard stare to Linc as he stammered on the phone.
“Yes,” Linc said, “you do? That’s great,” he smiled at Hare. “When can you come in?”
Linc dropped the receiver and looked at Hare. Hare sighed and turned to return to his work.
“I give you a week,” Hare said, drifting from the room.
Linc spent the afternoon, tidying up his utility closet office. He was dust busting a plastic ficus when the bell on the door jingled. In walked a thin, woman wearing a pantsuit and carrying a briefcase. Her hair was pulled up in a severe bun on the top of her head. She slapped the briefcase on Linc’s Ikea desk and sat down in the metal folding chair he had pilfered from Mr. Hare.
“Mrs. Linden?” Linc asked.
“Ms.,” she replied. “I told you that on the phone.”
“Right, right. Have a seat.”
“I am sitting.”
“Right, right,” Linc flopped into the other folding chair he stole from Hare. “Explain your situation to me.”
“I need you to follow my ex-husband. We’re currently engaged in a custody battle for our children I need you to find evidence that he’s a dangerous man who should be in prison.”
“Okay. What kinds of activities do you think he’s involved in?”
“Some sort of organized crime. I don’t know for sure. What I am sure about is that he’s some sort of wizard ninja.”
“Wizard ninja,” Linc mumbled as he scribbled on a legal pad.
“Given that you haven’t laughed me out of your office, I assume don’t find that at all strange.”
“A wizard ninja would be the least weird thing I’ve seen in the last couple weeks.”
“Do you get many cases like this?”
“You’re my first client.”
“That doesn’t bode well.”
“I’ve only been in business for three days...two and a half.”
Ms. Linden sat back, “Mr. Otis, I need a professional...but given you’re the last P.I. in Philadelphia who hasn’t waved me off, I have little option here, but to trust you with my case. Can you handle it?”
“A wizard ninja? Yeah, sure. You remember that zombie outbreak a week or so back?”
“I’ve been very busy and haven’t kept up with the news.”
“Well, I stopped that one.”
“I’ll take your word for it, which should tell you how desperate I am.”
“Don’t worry, Ms. Linden, I’ll get you what you need.”
“Fine. How much?”
“As much as you want pictures, video, discarded burger wrappers…”
“I meant what do you charge.”
“Twenty bucks an hour.”
“That’s satisfactory,” she rummaged through her briefcase and pulled out an 8 by 10 picture of an older man, with graying temples. “His name is Randall Pulsifer,” she pulled out a manilla folder overstuffed with papers. “Here are some things that will help get you started. Schedules, addresses, et cetera. When do you plan to start?”
“I expect frequent updates.”
Ms. Linden stood up and held out her hand. Linc shook it and she frowned at the cold, clammy fish she found gripping her hand.
“You should try hot yoga,” she said. “It will help with your circulation.”