ray hartman:

newly revised as tgr_rev.abw: 06/27/02 - 08/13/02

wc = 47.8K


We were gonna  get slammed. Thunder-heads  rumbled over Folly  Island bleaching Charleston Bay gold ta bronze ta sleet silver. Water  boiled rough behind a line of white-caps. They  cut  off  day-sailors  tacking for the Wappo Cut  ... who sez water floats everything.  Jeeez it  scraped my eyeballs, and I put fingers to the glass feeling  first slaps a' sleet on the window pane. Dumb as a rock, huh, but the vibrations ...  it  felt like wailing. Maybe 3000 miles that storm slammed alone now it rumbled straight for Charleston.

Sure, I seen  people run like that ...  lightening flashed  overhead;  the electric crack snapped my neck around ...  get yer azz away from the window, Sammy.  Ya ain't ready ta be toast. Ya been warned. Now the Rabbi - he sez nothing's wrote down in advance ... nothing that matters. That's his opinion. 

"Ya wants I should wash it again, Mr Levine?"

"Oh yeah, more water ..." Blond, loopy curls ... Doris had ta blow 'em outa her eyes while her toe tapped.  Doris-the-answer-girl was ruffling silk-gams in the client  leather lounger make Seattle Slew jealous and pouting smoke-rings from a half-burn Red.

"... I mean  no Doris. Wash? This ain't a laundry, and  who needs more starch I all ready been stiffed!"

"But the signature - that was real, " she fawned. "Your palsy called from the bank ... insufficient funds he sez.  All the zeros he sez  came before all the numbers, but maybe it's like a slot machine and the numbers keep changin'."

How serious wuz Doris I never know ...  I'm staring  past State & Broad into  rumbling  rolling grey  clouds. They  blot the sun and blow  icy, silver curtains over the city could'a been my last client - 'cept  she's in Jamaica with her husbands brother ...  oh brother and his bank account. "That's OKey Doris," I sez stalking grimly. "Bounced checks ain't like potatoes neither ya bake 'em twice they they blow up."

"Bake? I  never seen  bake on the microwave, but I'll look closer tonight." Doris rustled up slipping  toward the door. "Not baked, but  nuked! That's all the boyfriend likes ... nuked as in nukkee," sez Doris giggling. "No rent check yet  ... huh ...? " she sez and waits and when I got no answer so politely the door eased shut.

Sleet  rapped at  the glass.  It was  the  last chill day of  November.  Ping-splat-smack ... some music, huh ...  Alreed Building didn't pipe Muzak  five floors up. My office hangs on the southern edge. Gives a nice view a' storms when they blow in ... I like the patter. What seeped through froze on the radiator, old style, reliable -  the landlord, first he kills the heat - should'a  whistled  hot steam. I should pay the bill. I  found  it under the ringing telephone.

"Yeah, Levine ..."

"Missing  persons, Mr Levine. Do they roll your bones? Say yes."

"Yes  when, yes where?"

"First person personal."

"Sweetheart I ain't the classifieds ya got a picture?"

"Wonderous!  I could only hope ... as quick a study as he is fearless.  You are fearless, are you not Mr Levine oh thank God for the luck!"

Jeeez,  a one-dame orchestra I thought rubbing frozen grime-spots off the window. She  was calling from  Sausalito, where like sunny Kingston only  half-shell oysters see ice and  whistling like a tea kettle over lemon.  Suck my lip to the telephone, that breezy rap. "Whoa, sweetheart hold-yer-horses you're two furlongs into the turn my nag ain't heard the bell." I  kick the break-a-back oak chair round ta my side and say. "Say yes? Sweetheart ya could be under-age say eleven ain't lucky bones fer everybody."

"A field players apprehension.  Wrong!  Am I mistaken?"

That put my butt in the chair, and feet  over battered, grey-metal desk. "Not since the 5-th grade, sweetheart." Last  smoky drag  sucked from the Red  tossed butt caught the Folgers can just barely;  battered chrome Zippo wheezed on a fresh one ...

"Did she wear a candy necklace ... your 5-th grade sweetheart? Did you jump her bones ...?"

I'm thinkin' whose bones get  jumped any fool walks State Street after 9-PM, and what kinda dame talks like that ya don't know her?  Yet. 

Bones ... I'm chewing the plastic mouth-piece. "Lucky bones maybe, but fearless? What's this about fearless - why be fearless, who's fearless  not most," I sez  and Nona Koan hung up.

Ya know how bad plastic tastes when it doesn't talk back leaving ya  nowhere - one call, two missing persons and the bill's not paid. I scuff at the desk, watching a determined wet landslide of ocean fog bury the Wappo.  Sailboats too, bearing north of the lighthouse, and the light itself - all buried.  

Ten minutes later she calls back splashing spicy Pinot rap. “A nervy mouth does not a PI make - you are, are you not Sammy-the-Mole?”

I wanted to slap the phone. "That's more name than I got from you, sister. What is this ..."

"And you're  fearlessly keen on tracing lost persons?"

“Most days, sister  like a paper-cut ... maybe the blade needs a fresh edge. I don't hear no edge from the telephone ... ."

The receiver bit my ear. "Rejection so sharp. Humbug! FUD! And you a ladies man."

I'm thinking every joint off the  Vegas strip got one teaser like this. "What dictionary ya got, sweetheart I can't imagine.  But  you're the wrong dame today on the wrong side a' the river.”

Mississippi River I was  thinking, scratching  away where a fresh shave itched. Jeeez the dame wuz itchin' me ... like unpaid bills - worse ... what are ya doin' Sammy you got more vowels than clients?

So maybe I'm talkin' ta myself, cause  she said breezy and far away, but with a soft edge Vegas never seen. "Do I believe you? Does Mississippi have five vowels? Not! You aren't the type to send a girl alone down the river. So  which dame and  what river might that be ... Sam?”

Sam?  She calls me Sam ... both feet I dropped 'em on the floor smacked leather  ta the window staring down where  rainy day grift rolled along.  Shysters in Jags - Charleston grows 'em like Palmetto bugs could be twins for the pin-stripes and wool overcoats  -  they had tangled chrome  like bumpers got love handles, and  dirty-fingernail shouts  reached  up five stories  scratching my window pane.  Honey-lemon, homey noise. Noise like sore throats screaming.

I bit on the plastic. "Now there ya go again with names, sweetheart. You're a client, right? Clients got  problems,  problems  got names. You got mine and I got ..."

"Names are a fool, for all that. Even Abraham didn't pick his own ... Sam ..."

"Sam, Sam, what's with the Sam - and don't tell me about Abraham he married a bedouin, but left where the oil wuz ..." And I caught myself dreaming  a Sausalito voice she made drifty,  an all-night-voice Monterey pepper  caught-yer-tongue so  must'a been the dame-o-matic went off. Bent fenders who needs the damage? I  hung up.

Maybe she's gonna call back ... maybe she was a real client. Yeah ... I do OKey when clients call and pay bills. Six straight days  at the office not once do I think about that smooth, Monterey  raz  ... not once during  six days of rain,  which rain did not get warmer as November progressed, but practiced freezing and the seventh day Charleston figured it was too dry and the sky broke open like Noah had flood insurance. Not  Sam Levine or first floor Park-N'-Pee. Doris lent me a pair of sweat socks and her boyfriends sneakers.

“Yer shiverin' Mr Levine so sorry I'd give ya the sweater off my back but the boyfriend he gets jealous.”

“That's all right Doris you got more ta cover than me.”

“That's so sweet ... oh, your sister called. Sarah  complained ..." I scowled. Doris bit her lip, flinched and said. "Well maybe this'll warm ya up. I seen the hand address. Real personal huh Mr Levine, and she writes like a hottie.”

“Who writes neither a' the eXs got passed Xs?”

“Trust me, Mr Levine this one knows the whole alphabet A to Z!”

Doris was lookin' at me funny, like women do when they know the whole alphabet and you ain't got ta Ps and Qs.  Dry socks felt good. My Reds were soaked and crumbling , so I gagged and smoked Doris' Camels while I open the envelope she forked over with the Straight. Postmark Charleston.

“Came this morning, huh ...”

Nice perfume ... '92  cabernet   maybe ... Inside the envelope, on parchment  a stylish East-of-the-Cooper  address was written longhand, a  womans  spicy, stylish longhand I seen that before, and a time one-PM today  RSVP personal which  time I seen every day ...  


DAMOSEL? There she goes again with books a' style. How comes ya know that, Sammy - She! Stylish too were  five  crisp green yards like Xerox doesn't make 'em buried inside the note-card that I ain't seen so frequent.  The signature read N only.  as in None - Noose - Nona ...  Jeeez a client.  Only dry part a' Charleston was my list of clients.

“Not delivered personal, huh ...”

“What girl wants to go postal first date?”

“Postal ... first ... first what?” Doris made my head spin I ain't gonna yell at her. I handed her the note. "What do ya make of this?"

"I seen it through the desk-lamp already, Mr Levine. The Ss have big loops, so she's a small dame ..." Doris chewed on her red lips. "And distress? I wouldn't admit that ta no guy unless I had another way out!"

"Don't take no chances, huh sez you Doris I woulda bet 5-ta-2 she's a gambler ...  how comes her hand wuz shakin' so bad she spilled cabernet all over the note?"

"Probably pinot '94, not cab." Doris winked  pawing the note back. "The boyfriend he buys it all the time cause the tannins are weak and won't stain my teeth -- he's particular ..."

“Uhh, well yeah ...  tannins, huh ... she that kinda dame?"

"Wears leather, too ..."

"I knew that ... how did I know that ... how did YOU know that  must be loopy curls on the Ls - right?"

"No Mr Levine those mean she ain't a vegan. But she did leave smears a' leather cleaner next to the stamp."

The stamp felt dry as a  Death Valley bone ... "Stamps huh ... guess I better special deliver.”

"Don't bring wine on a first date ... don't be too early and don't whine. Be assertive!"

"Yeah that's me Sammy-da-slammer ..."

“And  keep yer feet dry, too Mr Levine. No girl likes ta wash wet socks,” she chimed as I slid out the office door.



Dirty and wet, huh ... what dirt a PI washes floats away public. Out the elevator first floor.  I'm tryin' ta make time. Jimbo caught me, thick ex-Navy arms  waving from behind the brass roaster. "Two beans like usual Mr. Levine?"  That fast he was squeezing black mud  through the espresso machine. "Icy streets, this morning  keeps the hand, steady."

"Yeah, Jimbo if ya got steel replacement joints."

"I got one ..."

"OKey I got one minute ta chew what ya pour."

Cross the marble floor  two frails at the bean counter giggled.  Stone  mug a' joe slides over the stained waxed wood  I grab it.   Jimbo's big, square cut with a brain 7-outa-10 maybe eight-point-five ya listen close.

"Whose the client, Mr Levine hope it's not a dame.  They hate sneakers."

First bite a'  hot mud made rubber burn  second  I slugged bottoms-up  rolled my eyes open. "Not this one," I sez not so sure,  "west coast and full steam ahead."

"Don't mean the boiler can't bust.  Lookie here ..." Jimbo slaps page-9 a' the Charleston Register some call it Dogpatch Gazette,  not page nine where the Ms Peepers column spilled regular bake-beans on local, social souffle. Pictures up top shows a dead steamship and a belly. Some kinda giant crane got the steamship grabbed and hanging in air. The belly wuz under glass and guarded by two dead-face thugs.

Jimbo shrugged an eyebrow. "Raised it off Beauford last week,  the Buddha that is," croons Jimbo not half skeptic. "Diamond eyes and a ruby big as your twat in its belly-button. Some catch, huh?"

"How'd they find it?"

"The steamship? Sunk steamships don't swim.  The Kuku Maru outa Hokaido, but leased to a French company in Papa-Eta.  Sunk in 1897 on a run from Jamaica to Baltimore and  buried to it's smoke-stack in sand. The Budda was hidden inside a  bail of hemp."

"Ya know anything more?"

"Yeah, the lead keel was cast lopside ta port."

"Jimbo, that tells me plenty why it AIN'T been found ..."

Same eyebrow Jimbo's got it thumpin' up-n'-down against his forehead. "Streets talkin', Mr Levine  NSA,DEA, OOP got a tip ..."

"All three, huh ... same tip?"

"Same black shoe-shines, Mr Levine, but  then the Navy's got to do the real work." Jimbos smile turned smug. "A pal a' mine still in the service sez coordinates were given to the meter! When divers went down they hit the smoke-stacks."

"That's interesting?"

"So says my Chief palsy,  cause nobody knew where the ship went down  give-or-take 20 miles."

"Maybe they should'a used a map," giggles one a' the frails."

"Or tarot cards," perks her gal-pal."

They're both eyeballing me like a wrong turn on Saturday afternoon. Jimbo slaps fresh joe in my paw and sez. "Way I figure,  the Kuku  was crawling up the coast to avoid customs. Frog  smuggling  gone slant."

"But  what's ta smuggle? In 1897 ya could still smoke yer own weed or pray ta your own fav Buddha in public without a trip to the slammer."

"Hemp Mr Levine ... they was shipping rope not dope. Now the Buddha ..." 

"Yeah maybe so ...  male or female ... I mean the Buddha?"

One a' the dames more pudgy stops giggling.

Jimbo coughs. " Like  one a' your enlightened SOB dame clients ... I'm sure not. Buddha's gotta be guys since they need enlightening ... " 

Both frails flounced up and stalked away leaving the air so tense and dime tips so thin they coulda' been nail polish.  Jimbo watched 'em go, then thumbed the dimes into a plastic pitcher said ORPHANAGE on the side ...  I'm chewing last bite outa the joe. "Some a' that ... enlightenment I maybe could use ..."

"The new client huh ... I know clients been thin for ya as Starbucks espresso.  But this left-coast dame ... Berdo type? She got a story pour straight?"

"Well .... say north a' that maybe it needs ta breath a little."

Jimbo's washing out a pot. "Frisky, Frisco filly, I hear that. More skin than grape?"

"More barrel than skin, huh."

"Yes sir, Mr Levine ... High maintain, as I've seen 'em. She'll make ya paint the deck before her hull clears water." 

"I got lines out I'm the dock."

"Both feet, huh ..."

"No nothin' I didn't promise nothin' only ta ... OKey, alright  what dame don't weep somebody got ta pay the rent."

Jimbo's got a big paw scratching squared-off blond Navy crop hair. "... yeah maybe Mr Levine you're the dock, you're the port - and with rent here comes da storm."

Jeeez  what  Jimbo and Doris might know about girls  and sunk steam-boats I ain't gonna think ... with a client who worries about wet socks I missed the first slush puddle not the second.  My Plymouth big-8 growled alive and walked through them out onto Lockwood. Wet socks and sneakers? Savages living East-of-the-Cooper usually didn't mind, and bad luck I didn't consider neither a touchy dame. One client I had by letters only sent Cracker-Jack boxes circled the words, cause her husband wuz sweet on a bimbo made Danish pastry. They wuz meeting twice a week at the dough-mixer when it stopped churning ... Jeeez glad I eat bagels only. The wife she finds out when the husbands jocky shorts start rising in the drier. Them she filled with Cracker-Jacks. It was her way a' getting back ...

Caffeine jolts made my foot twitch driving the Cooper River Bridge. Which driving becomes scary only half-way cross, when the  six-lanes dog-leg and there below  yer left elbow runs the Copper River bouts ten-thousand feet below and it's never forgiven a car made the wrong swerve. Charleston Bay's a skip-stone away, and the Atlantic  ... they got a suck. Rain and suck  what's worse or a sing-song broad from Sausalito?  I'm figuring  maybe it took  opera and a monsoon shaking loose a real client.

From  an address on the expensive side of Shem Creek. Ust'a be fish ... all fisherman then Yankee sharks swam through. I parked along the marina dock, and walked up to the gate-house. Gangly,  live oak  branches hung  dripping over the pathway. Half-way  ta where I figured I got. The gate-house was built of white brick and bleached oak  brewed old before it got nailed. Imitation old that's the new Charleston  and catered, whiskey hustle shouting new money and scratching clients too, if ya believe people are where they sleep. Sleet cold beating and slippery felt like cracks in my bones. Trench collar I pulled up.

Expecting a raw,  overgrown California red. But over rain patter she whispered  smooth old port. “I don't know whether to trust you, Mr Levine.”

I stopped dead ... something about the silky SNAK of a hammer cocking. Who wouldn't stop, for a steel drum,  rain pouring down my neck, and voices from nowhere spotting the frail with a better creep. I stopped not looking around and said. “Trust me sweetheart,  for  swell script and five-hundred dollars I'd give blood tests ta Jack Ripper.”

“I'm serious ...”

"Serious enough ta carry a piece?"

"It's ... it's not mine."

"That makes all the difference, sweetheart  can ya  find the safety?"

"This button ...?"  Metal  sounds sliding into a leather bag.  She took a deep breath. "Yes."

Breath, Sammy ... "Ya want ta exchange Cracker-Jax boxes, or go face-ta-face?"

"You have an honest face ..."

“This month only, it's on special. So figure serious this way,” I said as she  dodged  weepy oak branches a black skirt fluttered above her knees, "first ya got my name right and second I'm missing your name.”

A silver stick-pin held loops of  her black hair over an eye.  "Over there, please ..." she motioned toward the dock. "I like the noise of rain on water." We walked. Rain sizzled easy on the oily bay brine. "It's different in person, you know? There's no sneaking away ..."  Edge of redwood planks she turned facing me. "Really, Sam I'm at sea floating. I need a dock. Got a line?"

Sam ... she's with the Sam again ... "Nice boat, huh," I say pointing  up river at the rusting hulk of the worlds only nuclear powdered banana boat.

She laughed. "The Savannah? When I moved in the landlord called it a natural wonder."

"Yeah it's a wonder the Bay don't boil. Radiation in the cargo holds killed the Boas that ate the Tarantulas that stung the rats that ate bananas. All great - till the hull started melting ..."

"Oh really?  You need a better line ..."

"You need a name."

She had lustrous  hair, full lips and  a face too smart to be beautiful. A curl fell over her  left eye,  and  brown, oval doe-eyes did not flutter. “Why is that important, my name?”

Rain trickled down  fresh blush on her cheeks. From my jacket I took the envelope still five yards fat and stuck it into the flap of her Coach-bag. “Way I do business  that's how comes.”

"I see that Mr Levine. Your business ...  whether the customer is right or wrong your way or the freeway. Do you get much return business?"

"You'd be surprised. Sometime ... a dame marries the same fool twice and what's  gone missing only the same fool bones."

She smiled. "You may call me Nona ... Nona Koan." Her hand slipped into the Coach-Bag - and pawed back the fat envelope. "And this ...  this belongs to you." A grainy, worn photo of a redhead tagged along.  “But I'm not the one who's missing, Mr Levine. Julia is missing. Can you find her?”


Julia's missing ...  what red-hair chicken ain't come from an egg? Skinny bimbos I seen get lost in a drawer a' mens Jockey-shorts, and teen-lambs on the lam vanish in the holds of shrimp-boats.  They stank worse than scampi  before I shipped 'em back ta moma. Low-Country  locals can mix-N-match like that with Charleston social ecology.

But Julia?  A yankee - a foreigner?  Hide - from me - an outa-town frail  vanish I figure she's wearing knee-hole jeans why the slaves didn't vote for Jeff Davis, and  demanding edgy voice like two drunk trolley cars mating.  One helpless  frail make lamb-chops outa T-bones on Sammy Levine, the best bed-weasel in Charleston?  Actually, I was thinking 'anything but helpless', cause the dame in that grainy photo threw her swatch a' red hair like a hatchet! How could I miss? I beat leather ...  scrape violins from the  telephone  ...  made omelets for every  working-girl on Rivers Ave. So ... some eggs got hard shells.

It's six-AM. Dead cold. We're paddling laps cross the Ashley River - or more precise I am. Gortex ponchos are soaked through. Rain beat in our faces so hard ya can't see half-way cross  ta  Citadel boat-dock where hawk-face perv Hricko and me put out in the scull. I'm paddling like a mad Egyptian on the Red Sea. But Hricko? He ain't found oars yet, except ta wave at the reeds.

I'm tryin' ta help him along by counting out the stroke ..."... look, reach, pull, punch ... like a parachute jump under water ..."

It's second time across the Ashley and unforgiving  current beats me blue. Hrickos paddle would help if it ever touched water. It ain't normal for him ta slough after calling his own deal - he's honest as a high-price broker can be, and tough as an honest man. A concerned crease splashes his face from forehead ta chin.

Not me. "Now, huh Hricko ya pervo maybe now! With the arms ... ya gotta splash the paddle with the arms."

The perv grunts. Maybe he's thinking ... guess he don't want ta splash nothin' on the roll of Edisto reefer he got dangling from a mouth so thin he should eat the stash for vitamins. High-tide is pushing us up-river.  Toward the crocodile swamps. I ain't never seen one, but ya can hear them bellowing ...

"Paddle, ya bastard!" He sez nothing. We're actually pointed upstream ... "C'mmon, c'mmon --- move them arms or the bones ... your bones they're gonna be dental floss for some ..."

Coast-ta-coast that's my experience and it sez men respond to threats exactly opposite how they feel. Some punk sez 'I'm gonna drill ya with this 357-caliber' the dweezle responds 'drill away, palsy I'm goin' ta the lord'.  Sez him and his eyeballs roll toward heaven. But he ain't seen the lord in months and got a skull full a' mental novocaine. Now what a really tough man gonna tell the punk is somethin' like 'heh, pal let's split this bottle a' old rye, burn a Straight I got two ... it takes the twitch outa a mans finger.'  First shot a' rye rolls his eyes ta heaven. Then the hard man busts the punks face and walks away.   

"Dental," the perv shouts! "Did you say dental, like dental tool ...?"

Dead arms I got and a pulse-rate make cancer cells run outa yer lungs. "Yeah, Ben like I gotta pull yer molar ta get five miles a sweat outa you this morning."

Sudden like Hrickos paddle jigged our wake, right angle and he's sculling mad for the east-side Citadel docks - it's hell and he's got the ice concession. I glance back - Hricko's spit out the joint. A cracked smile and  wild  determination have replaced it. "Beaufort, Sam, we're heading for Beaufort. Want to come? Sure you do."

Don't get me wrong. I love Beaufort ... the Marines salute whatever  walks, shoot whoever runs  and the hookers all got security clearance.  I shout ta Hricko. "Do I want ta paddle to Beaufort? Sure we do, just grab the Gulf-Stream and end up in Newfoundland with the Vikings steada' the  Marines at Paris Island.  Vikings are dead. Ya crazy, Hricko or what?"

But Hricko he don't hear too good anyway. " Ford's got gas, Sam and the heater's fixed. Got dry clothes sure you do. Lunch is on me."

"Lunch, Hricko ya crazy perv the doc sez  hi-bran breakfast, Sammy - paddle five miles and eat a hi-bran breakfast."

"I have two Hersey bars and a bottle of brandy." Hricko's pounding away. "It has to be them," he shouts!

Them! We're making a wake, now at the stern and a coupla' floating logs with  scaly lizard-eyes drift far behind. I'm sweating like a fool, beating the water. "I got a business, Hricko I got clients I got ..."

I coulda' been dead, for what Hricko hears. What Hricko hears now only his brain cells beating together. "It makes so much sense, Sam.  Feds here, Feds there ...  they've been pinging my systems all month, feeling around the edges, probing, oh yes probing for a weak buffer or undefended port. And now they're here, the worst of the lot right here in Beaufort." He stretches up tall almost rocking over the scull. "We'll put a scan on them, personal style make bits flip like slot machine cherries." He got a grin now, cheek-ta-cheek makes his ears curl up. "We'll absolutely rain packets on them till their ports melt."

"Them! We?" The only 'we' I see close is me! I shout. "Crappola, Ben. Tell me this isn't chase-the-goose ... or goose the Feds."

"Screw the goose, Sam it's a lark."

"Goose, lark ... pigeon ... who gets da bird, huh Hricko?  What did ya do to 'em."

"Do to  the Feds, nothing."

"Liars roast in Hell, Hricko with the Popes. So which Feds did ya bum?"

"I never touched those drooling neocoms.  To their business partner ...? Coupla' thousand grey-market router chips show up from Costa Rica. Maybe I talked to a  pal ...  import-export know what I mean? Anyway,  the Siemans plant in North Charleston somehow gets  the chips, and accidently wash in the Cisco digital watermark. So  grey-market chips can't be distinguished from the real stuff. Course the same Costa Rican factory produces both ..."

"What's the difference?"

"About six-hundred dollars per chip."

"Oh Jeeez, Hricko that's taxes. Yer tryin' ta screw the  Feds outa taxes, and ya  tell me this is business?  Like somebody might pay me. Black helicopters don't pay."

"Oh and believe they have them, the black helicopters. With the ship - it's theirs of course.  Has to be. I should have recognized it right off. Dental tools - the Buddha - persuasion. The obvious ploy ...  dubious cover ... with me Sam?"


It's ten-straight up. Ben and me -- we're sitting in a deserted hash-joint 'bout a quarter mile from the Beaufort pier.  The sign reads GERTS. Dockway  stairs lead from the joint to the pier, but nobody  still living had used them recent. They leaned crazy and smell of old rot. Boats racked up on blocks for the winter snooze line both sides. My ass hurts from an eighty-mile rocket ride in Bens Ford.  It has no springs worth the name. Brandy helped not the chocolate. The 429-Cobra engine pushing it   that's new, unlike the 1987  pick-up body. It's red,  looks like a rusted out  tomato truck and sits alone in the lot catching salty rain.

Ben punches at a laptop computer. Breakfast we already ate half and I'm looking at 3 eggs, a pound of fried potatoes and 8 strips a bacon. It's excellent when I chew but don't stare. I do stare at the crane.

Or is it ship or a humongous steel crab? It floats, anyway and Hricko sez  I own it. Or the government does. The Feds. One of the three-letter Fed agencies that Jimbo seems to know about. Hricko too. The stern is swung round so ya catch all the winches and steel-work 200 feet high, and we can make out a faded name - SOGO MARU.

Beside the dock and the steel crab crane-ship sits a crumpled, 19th century steamer that woulda looked better under  salt water. It's pieces a crap. The steel government crab had gone out five miles from port, reached down a hundred feet and brought it out, dropping it ...  Ben had the computer screen turned toward me.

"Nipon registry, of course, the SOGO MARU. Can't expect the Company to register it in the US and pay union wages to the crew."

"Who runs the computers?"

"Unemployed Russki physicists. They pretend to do advanced sonar, while screwing into my computer systems ... or trying to. I have a couple  honey-pots set up  as byte-killers in a spare Cray:  They produce simulated buffer overflow cascades. Hehe," he chuckles. "Hostile scans get dumped into Malaysian phone-sex sites with just HOURS of long distance charges.  Ha haha  they'll  hack in circles for weeks before ..."

"Before they put ya in a steel box!"

Except I'd have ta bail him out. Funny business, what the steel, crab-ship actually does ... I'm looking at the junk steamer, then the computer screen. It displays a database of ship registries, owners and recent employments. It's an expensive but public database - I'm a PI but I can read. "Japo, sure ...  that's the reg, but it sez here the SOGO is leased out to a company in ... in Borneo?"

"The Frogs, Sam. The French run Borneo. Their intelligence agencies are  straight damned decadent beyond corruption - moonlight with the highest bidder. That's us."

"OKey, maybe that's cover. I said maybe ...  but not consistent cover.  What's the SOGO doing that's so secret? It sez here too last employment was laying a telephone cable from Osaka to  Vancouver. The list gives dates, crew, fuel expenses ..."

Hricko sneers. "Telephones? Ha!  What the SOGO really did was tear out a Russki anti-submarine hydrophone cable from Kiril to Mermansk!"

"Yeah well ... before that the SOGO was driving piles for a native hospital and tropical disease education center."

"Agency deprograming lab," he snickers, "where unwashed brains get brilloed." 

"Which agency and  sez who?" Hricko sucks willfully on a Camel Straight and sez nothing. Decadent beyond corruption. "I buy none a' this crappola, Hricko, but if I did ... what's it doing in Beaufort, the SOGO dredging up Buddhas twat. That and junk -- what else should I see?"

"Like I said,  they're screwing me," he sez a little too fast and a lot too certain.

"Sorry, Ben I don't buy that. Anyway I thought Crisco made oil not computer." Hricko sez nothing. "Who gets those grey market router chips?" Hricko sez nothing. "What's the real deal?"

Hricko quits sneering and tugs at his sharp, beak-like face. "I'd guess ... even among the principles, nobody  exactly knows ..."  He shrugs, butts out the fuming Straight and plows a fork into a last bit of blackened potato. "'Plenty true, Sam -  that steamer's quite a wreck ... not old enough for a museum, and otherwise not worth the salvage. Buddhas value might pay for one days work by the SOGO -- nothing more ... Course ... maybe what's important is not  what the SOGO found, but that it found anything. An accident, huh Sam? Perhaps the Navy was testing a new  underwater gravitometer and looked around for the least likely target."

Ben wuz talkin' round, what he really had ta say and I knew it. I lit a Red, and blew a broken-lung fog toward the window. Rain had stopped for the moment beating on it. Accident? Hrickos face said he didn't believe it - accidents; it's when a ship sinks ... accidents  happen to everybody, but you and when they DO happen to you it's at the wrong end of somebodies gun-sight. Jimbo seemed ta think so too; Jimbo had said the sunk steamer location had been perfectly spotted.

I said. "Accident is when the girlfriend gets pregnant, Ben. You believe accident me neither."

Hricko chews a bit on his jaw. "What if I told you Sam, that the SOGO never searched for the sunken  steamer before finding it."

"Search - ya mean go back-and-forth. Testing. Ya don't know beforehand,  where something is but keep poking till ..."

"The SOGO MARU never poked."

"Which you know because ..."

Hricko sez nothing, then croaked ... "I  hacked the SOGOs  exact headings for the last two weeks. Minute-by-minute. As cover, they were only using 56-bit  database encryption. Child's play ...  she was steaming for Gibralter, but  three days ago did a quick left hand turn cross the Atlantic. What if I told you the SOGO  wiggled right to the spot, dropped anchor and dove down the sunk steamers smoke-stack."

How interesting wuz this: Hricko's  got the same story Jimbo gave me. Sudden like I got visions of being paid.  "I'd say somebody  knew, and told them  exactly where it was. 'Course, if you're right about the SOGO, why call the Navy and lose all salv ..."

Sudden  movement. It chopped the word in half. A  red hatchet flash of  hair moving on the dockway  yanked around my head. The studious face beneath the red swatch - that face had been watching  through the window ... studying ... and as fast the red swatch and figure under it disappeared moving toward the SOGO.  It's what'cha feared most, figuring a second slow on the last figure ya ever got ta remember ...  bullet or sap...  Time ta say nothing, or know anything exactly I jumped the wood bench and slammed through the front door - into face-biting fresh sleet and a dames black trench diving into the fog.  

The stairs leading to the dock were layered - down, down and down and like the swaying female figure beneath the red swatch hair were disappearing in the weather cloud that blew in fresh from the east. I pelted down the dockway  legs rapping steady at the wet pine  thinking I'd been a fool for love more times than fooled by a grainy color photograph I seen only once, but there's a carry to a person, a movement that shows up in a still photo if only ya let  it move. I'd give any nag five pounds and an early move betting the red swatch belonged ta Julia Koan. Any bookie will tell ya  bet yer instincts.

Cloud a' sleet blew in, blew over me and then blew away taking seconds only, but leaving in front of me an empty, soundless dockway where the only motion was sway in my legs and  squinting eyeballs the only red swatch.  Empty  to the SOGO MARU gangway two- hundred yards off.  Metallic,  ticking lines on the blocked up boats scraped and whined and twanged nothing more. No red swatch. No Julia ... tear up the ticket, pal.  Most bets lose. Chills grabbed my gut. Instinctive, I reached for the 32-caliber belly gun which was not under my left  armpit, but locked in the office safe.

Bens bony paw rapped  my shoulder. "What the hell ..."

"You seen her, huh," I manage breathless? Tell me ya saw her running."

"Her who? All I saw, Sam was your crab-azz butt go barreling out the door."

"I felt eyeballs scraping my neck."

"Manicured fingernails too?"

"Yeah, but not on my neck."

"And I'm the paranoid, huh?" Ben paced ahead  coupla' steps. "You flew out the door ... and about as far as a cautious man goes. In this direction ..."

He points through the fog ... top of the SOGO gangway, where if ya looked close two figures in black paced sullenly beside leased dogs size of a couple ponies. The men carried broomsticks.

I  snap a picture ... and say. "The girl. Ya never saw the  dame  with red hair? She glommed in the window, then was running ..."

"Not me, Sam ... and not them either." Hricko's scratching his jaw. "Looks to me,  those boys on the SOGO are carrying either 308s or 274s ... distance weapons ... no-one got close to them. Or to the dogs We're too close. They could pick out our eyeballs, what's left after the dogs ate us." Hricko palmed his 357 break-handle into a pocket of his Cod'r. "Didn't hear the dogs barking, did you?"

"Nah, didn't hear a thing ." Another wave of sleet crossed the SOGO and it vanished as the cloud slipped toward us. Ya could feel wetness creep up yer drawers. "How comes ya didn't stay in the joint?"

Hricko forked over a Camel -  lit both. "Who wants to be a pigeon? I've seen you move fast before, Sam. It's like a bet with you ...  the longshot nag." 

"Pigeon, nag ... where do ya get this crappola, Ben?"  The Camel taste like pigshit - clever pigshit ... I got  feelings about clever when it comes from Hricko ... I'm talking straight at him, but eyeballs pealed 90-degrees to the SOGO.  "The dame ... I'm sure I seen her and she seen us. Could be some a' yer black helicopter pals wuz scraping a eyeball cross you. Check the boats!" On one foot I edge over ... "Dammit MOVE, Hricko ...!"  It's a fast move for  fellas with long guns and big dogs, and a finger in the eye for itchy eyeballs. I hand over the railing and jump down to the  soft sand. Hricko I hear going over the other side. Rough sand scruffs at my canvas sneaks who's gonna hear, huh -  somebody hear somethin', huh ... First two hulls are fibreglass day-sailors  and I scout around them. Second row starts with a blue-water schooner - pilot house above. I  palm the wood, and watch worms eating into  teak planks, but mostly listen ... ta nothing - no redhead squirm no bowser growling after my gizzard.  Around the loop I catch a steel-hull trawler. Rap the side and the echo musta rung out ta Savannah. I listen ta nothing.  Hrickos on the dockway chewing a thin reed of  Edisto reefer  as I climb back  up. He's there, but  not the  two fellas on the SOGO.


"What's wrong, huh. Ya said ta rain packets ... we're the packets, there's the port. Maybe they break an ankle too, huh ...  yeah."

"Virtual, Sam, I had in mind."

"You got your virtue I got mine."  

"Made their ears ring, you think so?  Take my advice,  Sam. If you want to play steel drums, then go to Jamaica."

"Drums, packets, ports ... Hricko sometimes ya gotta talk sense!" We turned,  walking up the pine planks toward GERTS.  I said. "Those mutts now ... they wouldn't bark if they knew the person ... I mean a pal a' theirs ... trained, huh they only eat what they don't know. That true?"

"Siberian Moosehounds," spits Hricko. "S&Ms ...  Company traded killer dolphins to the Russkis for those bastards, and  they will eat their own mothers if they aren't fed four times a day."

How does he know that? I'm afraid  Hricko knows that ... Rain pounds our backs as we pour into the hash-joint. The coiled, viperous head of a screen-saver disappears from Hrickos laptop. Blue-plate had vanished. On the table,  coffee mugs pour fresh steam.

I laugh. "Can't bite, huh ...?"

Hricko sez nothing, we sit down.  I'm short, and  we smoke Hrickos Camels. It's dog-turd. Waitress drops the check.  She's tough as fried leather. The check sez six- bucks for which six-bucks in Charleston ya get two donuts without the holes.

Hricko waits,   then says skeptically. "They don't know I'm here."

"Yeah, me neither ... or why did we come?"

"No balony - I had to see the steamer in person. I didn't think it was worth crap, not for itself.  It isn't. That's OKey. Trust me, we're dim."

"Maybe your bulb,  but the Feds know everything else ... huh. Maybe they traced your Web connection."

"They can't --- I hacked into your ..." Hricko bites deep into the Camel, like it's a date-flavor Hookah. "What the hell, Sam. What happened to the lark? What happened to luck?"

"You hate the Feds, drive a Ford and ask me that?"

Hricko leans back on the wood bench. "Let's speculate ...  you working a client has anything to do with  the SOGO? Or the Buddha? Insurance, maybe ...  yes, maybe insurance.  It's a hell-of-a long time, since the steamer sunk, but insurance companies figure that way. Gamblers ruin ... it never happens to the deep pockets." He's sucking at the black, hot mud. "Maybe what, or who you saw is the competition."

"Get you boys anything else."  The waitress  had marched over smiling the lean 60 year old smile of an ex-Marine who fought half way across Borneo, and what she did  to the other half left no prisoners neither.

"Nah we're fine ... mame" I peal a ten-spot under the china.

"Call me Gert! Cherry pie special ... two fer one," she winks, standing straight as a ram-rod. "Fearsome slow business once the rains come."

Second ten I peal off too. "So then, Gert. Just how slow's  business been today?"

"Slow as two  frozen water moccasin in a rubber."

"I bet ... we the only customers?"

"Who needs to know?"

"Abe Lincoln."

She smirks. "Couple of  Federal  rodents from the SOGO came in earlier. Couldn't keep the rats out, but I made them chain the dogs."

I say. "Don't like the Feds, huh?

"Thirty years, I spent  fighting and fucking  for USofA. Black shoes don't impress me."

Gerts wuz a hard voice - fried leather -  yet anything but bitter.  I said. "Was there ...  maybe a dame with them black shoes?"

"Ya mean  a  Barbie? A Shela ...?"

"Maybe ... more like Guendolin. Major attitude, huh? Classy dame. Oh yeah ... red hair."

"You fellas in the market or just pitching pennies?"

"Lets say she's my pals long lost sister ..."

Gert squints at Hricko. "No sister would admit to a shave-head brother like that. Skinny, too cause no decent woman will feed him."

"Well yeah, but ... lets say  money's involved. Family money. An inheritance."

"You a PI?"

"Do I look like a PI?"

"A shamus, the day ya left your mothers tit! You're a Jew, ain'tcha ...  ever in the military?"


"Once too long ... " Gerts eyes crawled over me ... "I figured, you and the sand-Niggers ...," she finally sez. "Have a spare fag?" Hricko lights it. Smoke spills from Gerts lips. "Just family money you say. I say  inherit crap - bet it's drug money, from a pervo like him. That explains everything."

"Everything what?"

"Like brother like sister. Funny, they don't look at all alike ... but druggies don't sleep well. Druggie -  your pal stinks of it!"

"Could be the salt air, huh?"

"Yes sir, and I'm Aunt Jemima. Man or woman, devil's clawing their belly for an early fix." Gert had an X-ray into Hricko woulda clotted blood if he had any. "If it's not 'caine it's caffeine."

"How's that?"

"'Bouts five-thirty AM, just after I open. Guendolin drives her Beemer near through the front door. Red head, like you say.  Huffy kitten. Says she's down from Charleston to see Buddhas belly."

"She dressed like Buddhas niece?"

"Yeah -  but  niece like Tracy, Dick or Spenser.  Pinstripe and pumps.  She orders three paper joes, drinks one  through a Virginia Slim and scats."

"Didn't leave a name, did she, a real one?"

"I had a palsy named Guendolin.  Nice girl ... decent girl. A real Marine. In Lebanon the wogs blew her to pieces ... No, no name for Guendolin, but like your skinny, pervo pal, the revolver in her back pocket left  impressions on the bench-cover."

"Did you see a barrel?"

Gerts steady eyes  speared Hricko. "Gun barrel? I'd never grab a girlies ass ta see nothin' ... and I didn't need to."

That got jumps outa  Ben. He's twitching uneasy.  "Sure it was a gun? Make a copy,"  he sez  through his cracked smile?"

"Yeah -- I had the frail sit on a Xerox ... but that ain't nothin' like the copy her shadow was making."


"I thought you were a PI," she says to me? Puts on a moxie face. "Shadow, yeah like creep, left-hand, tail,  snoop, peep, sweet Havana ... "

"Somebody followed her!"

"That's what I just said.  While Guendolin drank, her shadow hung out top a' the dockway. Never came inside."

"Must be pretty popular with all those names, huh ... ? Maybe he has lots a' relatives - a handsome gent. Get a  good look at his face?"

"That, and his telephone number, sure ... I got nothing, shamus. It rained like Noah had an ark, and the guy  covered his face. A muffler or  scarf ...  he didn't advertize nothin'. Hung pretty dim - not like you two red eyeballs - which says plenty about that man . He was a big man."

"How big?"

"Made  two gov'mnt thugs look like  noisy stumps."

"But you didn't see the red head frail half-hour ago when she was prancing outside the door and run  down the stairs."

"Neither did I see Santa Claus and his reindeer. Doesn't mean Christmas won't come early or Rudolph didn't leave a smoking glass slipper. Are you a PI or what!"

Hricko packs up his computer. I slip a twenty under china. Gert's cutting  cherry pie - double servings, and if the Fed thugs are smart they'll come back ...  It's windy outside.  Rain comes slanting sideways so it hurts ta see. We splash through puddles and don't see nothin' till we get ta Hrickos Ford. Then I seen on the floor-mat a red-smear butt of Virginia Slim he got stuck to the heel of his dockers and the only thing it didn't do was smoke.




What PI needs bleeding eyeballs, and sound like a noisy stump? PIs are the silent, watchful type. That's me. But  Julia Koan didn't think so Gert neither ...  whatever my mistake nobody else did that matters. Bet two dogs and a scarf  not the competition ta find Julia  Koan. Competition who likes it? Only two  Republicans splitting three shares of stock.

Due diligence - what'cha do wrong, Sammy who'd ya talk two got a mouth bigger than the brain? I  had blown the creep.  Bouts 10:30 I crawled home, crawled up the iron stairway to the second floor. It's a couple blocks off Rivers Ave. and north a' the Navy Yards -  packed with US steel  and big guns said 'don't mess with me ...'  when times were fat.  Empty now, the whole damned Yards is empty ... The door creaks open. Telephone messages sez I owe the bookie and pawn shop and they're tired a waitin'.  Fat Phil owes me a favor he'll wait; the pawn shop don't owe me nothin' ... Tired,  I flop on the bed. Fat. It's a brick warehouse,  the building was,  where I live a square box-a-brick and I bought it after one fat case. Second floor, where I  sleep out the window gives a view of the Yard-cranes, and the Cooper River.  They used ta be fat.  I  stare out at the shiny river slick and hazy from the rain and yellow from  high-tower Navy Yard lights coulda been turned off last year.  I get up pour two ryes. Pour another. Liquor  tastes warm  and sour. I got a ice-cube from the fridge, chewed it  and telephoned Nona Koan.

That night I got her answering machine, and a promise to return the call. Next evening my answering machine took her return call - which said briskly she was too busy to return the call - moving in and whatnot. Call back in two days ... and I couldn't tell from the clipped, clear sentences whether Nona was avoiding  me or her sister.

Who's confronting, huh how comes two sisters don't confront over a pot a' rose-bud tea? Two days, huh ...  it was payed time and I worked the case. But for those two days  I could do anything, but find Julia Cohn. Better  slush-fill martinis I made with vodka and  carrot juice ...  vegetable ear I could'a got  from the calls ...which  calls like a nag should'a stayed in the paddock lamed  vague hints 'take a vacation, Sammy', and what  calls rocketed through only static ... them they didn't call back.  What  left the gate 12-ta-1  ...  no red hair fillet  worth gigging had  graced the Low Country  recent. Who had the speed figures not Sam Levine ...  Third day, a Friday  I got up early and alone with a nasty hangover, which is better than getting up late with most dames, but not every one ... Nona was home  for the call, and talked so sweet and long and  cooing she mighta spent the last two days alone with rubber tires in a steel box.

We met late that day, at the Utility Street boin most locals call  THE HOUSE.  What wasn't raw was broiled. Downtown Charleston ate there when money wuz ta burn. Chops up front until  Midnight;  in three back rooms 3-AM finds the rake still jingling.  Downtown Charleston played there ...  when it played bad. I hate that my no-good brother-in-law Saul Davidson I wouldn't say two words ta the crook-shill not crap-face,  he had ta call  it The HARBOR HOUSE. I ain't no salt water fan, but why curse the harbor?  Saul pays scab wages to the girls till  'round 3-AM,  exhausted, they gotta fall in bed no matter  who turns the sheets. I hate the schmuck for what he done ta the girls, and what he did to Sarah.  It wuz 4:30 and shifts were changing. 

Nona grabbed me at the matre-d' bench, dropped a fiver in the fat  fags paunch, and marched us straight to a  lounge took up one  busy, green velvet side of the poker room. First rummys a' the day were dropping black chips like burned french fry not Nona.

"Again! I nearly hung up. I thought  at first, Mr  Levine you were a breather."

"So did I, before I drank the third rye."

"From your telephone style, I bet you drank it alone." Nona pawed casually at her martini. "And from what little you said, I'm glad  you found  Julia first!"

I had a couple stories worth telling all false. The truth wuz bad enough. "Lost and found. I got lost with a pal -  a little side trip ta Beaufort ... and Julia found me!"

"Impossible. She couldn't know you!"

"Yeah,  I'm thinkin' that,  how can she wait for me? I'm thinking also  if Julia's new to town then nobody should know her. But a couple a' gents ... one  maybe, but maybe more than one were waiting for her!"

"And you let them ...?"  Nona wore tight chrome silk  like skin wuz in short supply, and her Pall Mall never saw a filter. " ... but you know  she's okey, and where I can find her.  Nothing's happened  ... "   Martinis came double. "You aren't saying much, Sam. "Did you tail her, and she skipped? Oh damn, you didn't talk to her did you?" First olive wuz OKey. Second shoulda been beneath a tequila bottle. "The men she was with, or the man ... they  weren't  ... Sam for God sakes say something ...!"

"She's quicker than she looks in the picture. Got a better picture?"

"I should have told you she's  ... quick. "

Both cigarettes I lit, and wondered if  California dames missed the cork  Nona didn't miss the Zippo and blew a thin, razor-edge stream of smoke over my shoulder woulda made the Mad Hatter jealous. I looked around ... "Ya learn quick too,  sweetheart  and now that I'm thinkin' ya might'a told me plenty. Your sister carries a gun, and got a thing for Buddhas belly  and big dogs none a' which you told me."

Nonas doe-eyes widened and narrowed and dimmed. What is it with dames - love me love my secrets I'm thinkin' but sweetheart yer payin' me ta FIND some a' those secrets even you ain't figured. Cough up, huh - come clean, huh - fresh beans in a new pot ... I'm thinkin' all that while Nona justs huffs and huffs.

Silent.  Then she  curls a little bit off smoke over her lip and sez. “You don't approve.”

“When's your shift start, sweetheart?”

"A girl has to work." Nona  wuz  giving me an X-ray scan kill dead liver cells. Then she looked away. “The casino doesn't surprise you, Mr Levine ... I  didn't think it would. Nor did I believe you are an ... an understanding kind of man.”

“Understanding I do plenty, sweetheart. What's your sister Julia really doing in Charleston?"

“We're  not ... I'm not ... it's not what it looks like Mr Levine. I mean I'm not a ... a hostess, or anything like that ...”

“Hostess? Club?How comes ya don't get a more human job, like taking care of kids?”

“I  would marry, Mr Levine if I  desired soothing  a child ...  and no Mr Levine, Julia has never carried a weapon, and  yes, Mr Levine ... as if a local needs telling of course  THE HOUSE  has certain after-hours activity ... "

"Which don't bother you?"

What bothered me wuz the way Nona  had dropped Julias name down a hole, while punching  out Mr Levines like she wuz taking  census - no more Sam this and Sammy that ... did she ever call me  Sammy I woulda ... 

Her legs cross and chrome skirt rustles. "The employment  suits my purpose," she sez defiant.  "It's a swell place -  everybody whose anybody in Charleston feels welcome -  they  come for  class and  gambling and the action. What better way to find Julia?”

“Class - high class!  The Harbor House? And you  not a  hostess?”

“Roses don't smell because of their name, ” she said heated. “Don't be so surprised,  that I'm ... experienced.  But it's true  I'm not a hostess, at least most of the time.  I deal blackjack!”

“Bet that beats standing in the rain ...”

Nona glared cross the table. “Julia never rained without pouring.  She practiced  card counting every spare minute, and I  faithful, foolish  sister  played the dealer. Cards, Sam do you play what's dealt, or only roll bones?”

“Cards get nicked, dice weighted ..."  I lit her next cigarette. Which one are you, sister I'm thinkin' ... "So now ya deal blackjack for that scumball, Davidson!”

Thin, grey stream a' smoke she blew over my shoulder. “Davidson, you don't like him?  Well he's  OK  by me. His joint  pays on time, doesn't vig tips and  he isn't handsy with the girls. Only those security creeps get to me but ...”

“Yeah, Saul's Nazi creeps.”

“Do you know Mr Davidson? The she leans close and whispers. "How does he keep it going, Sam? The casino. It's so illegal, and cops work the tables every night. ”

"Sauls  tables, huh ...   where Charleston bad boys play ... and the  girls play bad."

Nonas eyes sneaked  away ..."Not every girl is bad, Sam ..."

"Neither is every play, but  don't tell that to a copper.  They like  knowing where  bad boys pay before they play."

"You make him sound so undercover."

"Two-face lizard's a crook."

"Now so local .. ! Aren't we all? But girl disadvantaged." Her cheeks flushed, and eyes lit like two green fireflies. "Crook he may be, but Saul  Davidson has charisma, reach ..."

"Enough ta reach your sister  Julia if I can't?"

"I didn't mean that Sam ..."

"But she carries a piece. Who's threatening her. Saul?  For two lead nickels and change  he'd kiss a cows arse. Where and why?"

Fireflies had left Nona Koans eyes, the sparkle  and fire replaced by the alarmed brown ovals of a doe at bay.  She said shaking her head. “Go slow with me, Sam.  You have a peculiar sense of the impossible, and whatever you think of  Saul ..."

"NOT FOUR. Not all four ... !!"  Shouts flew from the nearest table.  Our heads snapped up. Stacks a' blacks chips scattered. A rumpled suit and pale, Piedmont face snapped back outa his chair grip of a oak-arm square-chin bouncer made two a' him.

"Has the gentleman been losing, Otto?"

"All afternoon Herr Davidson."

"Perhaps a  medicinal breath of air ... with the birds ..." Saul straightened his Italian cut suit never seen two wrinkles shot  hollow-point  grey eyes cross to us. "Yes, Otto something medicinal."

Otto didn't drag, but carried the poor mug  like a plug of under-cured ham to a side entrance and the curtain swished behind them ...  Saul  straightened his lapel, and strolled to our lounger his  thin smile T-bone not pork.

Nona said flustered. "Oh, Mr Davidson I was just ..."

Diamond-stud finger  waved her off. "Good afternoon, Samuel. Drinking your usual lunch. Or ... roulette, perhaps ...?"

The Rabbi sez a Jew never hates his brother-in-law.  Never treats him like a stranger. I  looked up the two-face scumball a face taller than I am anyway.  "You call this a drink I call it roulette. Bar-angel  shakes Russian  hold the shooter, cause one outa six a' the olives ain't rotten."

"Nothing wrong with the olives," he sez snatching my tumbler. Hand massaged back of his head,  what few slick hairs in a hurry to leave too -  a little nervous tick ... "... color, size ... what could wrong ..."

"Worms, Saul ya put 'em in tequila."

"Nonsense! And while you complain about the condiments, Sarah would not object to a visit." Sauls eyebrow rose to a  shiny plate glass window above the first table. "A brother should not be a stranger ..."  His hand motions caustic for a fresh serve. "And you, Nona ...?"

"My shift starts in ten minutes. Sammy and I were just ... "

"Oh, your shift ... very well. See that it does." Saul snapped his fingers turns smooth  toward the same curtain made pug disappear, but  after a step he stopped. "I've never heard a woman call Samual Sammy. You must be ... special ... It's 21 you deal, is it not, Nona?  The new girl, yes ... yes, table four last night that was yours? Of course it was - swell work.  Only your third week at the cards and  returning 3.1% ...  nice Nona ... very nice ..."  One fist he rapped on the poker table then vanished through the curtain.

Three olives swam in my fresh martini. "You work for that!"

"He said 'swell', Sam didn't you hear him?"

Flicker a' green firefly, corner a' Nonas doe-eye I caught that. "Yeah, sure a real champ."

She spoke up harshly. "Prude as you appear to be, Mr Levine I appreciate the job.  Even a girl well connected needs pin-money.  I'll stay in Charleston while  hell freezes ice-cubes until I find my sister.”

“Expecting lots a' free time ...?”

“That will be quite enough, Mr Levine ..." Nonas voice grated, but her hand slipped  warm and smoothly over my wrist  covering and tapping and  picking at the Rolex. "An observant man always finds the right woman at the right time."

“Time maybe, but  she could have changed her name.”

“Ha! A Koan would never change her name. I laugh at that ... you might.”  Nona flushed, stood up sudden “My shift is starting.  I will call you  within the week unless ... unless you see Julia first.  You mustn't  frighten her - no confrontations just ... just ... call .” 

Utility Street smelled of oil and fish and salt bay brine. It smelled of two lost dames,  blowing hot and cold, and  winners I couldn't imagine making  right turns cross the Atlantic only ta drop down a hole. A small neon sign winked NO EXIT beside a service door who's gettin' out? Are they kidden'? Fifty losers in, and one-hundred stumble out. 

On the cobbles I lit a Red. Zippo flicker  made the Rolex  dial glow. I had gone into Sauls at 4:30 PM. The Rolex read 11:45 and ticking.  Cross the street  pigeons rustled in the elms, as St. Marks bells tolled five-straight-up. I reset the Rolex and the hands stopped moving. Nona with the quick hands ... Lucky she didn't want ta steal nothin' huh, Sammy ...?  Yeah nothing ... lost or found,  the Koan sisters  made damned quick work of a mans attention. Yer guessing, right no yer not,  yer gettin' played, Sambo no I'm da big fish ... which brain-freeze did not stop as I did the math  and clamped a lid on the slow boil gave time for a telephone call and a tooth brush.


My office was empty and cold. I poured a double rye -  from a full bottle then poured another and turned on the fluorescent.  "GOD DAMNED CRAP" I shouted. "Sure she knew ... 'course she knew ..." All week I ain't shouted ...  I slammed the office door shut  and lit a Red.  It tasted good. Grabbed the phone then dropped it SLAM. What a day  not just cold but ugly. How ugly could it get? What's the worst reason  Nona needs ta meet  again so quick and so late, and I ain't put paws on Julia Cohn ...?

That thought I didn't want ta think ... I flopped into the break-a-back oak ... doodled the card-file, flipped it shut ... and opened it.

Phones at Charleston City  Station all ring like a cockroach is sucking on the buzzer.   Phone rang twice and  it wasn't the copper I hoped, but his lez partner gotta answer she's a nice girl we did some work together once that never made a phone book

I sez. “Heh sweetheart,  Three-Balls in the office?” Which name is the street-name he's been given who calls  Nicky DeLeon that face-ta-face not nobody.

“She says “Not if you want  to keep two God gave you.”

“Okey,  Sargent a joke just a joke ...  Nicky got  a court case?"

"The Lieutenant is not Nicky to a two-bit shamus. Not today not tomorrow."

"Well  yeah, Sargent ...  so Nicky's working a case, huh you not invited?"

Ice cubes little tumbly, silent ice-cubes jingled outa the phone. "You're a joke, Levine know that? A dirt-bag stiff on a slab. A mud hole, a ..."

"So he can't talk now."

"Clamp-jaw - need a dictionary, Levine?"

"Yeah I know how's ya like me ... how 'bouts another joke like  who's been on the slab this week? Fresh meat,  like maybe a tall red-head?”

“Sure, Levine. You need a stiff?  I count 'em out one-to-ten. My fav's  a Goose Creek  coke dealer got  stretched between fork-lifts. He picked the right dock but the wrong line. Kinda like you, Levine, huh? He's plenty tall now and he may have had red hair.”

“Yeah well ... I'm a Nehi-Orange man myself, but I wuz thinking like maybe a dame.”

“Maybe he had an operation, Levine -  men are funny like that.”

“Heh wait a minute why the rap what happened to preserve and protect, Sargent?”

“That's only for citizens not rats ...” The Sargents voice hung on the line, then like she been lookin' at a printout while she talked. "Ya know this bites, Sam you trying to nibble away what do I look like a piece a' cheeze - and don't even go there. Ya hear me Levine keep breathing but not too loud. So listen up ya rat-nose bed weasel what kinda case you working?"

"Missing person."



"Brother sister ...?"

"Not without an operation."

She sighed. "Since when."

"Two weeks."

Which hung a  cold and calculating silence on the phone I ain't heard since my 2nd-Ex said she had ta retake her AIDs test. Then ... I got an ear fulla lung and  Camel Straight draw and pink lipstick. "Local? Got a name ..."

Red butt I tossed into the Folgers can. "Heh I buy American, but  the world shrinks, Sargent  what do I look like Sammy-the-drool, Sammy-da-pigeon?  Maybe I coo all night, but not over telephones ...  give a working stiff a break, huh  Anita  I'll make it right. Somethin' fer nothing.  Heh look the Bijou got a three-hank frail-flick 9-PM. So many tears they gotta pump the floor. What say I  pick you ..."

"Forget it, cowboy."

"Heh no cows how 'bouts the art film  puppies only puppies and a great Dane  - look Anita clients got rights too ..."

Sargs voice again hung silent on the line. Then ... "Depends on how far right. Take a vacation, Sam," and SLAM she hung up.

Slam she hung me up someplace north a' right ... I wuz gonna run right over ta Folly Pier and pick up on  last Septembers tan.  What client wants that kinda vacation?  What's the Sargent telling me ...  what's too far right for a southpaw like Anita Bowers  she thinks Ben Franklin wuz Atila-the-Huns brother ... she didn't keep a compress on her heart she'd bleed ta death.  What do I tell the client all my inside info's out on the street!

I waited under the weepy live oak. Utility edges into Tradd  under that 200 year old piece-a-plywood and mansion walls of  Old Town rise so high ya can't jump them. An inch of sleet lay on the cobbles, two in the branches overhead. No dim bulb had so good a creep that I couldn't hear the crunch. A blue neon pair-a'-duece marked the employee exit to THE HOUSE. Nona came through it at 11:44. She wore a brown trench and a hat with  perky green feathers said  my way not the freeway. She looked both ways on the street before dropping a glove and heading  north toward Broad -  directly away from me.

"Excuse me, Miss, but ya seem to have lost something."

Nona put her hand in mine, took the glove and  smiled a far-off smile. "You still need a better line ..."  We walked ...  she pulled faintly at my  trench collar. "Does it ever work? I mean the collar. Seems a little threadbare ... with the wind."

"Work, yeah sure every time that line works on a dame and the wind don't blow."

"Dame? Why do you talk like hat,  Sam?"

"OKey, all right ... frail ..."

"It's a mean night."

Our breath was coming in gushes - white, frosty ....  they  burned your lungs and covered city sounds ... "Yeah watch the ice. And what little I got ta say, I'm more a slush-puddle than a sidewalk."

"Now THAT'S a great line, Sam. Where are you taking me?"

"Someplace ta talk."

"Quiet?" Nona put her hand under my arm. "I brought a picture - a good one, of Julia and myself."

"How did you get off early? Evening shifts usually run till ..."

Nona gives me a full black-lipstick white tooth smile. "That was easy. I played a little 10ze-5ze with a high-stakes better. He liked  doubling the soft-hands. So first I feed him a couple tens and the chips rake his way. Then he doubles bets, and I feed out  fives - he busts three times at soft 18 and goes ballistic! Then I start bawling and ..."

"You can do that ...?" Nona laughed. We dodged a puddle, and broken branch. "Too bad ya couldn't a' dealt that picture  earlier. I coulda used ... heh,  there's a joint, huh, not so disrespectful - just down Broad ..."

"Oh, Sammy, not the one with a  steel nude!"

"Brass, it's a brass nude not steel. Dim, dull, artistic ... So don't look, huh, we'll sit in back. Couple a' tables away and she ain't that tall - well even if she IS that tall gotta be a hundred people in the joint."

"Packed, you think?"

"Make a sardine can feel like Death Valley. It's Friday, huh ... Can't see nothin'."

"How do we get a table, Sam?"

There wuz  three hookers and a pimp in the bar, and two gents from Taiwan where ya get eats, at the  BRASS ASS. You coulda seen the nude from Savannah. We sat by the windows, and them ya can't see out of only the nudes reflection.  The best parts a' two martinis had come and gone, and the third wuz staring at us through the olives. Something ta loosen up huh make the words come easy and stories straight.   

Nona had  pushed the glossy cross to me like it was a frozen snake, but not a dead one. Could'a wrote books  'bouts that photo of two women -   Julia, the sister gone missing.  Proud, aloof Julia,  hands  quietly folded ... a  tall, pale abstract elegant  red-head  one gorgeous dame. Not  the rose-cover bungalow type. Was that the dame I seen for two eye-blinks at GERTS? Gert woulda known ...

“Who woulda' figured...,” I sez?"

“Figured? That, after all,  Sam is why I hired a PI."

“Ummm ... I meant her mouth. Julia has a thin mouth, and you ...”

“To my knowledge,  Julia has never used her lips other than to speak.”

“Ahhh, well yeah, I guess so ..."  and I dropped the photo. It had a snakey feel ... "Recent photo, huh ...?"

We sat in one a' those circular, green leather lounges where a dame sits either closer or farther away.  She showing nothin' a' sultry olive calf and  black leather thigh-hi skirt what's she ever missed not nothin' ...  mugging a  brunettes 'I've never been picked first' aggressive, wide-mouth smile.  A silver stick-pin  head like a squashed donut held up a curl could fall in her eye. What dame don't see everything? Nona had just taken off her hat, dropped it between us and tossed a pair of worn red dice on the table.

She palmed them.  "Recent enough. Or do men always want what they can't see before they can really use it!"

"Well yeah ... that too ..." I lit her cigarette. She hung on the smoke a silk frilly used only once then washed. Seemed ta me I said. “So ... both of ya, huh ... ”

“Twins arrive in pairs. Is Julia the same woman you saw in  Beaufort?”

“Ya want an honest answer I can roll the dice. But you and her - twin sisters - I ain't been fooled like this since the Tong deli started serving pit-bull hotdogs ... called 'em kosher.”

“Really  Sam,”  Nona scoffed ... or teased ... , “is that  story supposed to be local color?”  She blew on the dice shake-'em-up. "Would a South-of-Broad matron salivate over such a home-grown delight?"

"Most haven't salivated in years - over anything."

"Now what - a shared confidence?  Oh, you are so smooth ..." Nona  settled a bit in the lounge, fondling a skimpy,  dark silk  sweater. and  touching the photo. "... but  you don't appear to be a prosperous investigator. Shamus - isn't that what they call your type?”

“Shaman, sweetheart people expect different miracles ...  color, huh ...” I thought out loud,   fancy dice -  deep ruby color,  rounded worn edges ... professional dice ... didn't take a prosperous, urban legend ta know that.

She  stuck two question marks cross soft-brown sloe-eyes size of  turkey platters and said. “ I believe  the likeness has been well framed ,  both she and I , but  of course  Julia  and I don't look  like many people.  A matter of blood! Our family's  Mauritian, but we were raised  on Kodiak Island!”

Kodiak ...  I should'a guessed jeeez it was cold if it weren't for the gin  I'd have frozen blood.   I scratched at rough wool where it wore through at the wrist. “Kodiak, huh looks like ya came just in time ... and  maybe I ain't lookin' at the photos right.”  Froze eyeballs squinted - Pall Mall scratched at my throat. “Must be old  oil lamps the bulb's tired ... "

"Are you teasing me?"

"Do Eskimos get cold feet?"

She chewed a pouty  lower lip - a quick, irritated chew and twisted  her  Coach Bag  self-conscious as short women do.  "I know I'm not the flashy bimbo you're used to smoozing,  but ... but   you might  at least  pretend.”   Her small face twisted up in a small, anxious  smile,  and silk gams slid over the leather lounge. “I mean my sister could be dead!”  

“Well, yeah, Nona  there's that too ...”

“She has me so worried I'm walking in circles.”

Nona popped up waving the Virginia Slim like she needed to stab  seals - Kodiak, huh ...   she didn't find none tossed her short black hair like a hatchet and looked toward the door. “Perhaps it's better if I just ..."

I  dragged eyeballs from the  glossy print and reached cross the table like I ain't seen a psycho dame in about the last nine seconds.  “Heh, wait a minute  ... Nona don't lock the door after the pony's gone we gotta break eggs first then the omelet  I'll find your sister give me a couple hours, days maybe ... I'll ask around.”

“Ask around I don't think so!”  Nona was jabbing again, with the cigarette.  “When we spoke at my apartment, Mr Levine you said  discrete, immediate action. That's you reputation. Believe me I asked around ... the best bed-weasel in town.”

“Yeah we could'a gone inside it was sure wet on the dock.”

“You looked a bit seedy, Sam wearing those yellow tennis shoes in the rain and your socks were wet.”

“Ain't my fault the color ran I took them back."

"Socks are not like sisters, or are they ...? A man wears them out and tosses ..."

"Not mine I patch them, and  it ain't sex - not always. Sex, sex, sex  that's what sisters think all the time ...  some jerk stole  their sister.  What I seen works different.  'Bouts 48% of the time sister's  got the nail banged,  and sis got a broken heart, but - another 48% who's the hammer ain't so clear. 'Bouts the rest ...? Did she have a boyfriend, your sister - a squeeze, a heater a steady ... uhh  ...?”

Nona's face soured. “Yes .. I mean no ... I mean not really ... a boyfriend ...” Nona sniffled - then came a  blizzard of tears. “Oh  Sam ...”  Snow-drifts welled  up in her eyes, “...  my sisters last letter was so ... so desperate!”  Spike heels tap nervous at the  oak floor. “You must have seen it before,  brainy girl in a tight spot ...”    Nona swiped at the gamin-cut hair that crossed her cheek. “And  for all her smarts like snow flakes Julia wears them  my sister is really quite helpless.”  

'Sez you,' I think. Nona was a small dame bout the size of three large Barbi-dolls ya might stretch her ta five feet she ain't never seen a hundred pounds never would if she kept bawlin' gonna dehydrate and who can afford an ambulance?  Maybe I should read a book about women from Vesuvious  ...   Mauritian, Kodiak ...  I didn't know Jews got that far from Manhattan maybe one island looks same as another I ain't seen none worst than Manhattan.

“Charleston ... ,” she  whispered. “Green Bay I could understand ...   the heat , Julia could never stand the heat.” She turned half-way round wrapped her arms  like she got a chill, but she said. “A warm snap like this could kill her!”

“Warm? Snap?”

“Come now,  Sam that sweater is only for show I trust -- the holes ... why outside it's barely 40_degrees.  I don't like warm weather, but my sister detests it!  Detesting heat  maybe that's why Julia involved herself so much in the ultra-cold."

“Hates the heat huh, this broad ... uh - I mean your sisters  queen-a-the-frost  yet she comes to Charleston? Maybe that's how she got so tall, hot and cold ...” I  poked a finger into the glossy;  Nona and Julia Cohn  mug together smiling. Nona -   dark hair and large brown eyes. Julia  slim maybe six-feet-tall in nylons  red hair falling over her shoulders and green sparklers could'a drilled holes in steel plate. Sisters, huh ...

I said, “sure I see the family resemblance now. Both'a you dames gotta smile at the same time and got a flower over the right ear. A rose?”

“No, Sam  those are very rare  astral orchids not roses.”

“Yeah Venus, like I'm thinkin' OKey you two could be twins ...”

Nona stiffened, and the edge of her lip quivered. “No need to be sarcastic, Sam  or pander me. I know  all the beauty in our family and all the intelligence went to Julia.” Nona  took my arm “Brains and beauty that's sister Julia, and the only gift I have is being one tough bitch!"

Who could'a guessed it, sister I say “Well yeah,  I'm surprised, but if you say so ...”

“I keep the family history,  Sam or maybe I am ..."

I nodded optimistic. “Swell, then,  if you got the family history how 'bouts the  album, the story  sweetheart, top-to-bottom, start-ta-finish, tit-ta ... ""

Nona sniffled. “You can find her?”

“Find a lamb  on the lam  heh, sweetheart do ice-cubes melt?”

“I have no doubt ... "  she said eyeing me one eye skeptic the other evilly crossed the room ta the Chinese gents  -  and when she got hair out of her eye sloshed  down  both olives. “My sister IS a lamb ..."

"Well sweetheart I got the time -  you have the shears."

"Oh really,  Sam ...  have bar-angel pour me another and I'll give you the tits!”

She drank. And when she stopped drinking ... “Time? Short,  hot and nasty. It's like that for girls first time in the big time.  Their first really big time ...  a revel!” She  brushed the silver stick-pin and rolled bones so they bounced way across the table hit the  Coach-Bag fell dead. "Hardway eight!"   She  flipped a checkbook, scribbled four figures into the pay-to box and slipped it under my  elbow.

It felt like a shiv in the ribs. "Not again, sweetheart." I  folded  Nonas check, and put the Zippo to it till all the zeros burned off.  "Cabfare, huh, if my battery goes dead." 

"But  Sam ..."

"Numbers, huh only numbers. Ya can glue back what ya want when I deliver Julia. Bet she's sittin' in some Goose Creek dive  right now thinkin' how much she wants me ta find her."

Nona smile twisted just a trifle. "Easier to find than you," she said.  Her Virginia Slim - it was long enough for Nona to smoke all afternoon ... she stubbed it out, snatched  the dice  again and blew an eight, then  natural seven. Took one of my Pall Malls and after I lit it suck would'a broke my lung. 

Then Nona leaned back and said. " Short times,  Sam ...   while they lasted, but were they ever hot! Six months ago Julia and I lived and worked in San Francisco.   Die-hard damsels,  two chicks on the loose, hard-way 9s   -  the dot-com revolution you know ...  a casino economy and believe me we rolled dice and made them cry!  I worked for an upscale  marketing agency ... PURELIES.COM no less ...   consumer relations, PR ... we handled all the Microsoft security ads."

"Slow business, huh ...?"

"Surprise! At one time we rented six floors of the Trans America Building. You know, the one with no top?"

"Heh, no top no security it fits."

Nona smirked. "It was a growing business. Every time another Microsoft bug was found, we rented another floor."

"Coders, huh ..."

"No, Sam don't be silly. We hired packers to send out another  cap and T-shit set. We mailed book-rate and  the sys-admins loved them."

"But Julia ... she didn't pack T-shirts ..."

"Pack? In a way she did.  Julia  was chief designer  for NOBYTES INC.  We had the good life,  Sam.  SanFran's a hot ride on a cool night for free women who like  geek men ...  and know how to roll bones"  Sudden like she curls up into a fuzzy, brunette ball. "How we rolled them ... then  snake-eyes!  The dot-com revolution went tits-up.”

“Yeah - I heard somethin' about  geeks  makin' six-bills and gotta live on the street we do it cheaper in Charleston - no doubt.  Tits-up ...  riffed, pink-slipped, redundant ... So ya both got fired!”

“Actually not. We are both very, very good at what we do. I  worked  Mission district green-card trade,  till the Paks all went home, then hung on selling condom ads to employment websites ...”

“OKey so your balloon didn't bust -  your sister got the ax!”

“Actually not! They loved her -  the  slabbering uber-geeks raved  her designs ... light-years ahead and  NOBYTES doubled her salary!”

"Yeah ... NOBITES ... "  I scratched at the table top. “You mentioned them when you telephoned. So I figured locating Julia would be easy. I called  health food stores, then  every weight-loss and diet company in town. Rice, rye, roue ... more diets than fat. Asked 'em all if they just hired a dietician, but ..."

Nonas face turned purple, then red ... laughing ... “Sammy  ... my poor dear, deluded private-eyeball." Tears rolled down her cheeks. "Is that what they teach you in PI school, that one bite must lead to another byte? B-Y-T-E  Mr Levine  do I need to spell it out?  Byte not bite!”

“What did I miss? Yer sister sell liquid diets like soy-bean squeeze?"

" My sister Julia designs micro-chip circuits  for computers."

“Not chips like chips-N-dip?”

“Chips like ASIC.”

“Not aspic?  Well , Nona ... that explains plenty ...”

“Julia works with silicon chips ...” Nona looked at me intently, then swayed backward against the  green leather. "You might as well know, Julia is a physicist. Harvard PhD, Stanford Professor, or was till she joined NOBYTES.inc and even then she had some connection. The company offer was, of course an outrageous amount of money." 

“Yeah I'm hep now  silicon not potato chips. Baked not fried ...”

“You needn't be clever with me,  Sam ...  I get all I can take from my sister, but Julias success explains nothing! One week after Julia got the raise she quit her job, flew to Las Vegas and then ...  she loves to gamble you know - a perfect counter in blackjack ... and then my dear sister disappeared. No word from her for three months until she wrote from Charleston  five weeks ago. She said  not to worry. She had a breakdown, but  everything had become totally cool.  Insanity beckoned life hung by the fates. She'd  slipped into the lunatic fringe of the bleeding edge ... Her very words, Sam  ...  totally cool ...”

"Sounds like a man not a MOSFET."

"Impossible. Even if she had ...  found some-one they would be much too obvious. You know how couples get."

"Too obvious? Obvious ta whom? About what?"  Nona gave me a helpless little shrug.  I gulped down the last helpless bit of martini.  “So Julia found her dreamboat ... er ... dream.  She's cool, but ... but not  you ...?”

“I  was frantic. A woman that happy must be deluded ...  Julia must be in trouble. I  rented our townhouse and flew  to  Charleston the next weekend.  I didn't know what to expect - Charleston seemed like such a small town. I  spent a week in fruitless searching, then decided I'd need more time. I got the job you so  ... disrespect. But it's all for Julia ...  she must be in great danger.” Nona  winced, slabbered sloe-eyes all over. "I can do my part, I must but ... oh how I must sound like a hopeless, helpless whimpering female amateur. I must seem so fickle, uncertain ... like two different women. But  please help me Sam. You must know how grateful a woman in peril can be."

"I know how foolish a person in danger can act. That's not you now, is it ...?"

Nona looked me straight. "You know everything I do, Sam."

"So best you  figure,  nobody but you followed her to Charleston."

"She had no-one ... and left so suddenly I can't imagine who could have guessed her destination." "And Julias gun?"

"Sam, I said ..."

"Maybe just a little one, huh, like the 25-caliber ya got in your purse? Not yours of course ... maybe it was Julias, huh, she lent it to ya and  then she got another."

Nona turned away her face, into the reflective window ...  two faces, she and the nude in that glass I didn't know who was coming out ... Nonas hand fumbled for the Coach-bag, and a second photo  tumbled out. Intently she  studied it, like something had gone missing. Then she looked up at me. "Every person has a weakness."

"Some have two ..."

"Julias is optimism. Some years ago, Julia made a horrid mistake - a mistake about trust, about friends and about ..." Nona dropped the photo into my palm. "Those men ...  she believed they were part of  the future, a part of hope."

"But she dropped them, huh ... tore sheets and washed the linen?"

"She tried ..."

Nona eyes  fell hiding into the martini glass. How comes the past is always a 'try'. Better ya never take a glossy ...  better pictures I seen in a carnival peepshow.  The Polaroid was  torn, fingered,  washed and faded - somebodies icon or good-luck charm ... or insurance.  If it didn't live in a sock in had lived in the shoe.

"You took this?"

"Heavens no, Sam. It could have been a persons life to take it."

"Are those some kinda uniforms?" Nona shook her head. "And the caps ... military?"

"They thought so ..."

Yeah - bet they did. The shot was down a row of men at attention, and  didn't whisper it shouted  the grim, the disciplined and the violent. Through the finger-prints and the fade, ya couldn't miss starched tan collars and cap-beaks black and shiny. "National Guard, huh ... 4th-a'-July?" Nona said nothing. "Do they have a name?"

Nona bit her lip - struggling ... "Officially nothing. Each group forms a cell of ten to fifteen - a leaderless resistance cell. Julia said each cell takes an Old  Testament name ... Simeon, Levi, Judah ... "

"Who's the honcho, the father ...?"

"They have no father ..." Nonas hand fell on my arm. "Without a leader they are impossible to destroy. Among themselves, when they talk about it at all, they call themselves THE BROTHERS."

"Any idea what's that icon on the caps?" I fumbled the photo, left and right looking for just the right reflection. "It makes no sense, huh, what it looks like."

Nona puled her face up close to mine. "Oh Sam, I said it was a horrid mistake. She never stopped regretting it. One summer, after a weekend  assembly north of  Truckee with them - The Brothers - Julia came home ... with one of those caps. I saw it. The icon, the emblem on the cap is ... is a swasticka ... inscribed inside the Star of  David."

"The Brothers, huh ....  oh brother - how long was she one a' the sisters?"

"Two years."

"Long time, two years. Paramilitary types think two minutes, a chocolate bar  and a salute is the marriage licence. That's how they think. What did  your sister think? Was she in tight, or just a fellow traveler?"

"After she left, they would never leave her alone ..."

"Kinda immature, huh? Your sisters attitude? Immature and dangerous, thinking she could just tear-the-sheet ...   And so the gun, the automatic ... just like yours."

"We were ... terrified. Both of us. Julia bought two - one for the house, and one when she traveled. When Julia disappeared, the house gun was not taken."

I had two thoughts running around, and the first was ta return Nonas five hundred plus six dollars and run-not-walk calling the coppers.  When I want hot lead flying I go bottom fish  flounder. Then bar angel brought the fourth round a doubles and I asked myself had G*d ever poured a martini with one olive and one sweet onion in the same martini glass? I drank it. Then ... "How did you get my name?"


"No, sweetheart I wants ya should ask the weejee-board."

Maybe for the first time Nona Koan really, really smiled at me. "I guess there are just oodles of PIs in every town ... It's not connected at all, Sam. Not to The Brothers.  How I found your name ... I used inside info."

"Inside who?"

"PURELIES.inc. It seems, Sam you have made one of Microsofts many lists-of-Lusrs.  Naturally, when I left the company I took with me  any software lying about. Your name ...  I picked your name from an enemies  database consisting  of  Open Source loving fellow-travels."

"Source? Open? Sorry, sweetheart I don't buy that. What PI can't keep a clamp-jaw starves. I ain't never revealed a source."

"My poor deluded  Sam. Not gumware as a shamus might say, but software. Openly coded software and free as in beer."

"What beer is free?"

"A Scandinavian fellow wrote  such a system. Quite popular among the geek set."

"I've had Scandinavian beer. It tastes like what the moose drooled or a penguin threw up. And whose my traveling fellow ...?"

"I believe your pal, who honestly is on the KILL-9 list is an man called Ben Hricko. I figured a friend of an enemy of Microsoft might be a friend of mine."

"Hricko, huh ... killing him eight times ain't enough?"

"Do you  really know him?"

"Hricko ... Hricko ... short guy, huh and fat, really fat. Works on a tomato farm ..."

"Oh Sam ... you couldn't fool a moose."

"I wouldn't drool ta one either."

"I can trust you."


"Soon ... please do your best  now to find Julia." Nona was palming the two round red dice. She flipped them rolling against my arm  a natural 11. And she smiled wanly. "Good luck for us, huh Sammy? The dangers around  Julia she can't possibly imagine. Call me tomorrow."

Better than that I did. I drove Nona home, through the slush and we kissed goodnight at her door. Not a short kiss, or a long kiss just a kiss goodnight. Like a real date. I think the Yard lights shined blue on the Cooper  River, when I got home. Blue, huh nice color Sammy? No I ain't the type ta moon stars ... nightwings ate all the mosquitoes cause I got bit not once  walking two hundred yards down the alley behind my digs.  It's the slush, Sammy, it's winter there ain't no bugs.

That too. Most a' the warehouses  and two a' the cathouses are rubble, in that alley. There's a  rotted wooden dock at the end. It pokes into the Cooper River.  Even crabs won't live there, the briny slop's so dirty. I  had grabbed the bottle of rye, but didn't drink ... it just sat there, on my lap while I sat at  the end of  the dock legs dangling.

Where were they goin', huh? If they wuz any shorter I couldn't a' seen their moon-shadow.  Too bad I shoulda been taller, or had one leg then it would be a 38-caliber leg not two 25s.  Where was the moon tonight anyway ... high or low takes an astronomer ta know ... Back at the home I powered down the rye  like it was insect repellent and I'm the roach motel  then fell asleep immediately - after I called  Ben Hricko. 



"So she chose you because of me ... that's what your client said."

"She said you're the ink-stain, Hricko ... I'm the blotter. What did you do ta make Microsoft mad?"

It's sunny, on the dock. The weather's gone clear  in a stiff east wind tugging at our jackets, and the marsh  behind Hrickos house smells sweet  and fresh and alive. Who sez December ain't nice on a barrier island  feels cold as Greenland glaciers.

"I  fixed a buffer overflow in NT."

"So  NT's better now, huh?"

"Not when the Feds owned it, and wanted  rogue bytes free and flowing ..."

Finger a' bourbon I chewed  ... How could ya argue with the insane perv?  Ben strutted nervous, end a' the dock and back. Behind him wind churned the marsh, beating flowing green waves in the salt-grass ocean.  What a beaut ... "Well yeah - I bets black helicopter telegraphed right in ..."

"The telnet bugs are different ..." Hrickos arm is punching at the horizon. "Oh, tons of those bugs and I know them all. But your clients company - PURELIES.inc ... I've never heard of them. Not her not them. Perhaps that's the only sure lie."

Hricko chewed a city-roll reefer between  his teeth. He was skipping stones - sand-dollars actually - he had stacked them top of a dock piling and sent them whizzing  cross tidal toward a small crop of rock fifty feet from the docks edge. He mighta been shooting at something ...  I couldn't tell if he wuz thinking or dreaming, or just waiting for me to stop shouting. To get my voice over the wind I had to shout.

"Ya wants I should count 'em out again? All the lies? One-two-three more-than-three that's the tribal virgin, huh Ben?  If she told less than three she's still a virgin."

"But your client ... she's given you three bum raps."

I held my hand up. "What did I do lose two fingers?"

"So insult piles upon distress, in your sensitive PI soul.  Not emotionally involved are we, Sam? A damosil in distress for whom  truth does not enamour."

"Crap! What does that mean, Hricko?"

"Pack of lies, she's feeding you, top to bottom." Hricko got his sunglasses pushed up, and sparkle off the brine made his nose red and eyes go all watery. "I counted three lies, but they're small beans Sam. Runt of the stalk. You've missed the trunk.  What's this nonsense about Julia  Koan gone missing?  For a virgins lies,  that must be both the 4th and 5th."

"Crap! That ain't the nonsense, cause that's why I'm gettin' paid. Julia Koans missing and I got the check ta prove it." Couple a' conch shells I pushed around with my feet - stretched out ... "The big picture, I put that in the bank,  what Nona Koan wants, but the details them's all wrong. I got no bank for those."

"Nona ... a sister?"

"Twins she sez."

"I didn't know Julia had a sister ..." Hrickos scratching at a half-shaved jaw ..." A brother, yes ..."

"Oh brother don't tell me about brothers ... but Julia the missing sister - she wuz at Gerts the same morning we were ...  Nona had no explanation why Julia was interested in Buddha belly, or who was the gent following her."

"Do you believe anything the waitress said?"

"What about the red-smear cigarette stuck ta your boot?"

"More women smoke in Carolina than have orgasms."

"You seen the statistics?"

"I've seen the lipstick."

"Jeeez, Ben I'm tellin' ya Nona knew, not just Gert!"

"I thought she was a feeb."

"Yeah, well she thought so too ... anyway, Julia  carried a police-action 38- caliber. That's my best guess. But Nona, the client sez  Julia carried a 32-caliber automatic."

"Not that I believe Julia Koan is missing, or that she was at Gerts, or that she carried a piece even  if she was."  Hricko plumped off the deck-chair and walked over to the runabout bobbing beside a piling. "I mean, 32-caliber ... 38-caliber what's the difference?"

"One hides in a pocket one can't."

"That all?"

"What comes out a' the barrel." I held up my thumb. "'How 'bouts this much ..."

"One's a serious man-killer and the 32-caliber is not -- that's your point," sez Hricko prodding at the hull. It's high tide, and the runabout rides a foot above the redwood planks. He scanning for something, then looks back. "So why would she do that, eh, sweet innocent Julia carrying a weapon that actually worked."

"That too, but why would Nona lie about it?"

"Women lie, of course about things petty and far off, which things are anything but themselves and sex. They can't help it ... protective biological hardwire I imagine. So much to express and so little time - yes, that's a woman for you."  Hricko chuckles to himself ... "And Nicky's Sargent ... she said 'take a vacation'?"

"Yeah. She knew something ... she knew ... then chased me off like warm beer over bourbon."

He grins lewdly. "I've tried getting Anita to take a vacation ... she lives just over the bridge you know, on Sullivans Island."

"Try an operation first, Hricko."

"Peachy wouldn't go for that. Oh no ..." Hricko  tosses the joint, jumps to the boat and starts rummaging in  a tackle box fishing out a white-tail jig.  "Spot-tails should be in, Sam, around the salt-grass. Foraging time, for them on the shrimp. Try our luck?"

"No hellno fish I don't wanna catch no fish - no tail except the spot Julia Koan sits on."

"All work and no play ..."

"I don't see no Jack. Tell me about Julia."

Hricko turned away casual, thumbed the reel and flipped a cast - nothing. Half-way through the second a 10-pound spot comes boiling up outa the reeds to smack it. The rod jerks back late missing a set,  and the spot-tail boils away. Ben curses easy, turns and shrugs. "All I have is Wild Turkey."

"I can drink that crap."

It's funny, how Hricko stands on the runabout peering and bobbing like a hungry pelican.  He puts up the spin-cast rod and hops back on the dock. "As I said Sam,  Julia I truly believe is not for the catching. And if we don't catch the fish ..." 

Isle a'  Palms wuz a thin strip of sand covered with dirty cinderblock shacks,  bearded Islanders, mosquitos and seaweed.  It  was ... when I first came ta town. Bearded Islanders had all left for trailer-camps in Georgia ...   the blood-suckers hadn't gone just changed accents, but  now the shacks along front beach  were four-story marble. Front beach had gone upscale, downtown ... it had gone ta hell.

Hricko lived cross-island, on the marsh side and his digs were one-story ferro-cement and plexi ... with enough mahogany trim so ya knew he could live decent if he wanted. What he wanted ... and ya could figure the perv wrong this way ... was ta never ever move. Unlike taller buildings,  the squat bunker dared hurricanes to  blow  him off the Island ... some had tried.

Some people had tried ... a  winding, saltgrass tidal led in from the Intracoastal to the dock, and on either side a small rock-pile poked out of the marl. One side belong to an 8-foot  diamond-back, the other to a water-mocassin. At night they came off the little islands to curl around  two red oaks that bracketed the walkway in front. Glass doors that led out to the dock were two-inch plexi - Hricko said they would stop a tank, but we were walking inside.

Peachy sat on a blue wool rug. It took up half the living-room. The  brass hookah took up most of the rug. A small plastic box sat beside the Hookah. Lights glowed on the box - most lights blushed a  steady green, two were yellow and one flashed red. Hricko said she was rich -  like the black-tar hash button she was burning as we came in.  Peachy had turned the button into a glowing red  reminder of  far-off places and  sandelwood, and made a solid grey cloud around her head so ya could barely see her green eyes burn through.

She wuz about as old as any  Eurowaif , worldly too young and  her cascade of ruleless Gaelic peach-blonde hair woulda made Patrick-and-all-the-saints cry.  Aloneness she wore like a hair shirt and distraction on her face -  not a pretty face, no ... not  in the ordinary way of  ruddy-skinned  women ... it was a too thin  ruddy face with cheekbones high and smart.  She wore her body like a weapon.

Sure I liked her. Soon as we came in she looked up and grinned. "Yer comes ta convert the haethen, Samuel, is that it -  visiting so early?"

"Sure, sweetheart, and I got pieces a' the true cross ..."

"Blasphemous  Jew ye be ... noone knows how you still carry it." And Peachy laughed the rich, stewy laugh of a woman in love. "Tormenting the South-of-Broad lovelorn are we?"

"That's shorn, sweetheart."

Peachy ran a silver-tip tamper into the bowl. "He'll ruin yer soul, Benji."

"Not mine," sez Hricko.

"And yours, Samuel ..." Her head bobbed down making grey rings curl around  the smoky, silver mouth-piece. "Some of the sacrament will ye be havin' ..."

"Coffee or bourbon, thanks."

"Jaesus never touched either."

"Yeah, and the bastards nailed him quick."

"Something to eat?" She was up racing about the kitchen. The floor was oak and ceiling cherry plank sloping up to a skylight. Like the rest of Hrickos bunker it was sixty-degrees and dry as a sharks heart is cold. Something sizzled in an iron skillet.

"No pigs."

Peachy stuck out her tongue. "Both  you and the skinny, shave-head bastard ... God gave ye a mouth and all ye can do with it is talk."

"You taken vows recent, Hricko," I said?

"It's smoked salmon, not bacon Sam."

I  tasted it, and turned to Ben. "Yeah, if hamhocks got fins ...  think, Hricko, we gotta think this fog ain't seen a live braincell  since Monica washed her own dress."

"But that fits your own story, now doesn't it."

"Fits, yeah I got 'em nothing fits."

"But that's why you're here."

"All of this case feels cockeyed -  guns  and tails and boyfriends. Who's Julia Koan and why has she gone missing?"

"She isn't missing - can't be ..."

"Who can't be?"

Hricko wuz about ta tell me who. An oil lamp sputtered and fumed over the pine table. We forked salmon and scrambled eggs and  reedy green stuff mixed in  with mushrooms and almonds tasted OKey.  Hricko and me sat across, like two chess players over a china board, while Peachy sat at the end curled up in a high-back Asian chair shoulda sat top of an elephant. The plastic box sat at her elbow. She said nothing, but her green sparklers scooped everything in - like an oral history buff scooping up  last  words of a soon-to-be dead tribe. Everything in, nothing came out - how self-contained and creepy was the dame? Ben saw nothing how blind is love it's comatose.

Wild Turkey Jeeez that stuff's crap. I had two went back ta the java. Not Hricko. After biting  the fourth  like Tennessee's his own private bone he spit. “Not that it matters - exactly - but  actually,  Dr Julia Koan is very well known, within certain  West Coast circles."

“Yeah  circles I know  for a dame it takes a village my ex-wife had six.” I shifted up “Some Left Coast circles might be yours too?”

“Not mine, not really. Original sin never made it to  California.”

“Yeah I know you got what they missed. Ya didn't miss Julia, though ...”

“A matter of science. And money ... "

"Keep talking."

"Julia missing? A vacation maybe, but  losing her way? Never!"

"Keep talking."

"I met  Julia twice, at technical conferences." He paused looked over at Peachy. "Feds were all over her, of course ..." Chewed the Camel. "She's incredibly bright. What NOBYTES does ... what Dr. Koan works on has serious implications for speculative investors. ”

“Speculative investors, huh ...  well yeah I know that conference.  Deck's plus-7 you  wanna split-10s  against dealers-6!”

Snicker breaks through. “Sure, Sam,  one meeting was in Vegas ...”

“How did I guess ...  who wuz the wall-fly on that shuffle, eh Hricko ...?” I  poked him get no blink ... “Anyway ... heh she gotta live we all do. Does Julia  slum? She got pals in tough crowds?”

“Tough ... slum ... Julia? Oxymorons!” Hrickos grinning. “Her crowd ...  they eat raw fish and do ta-chi.”

“No wild side, huh ...”

“What are you thinking, Sam?”

“Heh nothin' just a wild hair I got  scratching don't care about ballet types ...” Yeah nothing it was, but just a tiny bit, that Julia Cohn had a side 'bout which Hricko knew nothing. I sez, “so she's one a' the sensitive souls , feelly-touchy huh  so how comes  this miss sensitive runs circles  and shines gotta  dim the bulb?"

He laughs. "Dim ... Julia? She's more like a searchlight!"

"Trust me pal how it goes like a three-way-switch - dim, dimmer, lights-out. Yeah,  tuned - turned - dropped that's Julia so sez her sister, Nona.  And Nona's pay'n the tab."

"So  you say ... ," Hricko  muttered incredulous.

"Bingo. She's one determined sister. They wuz roomies, in Frisco then  Julia vanished, vamoosed, vaporized. She lambed like New Zealand got sheep.”

"Sam it can't be true, Julia missing.  She's chief designer for NOBYTES, and ...”

“Not IS, pal ... was ... something didn't square with her. Two months ago she circles-da-wagon, boxes the T-square, cashes chips and  pffft!”

“Can't square-a-circle, Sam ...”

“Plenty can't happen don't believe that now.”

“But  Julia, well ... "  Hricko tipped back in his chair hawk-face squinting in disbelief and yet ...  "Julia is a leader, top bud ... her deal with NOBYTES  worth millions ... more ... a queens ransom ..." Hricko kicks back his chair "... and ... and the project -  what she does cannot be done in a garage.”

“Project, huh ... THE project  ... sounds ta me ya know her business pretty good ...” Too good I'm thinkin' “What happened recent?”

Hricko looks numb-face then  slides forward, slams down his bourbon  "You're sure, then, Julia's disappeared from Frisco. And Charleston's where  she landed, and her sister ...?”

“She landed too. Nona. Must be close, huh, like sisters ...?  Nona took an apartment East a' the Cooper, and  sez she'll grow moss before she leaves without Julia."

Hricko chewed the Camel ..."And Julia won't  show herself,  and won't leave without ...”

“Yeah, now that's the question ain't it, cause I figure what she won't leave without is what she came ta Charleston ta find ... make sense?"

"Not just running from, but running to ..."

"Yeah -  She's on a quest like Robin Hood.”

“Right country wrong century,” Hricko laughs. “Ha, Sam you mean Sir Launcelot ... one damned horny knight with a holy grail ...”

“Sex I ain't gonna argue, but heh, Ben you got your hero I got mine ...”

Sweat got streaks on his bony forehead,  hand paws it like inside brain-cells broke and started seeping out he's trying ta push them back inside. “Most heros suffer ..." Hricko's  staring  up into the skylight,  then  laughs again. “Ha - Julia finds everything so easy - society, men, mathematics ...  everything is easy for her and she demands it. Did I say that, how  Julia demands her own way?”

“You just said it now, pal ...”

“Julia demands and it happens ... anything ...  only one quest has escaped her.” He turns toward me face twisting he's giving me an X-ray not the kind give a rattlesnake sunburn, but what rips a lung cures cancer.  “Miss my guess ... Julia  at first believed  NOBYTES would  totally support her work - like a war-horse supports a knight. But something scared off NOBYTES, something or someone ...” He got the chrome Zippo out now tapping it on the  pine table. “You may have it right, Sam.  Robin Hood! Julia may have  no honorable path to the grail, and failing that decided  to thieve it!”

“Heh thieve, grail ... it ... what's the angle, the nut ... how comes a  ritz dame like Julia leaves where coke gets served with cola on leather nappies?  What made Julia hot everyone else got bone chill? How comes NOBYTES.inc  threw money at her like  Shikee mushrooms, bean sprouts and tofu leaf?"

“All of it  nothing -  the perks just trivia - tinsel ...”

“Sure, yeah I'll take a couple pounds ..."

Hricko drains his Turkey right ta the bottom and squeezes the glass. “Enough of that crap, OK Sam no more bullshit just shut up and listen.”

“OKey  that's me I got three ears.”

I get bad-eye from Hricko. “And a bad memory ...”

“Say what ...?”

"Easy to say, hard to understand."

"My  cousin  wuz Einstein."

“He wouldn't like it either. The problem ...  it's called the nobytes problem.” He winks shifty. "Or opportunity eats at the big table  with nobytes ..." Hricko smiles most to himself, about  turning a phrase up-is-down the beans  dried not canned, fried not baked. Too smart for me the smile sez maybe too smart for the Feds. Spills Turkey down the gullet.  One eye closing in a sleepy daze.  Sudden he's all awake! “What would you do, Sam, if you had more money than anyone else in the world? More money than you could count. More money than the Illuminatii can print. More gold than the Swiss, more diamonds than DeBeers ... what if you owned the world, Sam ...?”

Hricko wasn't smiling just  oozing a crooked, evil smirk slipping out  half a' the Turkey  he poured down. Peachy rolled a joint cross the table and he lit it.

I said.  “Serious?”

“Like a dead seal pup.”

“What does it mean to own the world? How much money?”

“Like you're poison ivy and each leaf's a  shiny, hundred dollar bill.”

“OKey  if I got all that ... money ta burn, money ta wipe my butt ... if I got that ..." Musta been the booze I ain't thinkin' clear - but it's so clear to me ... "Maybe I got a list."

"Ah, a data structure. Linked?"

"Hell with that.  I got a list, Ben. Count 'em on my fingers ... one, two, three ...  On the list  names a' ten people. If I got all this money I gather those ten  slime-balls together.  Put 'em in a  small room."

"Sounds like hell to me."

"Make it a cold room OKey ...  then I  arm each one.  Pick the weapons. Maybe AK-47s maybe 10-gauge  street-sweepers - like the Lieutenant uses. Don't matter ... If I got all that money then those ten jerks got ta shoot each other before one can leave."

“You're the Lords avenging angel - but I thought he had one?”

“That's G*ds fault not Levines ...”

“Then what, Sam? Ten dead Johns ... just as many bastards after as before less ten. Just as much crime and misery ... Maybe you even miss  the worst, or some escape.”

“Nothin' I don't miss, cause I let a month - maybe a year go by between the time I get that dough and the time I write down the list. Nothin' I'm gonna miss ... not one of the ten ever gonna leave that room."

"Suppose nobody shoots?"

"Don't matter ta me. Nobody leaves the room."

"That's IT, Sam,” Hricko shouts sudden, “nothing needs to leave.”  He jumps turns up the lamp flame. "What do you know about transportation?  What do you know about data?”

“First transportation, now data ... ya checked aluminum levels lately it sneaks up ...”

“No aluminum in reefer.”

“So they sez ... not much  data, either."

"I save DMT for the information buzz."

"Just you, pal." I bit into an egg it chewed back ... "OKey data's information - what I know and you don't  so information costs. My eye sez clients only -  that's what the sign sez on the door so I sell information. PI what can't ya spell in two letters? It's valuable, so it's private. Mine not yours.  Data does not want to be transported.”

“HA! Wrong, so wrong, Lusr,” Hricko laughs. “Information wants to be free, so data must be shared, and if shared then transported, from you to me.”

“Free information? Not if I can help it, pal. Clamp-jaw's the word.”

"What are we doing now if not talking?"

"Heh I ain't the green dwarf jumps outa your belly ... we're  sharing."

“Exactly! But Julias quest, if she succeeds ... then you can't help it! You must share the data!"

Sure I gag.  Last of the eggs I'm dicing up successful by myself.  Most things don't bug me easy ... I'm a peaceful guy but it's a matter of professional courtesy sharing  information namely no PI nowhere no-how got any of that courtesy so maybe I turned red cheek.

“Heh wait a minute what data, where, how who sez so what if  she puts out the paw what if I smack it ... yeah, smack it not just her paw.   Maybe I'm gonna like this action ..."

"She sticks out that paw, Sam, and ..." Hricko sez bouts as happy as a man can be out'a bed with a dame “... what if she draws a circle?”

"I seen dizzy dames couldn't find lead  side of a pencil from the eraser."

"A perfect circle!"

Bite a' egg went down like a chickens beak I mug the coffee two swallows. “OKey  a trick!”

“Not a trick, Sam ... THE trick. Why Julia  cannot just vanish. Why she was worth a queens ransom to NOBYTES ... in fact how NOBYTES.inc got its name.” 

“Kinda wondered that myself, how a computer company  sends  information in bytes all over fast as it can got the name  NOBYTES?"

“NOBYTES sends less information, so they send more.”

“Oh I sees that real clear ...”

“Clear as a pane of glass, Sam.  Every possible piece of information, every piece of data is already in the possession of the person who wants it. If you can write p-i, then you have what you  want even before you ask. Nothing is unknown ... nobytes ... ”

“PI? NOBYTES? We playin' word games, here Hricko?”

Sam - that's p-i  like in ratio of  circumference to diameter of a circle, not PI like in stick your nose to the keyhole ...”

“We're talking a number, right ...”

“Sure Sam - the non-repeating decimal number  3.14159...

“Keeps on going, huh ...”

“Forever,  without repeating obnoxiously.”

“OKey so what ya got is p-i ... ya got apple, peach, cherry so what do you got?”


"No way Jose Hricko."

"Count on it. Everything!"

“Everything?  Wait  two seconds on that silver Rolex needs a polish huh?  I ain't struck my nose in no keyhole for weeks. But suppose I do - then take a glossy photo of some bimbo doing dirt with a clients husband  bimbo's on top, underneath she's where people ain't never been what then?”

“Your 8x10 glossy? She's old news, Sam! The number p-i already contains a coded version of that photo."

"How 'bouts the negative, that never leaves my safe."

"Negative, color, RGB, CMYK ... in fact p-i contains coded versions of every photo that could be taken.”

“Yeah, well - where is it?”

“Now that's the trick, knowing where in the number p-i  you find the first piece of code  for a particular piece of information."

“If I'm getting your drift  could be anywhere ...”

“Everywhere, actually, but the trick is finding the first example, the first digit of the particular coded data in the infinite number of digits in p-i.  Once that first digit is found,  then just read off the data you want.  Like a love story.  You sweat for the first kiss, but  breaking up comes naturally."

“So if they needed ta send the photo they can send just one number?”

“Yes, and  even if they needed to transmit every  Chagall in the Louv're, every book in the library, they still just send one number. Just one number to represent lakes, seas ... oceans of data."

“And Julia's a sailor ... NOBYTES has done this?”

“Answer is yes - Julia's the captain, she was, anyway.  They know the nobytes number for certain very important pieces of data. Like the property value holdings of everybody in the world, or their fingerprints. Like the elevation of every point on earth. Thousands, millions of such datasets have been identified by NOBYTES.  So they would not send  all the real-estate values;  not zillions of pages of information. They would send just one number - the  single digit of p-i at which coding  started for the entire dataset.”

"Buried treasure too?  Bet they'd like a list of those coordinates ... every ship that ever sunk too fat."

"Possible ... I don't know, Sam.  There's a theorem to the effect some data, which we might call risque or outre data gets edited out of PI."

OKey all right risk whatever, but not dirty, huh? Then money's in." 

"Opinions differ ..."

"Who edits?"

"Opinions differ -  maybe p-i does itself when searched ---  an adaptive function, you know that loves a stroke, hates a grope."

"You  saying that p-i is alive ...?"

"Certainly not ..." Hricko shoots a quick look down to Peachy then back to me. "You aren't thinking about the SOGO, are you Sam?"

"No. You said it yourself. Damned little treasure in that boat and it wasn't buried."  I slap at the java it's cold. And hell yeah the SOGOs exactly what I'm thinkin' ... who spilled beans and the Feds think it's souffle. Hricko - he is insane I remind myself.

I said.  “Course while they're lookin' for a valuable nobytes number  person could find anything - any code ... what if they wuz ta find code that sez 'kiss me I'm Ms Ebola now die sucker '?  Huh what about that ... or what if the code gives ya no say goes straight ta the brainy reptile sez 'drool like two fags in a bra shop' what then huh Hricko?”

“Just information, Sam ...  as far as the code's concerned it's all of equal value. And all of it wants to be free.”

“Nothin' about the reader, huh ... maybe some a' that code wuz hard ta write ... even embarrassing  to write, so maybe it was meant to be hard ta read.”

“Not any  more ...”

Hricko leans back sucking on the Turkey. How satisfied does the pervo look like snot-nose teacher  Ms Bigboob just took his apple and smiled. So a fourth-grade-teacher once sez ' be a reader be successful' lucky I got thrown outa that class. Not Hricko.  Book-a-the-Month who smiles crazy over nothin' ...  made me edgy ... 

Another bite choked down and I say. “Kinda like somebytes, not NOBYTES, eh Hricko ...”

“Well ... yes.”

“Got ta bust azz up front, ta get the numbers, huh ... the magic numbers  if da Mona Lisa got hid in p-i, then  she ain't doin' tit-flash ta show where.”

“It takes work, to dig out those special numbers  using the worlds biggest, fastest computers ... clusters of them.”

“OKey they got  somethin'.  Maybe. But what  happens if the starting digit in p-i happens ta be longer than the data it codes for? How can ya save bytes then?"

How casual can I say this like I ain't never read Scientific American, or the ten-year-old niece reads Dr Dobbs not Betty Crocker so I light the Red. Casual. Before, maybe I seen green eyes like Hrickos turn black I ain't never seen 'em turn  into glowing little red beads ...  Wipes his mouth  cause sweat's there too.

“Well ... yes -   finding the usable codes ... that's  exactly the problem Julia Koan worked on. How to make p-i give short, simple answers ... Only a few people were aware just how close  she was to solving it .... "

I jumped, when the little plastic box beside Peachys elbow started to buzz. She punched at some buttons and said. "It's Bluetooth, Benji ... they're into the ports again ..."

His face tightened. "Another kiddie-script troll for p0rn ..."

"Scans from three different IPs."

"Rot in hell ..." Hrickos face turned savage. "... damnable Feds!"

"After the computers," I say?

Peachy purrs. "Practically a DDOS. Scans are coming from the same Macao server as last week, and two from  Seattle."

"Fools! Where did the firewall send them -  honey-pots or the Convex?"

"NT luv ... one of the Alpha boxes."

"They're screwed again."

"We can ship them a worm ... if we hurry."

Hricko's standing already, curled up and ready ta launch. "You interested in some Core-Wars Sam?"

"Only if it's apple."

"Still hot for Julia, though ...  in a rush?"

"No, I can brush my teeth all day."

Both Ben and Peachy were hot-footing  upstairs, to the second floor computer room. "Suppose then I finish her story tomorrow. Let's say the CHE PALMS at five."

They went round the corner and I shouted after them. "I'll talk to my banker. Your buying, Hricko, right?"



BZAT... Noise!  I'd give that  crook noise . BZAT ...  second ring I  grinned  a flat-face, careless  PI grin  jumped up yanked the buzzing receiver shouting  “... not me not now not ever, Doris. He say what he wants?"

"He sea-aaz  he wants ya to stop pawing the kitten."

"Which kitten?"

"He sez it rhymes with moans."

"Didn't say which paw?"

"Mr Davidson  sea-aaz the paw that ain't broke yet."

"Tell the frost-face bent-card  call 1900HAIRBAL  yeah Doris I'm sorry OKey all right ... ," downed the receiver  glad I ain't shouted all week  since Ashley River froze solid and Low Country wives got rings ...  

I'm waiting fer  Hricko ta call.  But  only  Saul-the-crook-face slime found a telephone this morning.

How comes Saul got pms he think I'm bangin' his shill she's gonna tell me Sauls-the-schmucks dice got five sides not six? And why's Ben a zombie this morning? Maybe Peachy didn't feed him no bites last night, or too many bytes before his first tooter.

Out the window, where sleet slapped at the pane street level frantic dames hailed cabs, a pelican  cross-the-street and no bright light had frozen to the courthouse bell like the one honest shyster in Charleston.  No bright light ...  they buried him standing up ... on  State Street  below, the few people fools enough ta be there walked wrapped up like elephant man turned Mammoth.  Made my bones crack just thinkin' ...  I sat down stretched  legs cross the desk. 

BZAT - BZAAT the phone rang  had echos  sounded like ice-cubes mating in a can a' Folgers decafe. BZAT -BZAT.

I swung around ...  "No Doris I can't talk ...  who?  Hricko! Put him on ... he hung up?   Hricko said what?   No, no ...  sorry sweetheart  tensor ain't when ya got a headache might give ya one ... Oh yeah? The perv said when? Tell him that ain't no ...  the pervo said  FRANCOIS CHE  PALMS Jeeez  I can't spell it, can't afford it and  the joint smells like canned Crab-Loui.  Besides I hate bridges ya gotta go over water ...” 

Doris voice crackled. "You must  be psychic Mr Levine, with Pisces and Aries opposed all month, cause  that's exactly what Mr Hricko said. " 'It smells like canned Crab-Loui.' "

"Hricko said WHAT?"

"Crab Loui, Mr Levine, like the king got no humor."

"Doris ... it's COSMOS  I told ya ta read not COSMO ..."

Doris-the-answer-girl hung up slam!  I checked the Rolex. It read one-forty PM. It read 1:40-PM an hour ago I took it off and shook it,  dropped  the receiver got a bit of the mustache twisted up.  What kinda Jew likes ta eat crab?  ...   BZATT ...   damn I jumped chewed the phone only sometimes a Jew gotta watch what he hears. “Yeah Doris, I told ya I'm ... NO ...  Doris what part of a two-letter word don't ya understand N-O ... what's that I don't care if the limo drives up the elevator shaft ... not today, not  tomorrow  will I talk ta that two-face scum not yesterday ... "

Find a Rabbi I sez find an honest gent works on a shrimpboat Sarah sez 'how many Jews are fishermen?' I got no answer. Bottle a' rye is half full. Kinda like a gun ... what's a half-full gun and why's  Hricko worried about crabs?  It's OKey  Sam ya got lucky. It's some island maybe Mauritius where men got wah broke  chopped heads here it's yer balls ... maybe there's a special nobytes number fer chopped balls?  Like the nobytes number for a sunk steamboat ... who believes that crap? I  slugged at the rye and slouched to the window.

Who figures ta get a client worries about bytes? What's wrong with food poisoning at the local hash-N-dash pit where personal injury shysters rake in the beans you skim the creme? How comes ya can't get a divorce case Sammy? Ha! Maybe the local bimbo's gone on strike they got a union now.

I went to the safe and opened it. It's a  rusted three-number safe made before chrome got popular. Ya hit it three times and  the door swings open. Last years tax grift I don't touch, or folders a' glossies made my last case ... I remove the palm-size Nikon,  32-caliber belly-gun and picture of Julia and Nona.

Glossies ta the highest bidder only. Below on the sidewalk our doorman  flagged a cab.  It had just pulled in. If it was me waitin' I'da froze like an Eskimo, but cabbie had a door open before  the dame in yellow slicker could bat two brows. I wuz watching a rerun. Same sleet, same dead pelican same wrapped up pedestrians ...  same, same ...  the  tall, suave dame stepping  outa the cab  watching  yellow fenders run into the  rain. 

This dame didn't run ... red hair  hot enough ta smoke flashing under a turned-up rain hat. Maybe Julia the lost sister  got found again. Found? Middle a' Charleston daylight she coulda carried a neon sign flashing '...end is near and I'm it ...' what kinda found is that?  It froze me like a blue pelican to the window -  I did not walk but flew. Jeeez Sammy don't get yer balls bust  crashing the office door I got trench over my shoulder  glossies pocket-stuffed  beside the Nikon Microphot  holster  dropped under the other armpit  my 32-caliber belly-gun bounced but stuck.  stuffed into Phone rang, door slammed. Lights still on behind me, but the electric bill wuz  late anyway. 

Must'a been slap a' my new leather soles on old carpet  Doris looked up. She had a pencil between her pearly whites and  switchboard lights  blinking yellow. “Heh Mr Levine,  your brother-in-law  Mr Davidson called. Again.  And ... and ... ain't ya  got too much, and ain't ya missin' sonthin?”

“No time ta yak Doris ...  too much what?”

“I mea-aan the moustasche, Mr Levine ya  haven't trimmed it in weeks. Ya kinda look like Catfish Hunter without the long legs, big arms and black eyes."

“How comes ya don't tell me yesterday?”

For all I  moved she could'a dragged my leg with her loopy lingo.  Doris-the-answer-girl was chewing smoke from red-smear end of a Pall Mall, behind her desk it was round and clean and organized and none a' that she  had me to thank for  scratch pads neither patting-me-down  with blue sparklers like I left a belt attached ta my neck.  I stopped dead  on the worn brown carpet. Neon light flickered  above she hated neon and had bought a rose-tone lamp for the desk used the base for an ashtray. Classy.

“Ya weren't busy, yesterday.”

“OKey -  missing what?”

“Oh Mr Levine ya got steam comin' from your ears ya think to much ... too much thinkin' and all done upstairs  by your lonesome.  Ya need  a girl, Mr Levine g-i-r-l a steady squeeze stead'a squeezing your brain. Betch'a she'd make ya say uncle. Think!”

“Think I gotta run.”

“Ya can't run and think”

“Maybe I can't talk and ... think I'm gonna choke you."

"You still ain't thunk on what ya got missing."  And she smiled her  boyfriend-the-dentist even white teeth  smile through the smoke cloud. “Hint, hint  ya know how  your toity  brother-in-law  Mr  Davidson  hates people ta be late.”

“Late, me ... maybe he gets brain fever.” Groping around I found nothing ..."Didn't I  say noway wuz I gonna see the nogood, scumface, ratbreath  ...”  Crappola. I felt like a balloon gone bust all hot air but the basket falls off. Not just Doris' puzzle ...  me standing flat-foot no way was I gonna catch the  red head. Not yesterday not today.  Doris dropped her cross-word puzzle. I  winced ..."Sorry Doris ... sorry  I ain't gonna say nothin' bad -   not crap-face he caught Ebola yet?"

“I didn't know  Mr Davidson fished."

"That's OKey, Doris."

"But he got two of his pals waitin'  at the  lobby coffee-shop he sea-az so and  Jimbo just called up he saay-ez. so too. Blond hair four feet wide don't smile much ... That's two Mr Levine T-ooo. Like you ain't played the nags in two weeks and the bookie gonna call in yer I-O-UUU.” She sniffled and laid tomorrows Saratoga race card on the blotter. " I filled them in like ya likes Mr Levine all but the 6th DIRTY DANCING's 6-ta-1, but LAMERS's got the best  first quarter in a slow field.”

“LAMER huh ... Jimbo huh ...”  and eyeballs peeled ... “yeah, yeah what's this FLIM FLAM in the fourth she ain't run a mile-3/8ths since Camels had coughs.”  I tied a shoelace. "OKey all right what am I missing?”

“Tick-Tock-Tick ...”

“Heh I ain't a Ku-ku.”

“Your watch, Mr Levine” Doris puckered. “You don't go nowhere without the Rolex even when the pawn shop got it ya carry the pawn ticket in yer pocket.”

Who wasn't I catchin' not nobody. “It's broke.”

“It's always broke, Mr Levine.  Set  the Rolex an hour ahead. Mr Davidson don't care if you're early ...”

"My luck he gets a Heimlick gag before I get there." Doris made my head spin, and I wasn't going to argue with her ...  “The perv Hricko neither he said 7-PM.”  Crappola. Back in the office I snatch the Rolex from blotter stain, smack it against the chair. Another dent thank G*d it's rented. I own the Rolex. Hands start ta move feeble, wrong direction. 

Back at Doris' desk  she sez  “Yeah right Hricko at  CHE PALMS." Doris slapped out a gold powder case. "A bit ritzy, huh Mr Levine I understand ya got to tip the order'ves ..."

"Only if ya eat 'em."

"He's paying?"

"Only fer what I eat."

“Generous, huh .... Ben ...  I mean Mr Hricko  kept talking about dancin' cheek-ta-cheek like in pairs romantic gives me the chills ...  he sez I  got great gams I ought'a sleep with him ...”

“And you said ...?”

“So I sez to the pervo 'gams?  Keep it on ice they're only 34-S.' "

Which  gams are long enough  which nag's cold ain't never clear till the 8th-pole. While  the elevator raced down, I made out the race-card. Mental. Julia and Nona.  Cohn or Koan  sisters. Twins. Yeah,  and I'm Sammy-the-Baptist.

Saul  ...  maybe I understood Saul-the-slime not wanting  his shills on my client list.  Nonas  rake at his tables ain't supposed ta leave no stories neither ...  Like I care who tells stories ... Saul's careful.  Nona-the-nothing ... she coulda finished HER story.  After  Microsoft ditched PURELIES.inc, AOL bought them -  the  virtual company then sold again to a Costa Rican online casino from which all employment records vanished like secure buddy-lists  vanish on an NT server. No wonder Hricko didn't know her. Heh I looked what Nona? A black box. Invisible. Nada, nothing, nix.

But Nona's sister  Julia  ... PI gotta throw salt on her  tail not holy-water, so what seemed so attractive about being away from Nona ain't no more. If  Julia's  only sowing oats in-the-wild heh a little smooze ... 'Jeeez, Julia you're breakin' yer sisters heart' ... but if what's so attractive was Nonas absence ...  what did Nona DO to Julia made her run?   I got Cyclops perspective on this ...

Jeeez Sammy,  like sister  Julia got  no bees in her tofu  ...   Julia - PhD Stanford , quantum statistics.  Social Register, yacht club, JDL  ...  yeah that I ain't figured yet,  religious stone walls and straw cots keep the Pinot Noir musty  who knows Koan or Cohn, but rest a' the dinner was kosher.  Caesars-on-the-Strip comps like Cleopatra got an asp, penthouse room,  air tickets first class and markers ON the house!  Markers worth 30- big-bills  make a pit-boss wear drawers a' rubber.  For icing, she won the  Tropicana blackjack tournament in '99 ... whose got the byte on  Julia Cohn not Vegas. Youngest tenured Berkeley professor quit dead duck for  ninety-thousand shares of NOBYTES.inc!  Brains, beauty and ...  what a charmer with every reason ta stay social not vanish. But whose vanished? First Julia's at  Gerts with X-rays all over me like lung-disease now she's parading the State Street cat-walk. Her palsy, too.

The watcher at Gerts and the pedestrian ... the tall,  big fella wrapped up elephant-man style.  So Julia ain't got a boy-friend not really ain't followed her coast-ta-coast ...

Go figure the dame?  Race card I patched into a pocket.  Who breaks early and who's around at the 8th-pole  wasn't clear, but even Picasso had ta tilt heads back-N-forth till he got 'em right what necks he didn't break permanent. Hricko might know why stuff rattled straight ahead when it got cold not frozen dead stiff.  If I could believe the shavehead pervo I ain't never liked ta deal with him. 

Should'a been a Jesuit make ends of a straight line touch after three step, maybe four ... ain't never touched a girl legal ta touch ...  what was it about the nymph-haired Peachy  and cascade of Gaelic freshness made me think a' old tombs ... like what Ben got for a heart which casino got markers on which geek, and whose designs hit the grey-market first. Nice guy, Hricko remind me of an honest PI ... but why did he care about crabs - and tradecraft -  which animals go sideways pals too when the current changes and one claw can't change fast enough?


Elevator yanked to a stop,  after a rocket ride down which sez plenty 'bouts a town can't make aquarium water float.  Door opened smells a' roast java-beans rushed in brushing aside an oily rum cologne. Some  checker-suit shyster's moving up top a' the escalator, and a  box hat red-hair-rocket about six feet a' pin-stripes sliding out the front door. She yanked my head around.

"Heh ..." I shout after her ...

Lobby's empty  -  maybe St. Pat just came through shaking  wet clover. Cross the floor  Jimbo's standing behind the java counter whistling  through a steel jaw, polishing the brass-cannon roaster  like his destroyer  spit torpedoes into a Russki sub. Accident. He's watchin' the floor, the ceiling and twelve pounds a' French-roast turn black and oily.  He's reading the Racing Form and chewing a Habanos maybe a couple other things  too he ain't lookin' at me,  for all the man doesn't talk  what's he say'n?

I  stepped off the elevator jawing.  “Heh Jimbo, who wuz the red  ...?"

Till that second the day been peaceful as a  nest a' fat cats and quick sparrows. I was still in the tree. Change came vertical. Pair a' arms yanked me about three feet high  and shaking cross the marble inlay who yanked me up not  jolly giants.

A deep baritone voice grated.  "Er spricht jetzt", Otto ... the-mole singing like birds ...”

And the other. "Mach schnell! One peep Levine and you'll need plastic kidneys."

They held me high and shook till gums rattle. I swung a leg around and caught Ottos gut with the heel.  First a "hrumph," came from the big guy his face gone blue and airless.

Then  two fists smashed into my chest - I  groaned and went numb air-bags my eyeballs could a' used 'em, but  who needed 20-20 ta see the blond stooge step out from the curtain behind Jimbo? Stooge about 8-feet tall had his right  hand under his jacket who guesses he ain't pawin' St. Christophers medal ...

... Jimbo  wagging his crew-cut  “Sorry Mr Levine the two  jerks  them I could'a took easy, but Fritz here come up behind while these two jawin' French-roast.” He shook off the stooge arm tapped the  silent alarm looks like a dime glued ta the counter.  “Maybe I see 'em alone sometime ...  maybe they put ya down, huh  Mr Levine?”

Hanging high that's me like a jockstrap on two fleshy clothes pins. “Gents ya heard the man this ain't a bat-cave ... I ain't no pigeon don't sing.”

“Did you hear him, Otto,” said the big man, “he thinks he is a bird."

His pock-mark pal  only about 6-5   twisted my arm and laughed,  "moglicherweise  zupfe ich seine Federn."

“Heh Bruno,” I sez, “want  excited feathers sit on a turkey!”

“I am not Bruno."

"Verstand sich,"  Heydrik!  Move fast." the big guy shot back ...

“Heh what's fast  and what  happened to Sauls limo?”

“The elevator is too short.”

“Bruno ya got one bright bulb ...”

“I am not Bruno ...”  

... then they dropped me. I ain't fell so far since an olive bounced bottom of an old-fashion glass I ain't forgave the dame yet serving martinis-over-ice vodka too sure I bounced ...  who sez marble got no spring?  I bounced up hit  grey pin-stripe-Heydrik in the kidney  should'a sent him to dialysis, but he had steel tubs where a kidney should be.  His left elbow swung round  vicious and I blocked it, but the right fist ... I saw the fist - coming - looked like a wrecking-ball  red-flash lights-out ...

They dragged me by the armpits. Across a concrete floor.  Bits of it rashed my knees like frozen desert sand. My left kidney ... wonder what's left ...  brain wooze clearing  over a bloody nose I could see cobwebs ... somehow they had dragged me to  park-N-pee that butted the Alreed Building. A  sign read 4TH-FLOOR USE  1-ST GEAR ONLY who wuz gonna move fast not me. In the background, somewhere a police siren howled. 

The big stooge was cursing. “Dammit! Double time, Otto, and don't hit him again. Herr Davidson said only to be persuasive.”

Persuaded ... persuaded I know right this way ta the showers - like sheep bleat ... I bit my lip blood ran it had company sticky, dry  salt I bit again wind blowing away cobwebs.

"Faster  fool ..."

Sauls black Continental limo  sat beside a concrete pillar. “Where's Joos? He should have been in the car.”

"That slob can't find his own two feet. Sein falsches Gluck, nicht unsere."

Sleet blew in, above the half-wall  covered  the limo half-black half-white and had shorted out the ceiling lamp. It was dark anyway. Darker now and the concrete floor slick as a skate-rink I'm figuring the move, maybe I got  elbows and knees  they gotta let go ta toss me in. Damage I'd do what I could wasn't no sheep ...

... whose attention ain't sharp before the rope snaps ...

I  heard a scrape, saw dark shadow  edges shouldn't a' been there. A bony piece of shadow  I ain't starin' ...

Movement, to the side.  where concrete pillars block the front limo  bumper shadow crept forward ...  edges forward ...

Heydrik yapping, “Herrn Davidson will be proud of us, Otto. Honest work makes you free."

... maybe the shadow thought a good creep did that. Stalks I seen before ... from the dark it  shot out  moving  swift,  piece a' cabbage or a  grey wedge 'what the ...' .

Heydrik whorled sideway grabbing for his piece ... "Otto goddam ... uuh ..." 

My left hand's free  bone crunches  behind me Heydrik crumbling ta the floor I rap Otto in the teeth takes away his surprised grin  and his hand drops.

“Gott in Himmel,” he gasped  and sudden  he's yanked backward like a  blond 6-5 rag-doll gotta go play tea party. He screams ...  Jeeez Sammy ya shouldn't a' hit the bastard so hard the scream follows him behind a concrete pillar then chokes silent.  Body falls ... heh who's next breathin' hard me hell no, hell no I ain't breathin' ...

I crouched down  pawing  the belly-gun.  Fools never took it.  'What are ya lookin' for Sammy' I think ...   steps rapping concrete I caught the flying tail of a cheap plaid jacket  behind footsteps running away - away rap-a-tap  into the sleet gloom,  that's the thing,  sleet  slicing in sideway and the shadow after wrapping up the two thugs, thick as an oak stump  and wrapped  ragged and flapping like stuffed cabbage wuz  pounding along the half-wall toward the exits below. Away from me ... save my azz, then after my azz he wasn't. Once, I saw the shadow it ain't bony no more, but  scarf wraps the head  against sleet. Jeeez I seen part of his face where the wind had whipped away  the scarf  Jeeez I seen  a raw jaw ...

"Say it ain't so, Sammy,” I mumble. ... I shout, “heh thanks for the muscle lets do lunch no I ain't a salad fan heh stop will ya ...  martinis I'll buy the first, second too  what's the rap?  Jeeez thanks ... send postcards huh ... next time ... ... Jeeez ...”  I got the 32-caliber lined up on the ragged head what are ya doin', Sammy ...? Maybe it don't like sleet?  Him ... it ...  It got my gut froze. What's the matter Sammy, ya can't be hungry ... cabbage ... what kinda case ya fell into, dropped ... I wiped blood from bust lip - short fast busts a' breath  yer a bed-weasel, Sam.  Takes action photos let the bimbos work ... damn -  who gotta be saved by a vegetable?

Otto and Heydrik twitched on the concrete floor. Joos lay  moaning under the limo  front bumper, his left arm twisted like I ain't never seem a left arm twist, and his  bloody face - pale and sour and ... horrified.   what's he seen  some vego-matic?  What a chop,   what a mess ... what crappola all the wreckage cause some dames sister gets lost?  

I snapped a picture. What's not jake plenty.  I'm thinkin' plenty's not jake Nona first ...  I seen setups before good-girl-bad-girl ... whoa there Sammy watch'a got on Nona ... against Nona  - heh unless her check bounces she's the tooth fairy?  'Course what fairy got a shadow looks like a cabbage? Made my head spin whoa there Sammy one step first, who knows where the crap is?

Damaged goods I had plenty a' that crap. Two buttons had ripped off the grey trench  left hand bloody and tight fisted on the revolver,  right hand swollen from the pop I give Otto.  Damn it hurt ...   maybe ya don't need ta go nowhere.  Damp wind whipped through the open floor carrying  bits of wet sky felt like ice bullets. I stood still ...  call the coppers, huh Sammy - swatch a' blood on the lapel started drying - freezing maybe what are ya doin', Sam ya got one missing dame and two  blue knuckles missing-in-action ... two steps behind that's you, Sammy gonna get closer?

I lit out for my  car two levels down. Joos and Otto and Heydrik  how'd I know what  or who iced  them wasn't waiting for me.  Who's watching who's tailing I felt  no shadows no broke wind-a'-sleet no cat-paw leather soles still I got frost chill take the wax off my mustache, drop to a knee  snatch the 32-caliber  whip around ...

"None left for me, Mr Levine?  He stood top of a concrete walk, Jimbo ... steel pipe-wrench in his right hand. Blood matted his  brown-stain apron and Navy crew.  "Too bad, but I ain't  surprised. Never took ya for a pussy!"

"Jeeez, Jimbo ya got a bust head."

"Big bastard dropped the coffee roaster on me. That's  some repair job, huh?" Jimbo wiped blood from his face and staggered and sat straight down on the concrete.

"I'll get ya the ambulance Jimbo. Hang on"

"Button's squeezed, Mr Levine the marines gonna storm in any time now. Nurses kinda like me - Ya gonna get the bastard had us both bust up?"

"I made a list, Jimbo, ten bastards and  he's number one." Siren screech breaks through other side of the building. "You gonna hold on?"

"Sure,  Mr Levine." His head flops back against cinder-block wall, hand pawing feebly at the wrench. "Figure this got to do with your dame client, huh ... "

"Enough, huh  all ready save your strength till yer squeezin' two beans."

Jimbo - a big man  mouth tangling up words, but he spit them. "I figured go figure if they do this to us what they figure ta do with her?"

"Not in our town, huh Jimbo ..."

What's not right in Charleston got more legs than calimari. I got only two. Town or country,  which one I was thinking that pounding yards down the concrete drive-well. Kidney-bruise and a bloody nose I got special-deliver from Saul-the-2-face-scum  he should'a hired pit-bulls  same teeth wouldn't have ta pay for their Bryl-creme  oh boy I got in mind special-deliver for him ... one for  me, two for Jimbo.   How far ta Sauls 6-blocks when ya gonna pay-back the slime what's Saul gonna tell ya each mouth got two stories each one sez 'stay away from Nona Koan ...'   Mouth fulla blood I spit out.

Suppose Jimbo's right, and  Sauls gonna go straight for her next?  What's Nona done to him  or will do and Saul got psychic?  Went psycho ... Warn her, huh she gotta go missing like her sister Julia  how comes what's shouting in my ear 'not now Sammy'?

Cause Hricko first took psychic not psycho. He smells canned Crab-Loui ... so sez  Doris sez Hricko and that ain't no mad king.  It was a finger pointed at my guts before Sauls thugs ever raised a fist. Helps to have worked together before - what's he seen made Louis claws grow which  phrase switched off  like Ben been reading popular-tradecraft-gazette. Sometimes the switch is visible ... newspaper under left arm  or rose in the right button-hole. But the crab meant  if  crap-flies-next-day switch lunch. No Charleston she-crab sauce at CHE PALMS, but Bens azz gets covered and mine, with  backup at Sullys juke-joint end a' Sullivans Island. Which joint is 'bouts as far from Charleston as warm beer is from cold, Tennessee bourbon.  


Nothing wrong with a  big-eight '74 Plymouth Fury six sandbags in the trunk don't cure. Face fulla green-dashboard, and  high-beams I got one eye-ball paste ta the rear-view no shadows ... shadow, Vego, Cabbage-head  how comes he does me the favor  screwing Saul?  Save my azz. I noticed nose swollen and one black eye  ...  OKey move Sammy wasn't like I wuz dating the perv Hricko anyway Peachy don't shave her legs yet. 

Hi-ball ta  CHE  PALMS   soup-da-jour, but the sleet-storm  figured different.  Wrecks closed both Rivers Ave. and Lockwood Blvd.  I dodged  SUVs on King  snaking west toward the frost white columns of the Cooper River Bridge. Three blocks up two across I jumped  Cross-Town Expressway.  Swing onto the bridge approach. Top of a car behind me swings too like a long tail who needs one?  Who? Cause a' Nona?  Maybe she stole  Sauls  money-box?  I should'a checked the dice maybe they wuz loaded.  Maybe Saul gets a heart-attack I don't think so, what makes a steel-pump leak  less  he  caught two Rabbis praying thought they seen his tax return.  Squawk filled the cop radio I got hid under-dash.  Jimbo's OKey no nothin' about three blond Tiger tanks next door rolled by a shadow maybe they got dim maybe the coppers they're smart too. River below half-froze.

I  skated the bridge  ain't watchin' cars slide off into the oily Cooper River 'bouts 800-feet below, but watched the black Bandit-chaser sniffing behind me slog down in a tangle a' sliding, twisting foreign gas-savers cheap bastards ought ta buy American  who sez big fenders don't count?  How comes coppers on my tail so fast? Jimbo musta been worried spilled beans. How's he know I don't need 'em yet maybe never.  It's a missing person  that's Julia I ain't missing nothin'. Alone I made East-of-the-Cooper  at 4:05. So said the Rolex . Sun spilled through  breaks in fluffy grey clouds.  I drove like two nuns in a nude-colony.

Who do I need not nobody I think snaking past Patriots Point  till a  white Lincoln two blocks long eased by my front bumper and pushed me over.  Push, push he's gonna scrape the damned paint, till  my tires scraped the kerb. I stopped before the brick wall hit me. I wasn't afraid of the brick wall. Drivers side of the Lincoln Saul  Davidson got out alone.

He  scanned the street  and pulled an Eagle 40-caliber magnum from a shoulder holster - dropped it into a pocket.  Saul wore a black wool coat, cheap Stetson ain't never seen a beaver  and black gloves, and when they banged on the car door I opened it.

“Nice to see you, Sam.” Looks around like company's expected. He got in. Expensive Bay Rum smell followed -  stares at my face then out the window.  "Bad day to be driving - a man should stay at home not plan a Myrtle beach vacation."

"I've been working hard, ya know ... eye-strain ...  thought I'd go ice-skate on the strand."


"Why ya ask think I need company tie my skates?"

"You do foolish things, Samual without advice."

"How 'bouts the scratch in my front fender? Your bumper and your scratch.  What kinda advice ya got for that?"

Saul hacked, into his expensive leather glove looks up serious. "We have an issue ..."

"We?" My nose hurt. “Yeah, ya bastard me neither - issue, ya want an issue between us ya two-face scumball?  How comes ya  still beat my sister?” Saul said nothing. “You got issues with me how come ya can't come in person first time gotta send thugs?”

“What is this, please tell me Samuel, that you have become. Filthy. Your business ... "

"I pay bills. Eat twice a day."

"A stench it leaves ... always  pandering to the low and mean. An embarrassment, Samuel,  a disgrace that you should act like a  pack-rat."

"Loose change I find, not shake it from a gamblers pocket too drunk ta leave and too dumb ta stay away."

"Spoken like a prole, Samuel, a woodchopper." Sauls cheeks  suck into the fur collar - darted out and he shouted. "All this I may forgive, but ... but when  did you become the butchers block!"

Sauls hand shot forward like he wuz gonna slap my face. I  dodge - brush it aside, slam my palm into his  chest  the mouth gaps open ... gasping. I  push  him  back against the door.  "Ya beat  Sarah  till blue's black ya two-face bastard and now me ... ya had my pal beat fuzzy  and want me ta bleed like Sarah.  So ya wave a finger, twitch yer damned nose yer  Nazi thugs come runnin'. Pig!" 

Autoload  40-caliber fell from his pocket to the seat. I grabbed it. "Don't  have the guts yourself ... even with this ..." I jammed the 40-caliber to his chest and let it slide ... to the pocket it came from. "Grab it yahh-h ...what should I do, huh Saul please tell me? Nothin' ... so I'll tell you ya won't get treated like them."

I push away ... drivers side open the window and the stench flies out. Saul across the seat far as a rat can squirm.

"Them ... my men ..." 

He struggled up fingering the Eagles pearl grip, brushing the coat I put grips on it shampoo don't work. "How comes ya don't know it breaks easy, ya bastard,  my face breaks easy --- what's right breaks easy ..."

Fixing the tie ... hope his silk worms got herpes. He don't care ...  face cautious, puffing working itself back ta normal, a foxes face ... who calls me a weasel. "Where are they," he managed with the best bluff breath a man got.

“Those three thugs? Ya don't know hope ya got a current hospital plan.” Saul said nothing. “Ya got a piece too since when ya carrying a piece tell this to you maybe it don't work fast enough.”

“Joos, Otto and Hydrick ... they are three good men.”

“Say were, past tense ya two-face piece-a-crappola they weren't fast enough neither.”

This time Saul blurted, “Where are my men! And who!”

“Heh now ain't that the question first question try the MUSC emergency room. Gotta be some broke parts around and a reptile farm fer blood donors.  Then  who? Like who  left his chauffeur home and drives on a rat-hole day  like this"

"Your business, Samuel," he says breathy ... recovered ... Saul ain't gonna die fast till his first good deed. "A snoopers business, an old womans business ... Trash," he spits.  Sleet covered the windshield, and for a time Saul said nothing. “Your client ...  this business  with Nona Cohn is family business.”

“Family whose family what family ...  should'a told the three blond pit bulls who's family? Maybe they could beat up your wife not leaves marks like you do.”

“Sarah said you would spit on me.”

“Don't worry  - who wastes the chew?”

“What did Miss Koan tell you?”

“Say? My client? She sez use lotion keeps  away poison ivy.  Have a nice day, Nona said. She said eat your Wheaties. Then ...”

“Samuel. Listen to me. Listen to family. What did Nona tell you about her sister?”

"Does she have a sister?"

"Despise me as you wish, Samuel, but  don't treat me like a fool."

“I gotta tell ya nothing ... so maybe sister Julia is a smart dame, popular too with the social clubs she likes her fun - gotta have style. Maybe too she got three Barbie dolls, an antique slide-rule and four back issues of Cosmo. She  got  red hair down ta here, brains up to there  she don't talk easy ta jakes like me or know gins like you.”

“A fantasy woman, you imagine -  the perfect object of a private investigators toils. Out-of-town, out of luck and out of friends. And yet pure class. Is this what you imagine?"

“Class yeah,  like you  ain't.”

“You  know nothing about Julia Cohn."

"I know crap floats and the river's waiting  behind us."

"If I told you ..." Saul is peering out the windshield ...  "Think again and talk straight to me. Do you know what  BROTHERS  is? Have you heard the name?”

“Brothers? Sure - extra large pizza. Deep dish. Double onion hold the sausage.”

“To me, your brother-in-law why do you speak this way? Insults, sarcasm ... in your mouth,  am I the one bad tooth?”

“Too many I got, the dentist tells me ...  yeah, so ... what about  THE BROTHERS?”

Saul  whorls around. "So you do know the name!" He's wide-eyed and sweat streams from his forehead. "Nona has told you ..."  He brushes at his coat and straightens up. "Whom have you told about this BROTHERS, Samuel?"

"Two blue-Jays and a pelican."

"The police ... you have said nothing to them ...?"

"Sure I spieled all afternoon. Two tickets to the charity ball."

“There is no charity here, Samuel. Nonas sister, Julia - the one you search for - she is a member, a fellow traveler, a devote or conscript makes no difference.”

"Conscript and traveler, huh ... so she  joins the army not yours ..."

"They are violent people, Samuel ... separatist, part of the Great White North,  terrorists,  they and anyone who joins  with them."

“Julia ... violent? Yeah sez who?”

“People whom you would respect.”

“Who talks ta you, Saul, doesn't spit  that I respect not nobody." Saul had a fat thumb stuck ta my chest I brush it off, throw my arm over the steering wheel. "Maybe she got tired of  your  JDL pals.”

“How did you ...," his bald head flushes, " ... so you know about that, her dabbling in radical  politics  ... " Saul took off his gloves and tossed pack a' used Reds on the dash . Turned his head to look up-and-down the street. One pick-up passed us, then a rusted Chevy pushing slush-waves to the side ...  “and you must know some members of  BROTHERS  consider themselves Jews, members of the Lost tribe."

“Lost tribe that's every Jew in Charleston.  Some fly north in summer ... what's not kosher about moose-steak?”

“Listen to me  you fool, what I am saying - in some places and within some cells they are together! THE BROTHERS! Aryan fantastics and millennial Jews. The mix is violent and insane, a second Holocaust and they welcome it.”

"Have a candy bar  Saul I think ya got low brain sugar."

"Julia came to Charleston, didn't she. That's what her sister Nona told you, isn't it? Blundering  fool ...!"

“You say Julia Cohn's mixed up with  Nazis ... the great white North, huh, then why does she come here rather than stay  there? THERE, Saul where the ice-cap ain't melted since Eskimos took a  foolish right hand turn."

"Perhaps ... perhaps Julia Cohn was flushed out, discovered ... she was forced to run."

"If that's so -  who cares where bad apples rot?”

Saul had rolled down the window sucking the Red dry. Smoke swirled and a grey frost covered the windshield. Cold and wet as a Jews hell. Where sweat rolled down to Sauls eyebrows it had frozen into a flaky white crust which he now brushed away.  "Rot ... yes ... bad apples, but let me tell you this, Samuel. Think on evil, Samuel, a very patient timeless evil.  Should those bad apples  bide time,  find one outspoken leader and find one superior tool ..." 

“Yeah what tool, huh?  Ya break Rubics fingers for making a cube? ”

Saul said nothing. Then. “It's no toy. That tool will be a life-taker, Samuel. The tool will live to kill, while the  person who  may produce it ..." Saul shrugged.  "They cannot be allowed to live.” "They?"

"Whomever touches it."

“Who decides that, Saul?”

“Us ... them ...” Smoke hung over his felt hat and mixed with frosted breath.

"Who is this US, huh  - your brothers ..."

“Our debating is useless. Decisions have been made. Where is the girl now, this Nona ...?”

“Heh she's your shill. Ain't she at the club?”

“No!” Saul lurched forward.  He spit, “damn you, Samuel,” grabbed his gloved and banged the door open. “BROTHERS, Samuel, remember that name, or  your own sister will spit on you.”    

He was clawing through the slush. I  jump out  run toward him yelling , 'heh ya scum  aren't ya missing something,” and threw the pair of dice at him. “Choke on 'em,” he'd left the pack a' Reds damned if he got those back.  “ya bastard  I'll give ya brother ya lay two fingers on Sarah again  yer nose gonna look like Cracker Jack!”  Door slams -  sleet-cover Lincoln  roared away from the kerb.

Sleet's whipping  my face. Hope the bastard tries kissing a snow-plow I'm thinkin'. Maybe he starts using aluminum pots. How comes bad lights got the bright bulbs huh the Rabbi got nothin' ta say about that?  Sauls last honest word was 'cheat', but  what's Nona not told me about her sister, why she slipped Frisco or why Nona's so hot ta find her ... why  she's looking so hard who pays that bill ... Whose payin' my bill  maybe ..?

Why am I thinking now,  Hricko knows that?  From Sausalito ta Buddhas belly. The tool - nobytes. Is that what Saul means?  Like thunderheads slamming across Charleston Bay  it hits me sudden that Nona Koan does not need to be left alone.  Sleet on the ground behind me crunches.  I turn round, like snowflakes drifting down sound heavy. SLAM  who feels a sap when it hits SHOCK SHOCK  to my skull drums ringing nothin' but sick head and rubber knees ... and lights go dim ...



Jeeez it hurts more second time. Stainless Rolex reads 6-AM ...  clammy, dark room  sweats salt, and the floor  rocks under me feeling cold and  wet and vibrating .  A hot-sheets-motel water-bed does no better.  Metal rivets poke through. That gets me up more than anything, round steel knobs drilling  my ribs. Up on  both arms and my head swims like flounder in the worlds biggest martini.

"Wucky you. A mole has a bigger pulse."

The voice boomed rattled my head -  I'm fighting that  sick, woozy head ta find  working parts. My left knee bent and propped up. "Lucky huh ... soon as I find both knees I'll tell ya."

"Sit dwown Levine."

Voice booming outa the dark. A ceiling  lamp flashes and I'm under it -  what a bug  must feel trapped - n'- zapped. The light cone yellow and sickly beat me down. "Yeah OKey  all right make that  two aspirin with the martini."

Gun-hammer CLICK rings metallic. It's a real convincing sound. I sit back on my azz  bottom's wet. Top a' my head got lumps size of  a mating turkey egg and it's thumping.  Shirt cuff on my right arm is ripped, and the  blue vein got red holes punched through. From the corner a second light snaps on shining in my face. Behind it a rough shadow sits on a stool. The shadow arm bends forward  holding a gun with intentions  sharp as Buddhas red belly ... or Sausalito fogged in.

My Rolex doesn't say it screams next morning ... "Didn't have ta give me no drug."

"Same one I ..." The voice trails off ... "This helps." He grabbed a pint off the table and tossed it over. A new bottle of rye half gone.

I slammed it twice. "Beats rehab." Wiped  bitter from my mouth. "Ain't that light a three-way? How comes ya don't advertise in the yellow pages, huh, like other tanning salons?"

"You expectwing rehab?" He laughs ..."Hawha ..." how people laugh when they ain't  seen what's funny then he sez. "I didn't want ywou tied up when I carried you here."

"Here where ...? Ever heard of a taxi?"

"Harbowr cruise HAha not today Lewine. Where  wis Julia Cohn?"

"Julia ...  punch a ticket and relax  that bus got a waiting line, pal."

"Don't pway the palooka. Answers, Lewine I need answers!"

"Ya came ta the right guy, pal - answers I find. I take cash, no checks, one-fifty a day plus ..."

"Shut up, Levine." He's pacing back and forth, boots rapping a syncopated tap on the steel floor somehow both smooth and jerky. "Fluxxed you too ... For a  weal smart  woman, Julia  behaves like a goose.  Up ... she had to look stwaight  up, rain or shine.  Not you, either ... must be the Jew problem."

"You ain't seen that problem palsy till ya seen me mad - a Jew with a gun"

"HAWHaw  see a man swerving, with a plate ...  follow him stwaight  to the ovens." He stopped moving, then pulled out the chair and sat down beside the light. "Jew with a book, now that's dangewous like Micks  on dwa bottle. How'd you learn different?"

"World's a weird place pal  it's a tool we're the meat."

"Twool HAwhaW ...!" He wore sunglasses - and what stuck through the tight-wrapped scarf last weeks shave. "You wever been shot, Levine? Ever ate lead?"

"No, not like it's my next meal I been lucky ..."  Lucky -  the word  felt like shrapnel from  Syrian-120s  they come in flat and howling  from the next hill or the one beyond that. They bore screaming holes in the air  and when they find ground strip away  everything, but a mans guts even his hole in the ground ...  Those 120s screamed all night. When I crawled from the hole I pulled three bodies behind me - weren't lucky ...  

Cabbage-head had the shades clamped right through me. "That's doing the smart thing, Lewine. Keep the jaw clamped."  He jammed the sun-glasses tight. "Some shots ... they want more wuv you than dead."

STUMP-STUMP Cabbage-head beat  his foot into the steel floor.  'Shut up ... sit down ... talk ...' "I got a choice?"

What I couldn't hear he stuttered, one big paw clenching at his face and the scarf wrapper. My head had cleared enough, plenty ya didn't try with a big fella like this.  None a' that I wuz gonna do  his  brain  parts held in by  dark, plastic slabs  ...  what about him got mental confusion and that WITH a piece leveled on my gut.  I  rolled over right side. Funny thing -  the  belly-gun ain't been taken.  That bothered me two ways, cause turkey I serve  who needs a plucking? 

"What's the gin, pal I ain't no blue-plate."

That hand stayed clenched to the scarf. No man ought ta be why not call? Corn beef on rye at the Greeks?  Even if he liked yellow mustard I don't have ta look.

"We'll see - feel better, Levine? Have another belt on the rye  - toss it over ..."

Back corner of the room I saw now  - stacked with navy bags and coils of thick rope - thick as my wrist.   Above  the rope sits a small round window - glass closed.  Round? A port-hole. Latch on the oblong door beside it closed - no lock ... 'What a resort' I'm thinking steel walls, two doors and  a window ... vocal coach  comes with refreshments.  

I said.   "Whatever ya want, pal, but I can't talk and spit."

"Plenty you cawn't do, Levine -  you couldn't see down less it fwell on you,  but you've seen the bitch-ass red-head ..."

"Heh, pal if I knew ya knew my ex-wife none a' this could happen.  We'd a' been pals, but Jeeez ya gotta slug me so hard?"

"Shut up, Lewine."

"How many  red-heads in ..."

  BLAM, BLAM  ... "How much of shuwt-up can you comprehewd?"

Like a high school band drumming my ears ... the two caps palsy popped into the coil of rope ... a shredded hemp cloud filled the air with cordite stench.  His shadowy gun twitched nervous like it needed more work say it ain't so.  Jeeez could'a been me not the rope ...

"OKey, all right I ain't gonna say nothin', pal not two words bout the  nosy red I seen  last morning ... first time at the cabbie stand, second ... in the lobby of my office building. Bouts eleven ... I ain't gonna say no more. Nothin' bouts a pal she mighty a' had  I got nothin' ... "

"Shuwt up , Levine ... you saw her when?"

"Accident, nothing, just another dame bet the Alreed Building got 20 ..."

I had got use'ta talking with a shadow, so when  Cabbage-head stepped forward words ran dry. He was a well-built gent,  about 15-feet tall with long, ropy arms and dressed casual except for the wool scarf wrapped his head all up. Bet there were eyeholes behind the dark glasses. Sure ... had ta be ...

He said politely.  "Did she fwollow you?"

Not so polite the gun barrel dropped. Musta been the politeness, though cause the words started to slip out. "No not me. She wuz following ..." I clamp-jaw.

"Follows ... always follows never gives us ..."

"Gives what, pal? This mash gotta stink, so  lemme pour a shot straight - you and the sister, Nona, Julias sister, both a' you ...  I mean what kinda trouble's the dame really in?"

"Shuwtup!" He laughs, "HawhA the swisters ... " muttering,  "dwamned  tricky bitch  I don't know which one's ..." He jumps back fast. toward the door turns his head looking for the knob  just enough of a look so I had slipped  out the 32-caliber belly-gun cold steel against my belly.

"Wait a' second. You the one in the garage? The one made meat outa those three pitbulls?"

"Dwose thwee krwaut hotdogs?"

"No pal the three goose-liver finger snacks."

"HAWAhahaha ... dwose were chumps."

"Ya saved my azz ..."

"I got reason ... personawl reason ..."

"Like I sez chunks-a-liver ...  I'd like ta know reasons. That sap sure took a lump a' my head. Don't ya figure I owe ya something in return? We work this out huh some for me some for us. We both find Julia."

"Return ... HAWHAW ... that's great Lewine. Under the lump you still have a fwace, and still breathing, aren't ywou?"

He spit that rap from his gut and it  spewed  sour.  Shaft of   indigo light crept though the door -  light, pale and fresh and unused. Far away a  ships horn wailed  lost.  How comes I say somethin' and anybody but me gets the clue ... runs off.

I said. "Maybe ya need company, pal. You and me ... we want the same dame maybe we find a way ta split her up."

"Spliwt? HawhaHaw ... Red's glue never splits!" Cabbage-head  stared back. "Hahaw - next time, Lewine. Perhaps I'll see you again, in dwa great retuwrn."

"Yeah, well  returns are great, but who wants ta be a library book?  Same pages different paws what  say maybe we do lunch ...?"

"Lunch! HAWhahaha ...  still dwon't get it, do you Lewvine?" Face disappears -  what  face like I seen it before behind a wedge of sharp salt breeze. It  ratchets back, and Cabbage-head's staring intent at me through the shades - they're telescope cross-hairs I'm the bunny.  "What if you owned the world, Lewine, but it's slwipping away ...  on the wrong side of the retwern swo you can't give it away even to one last person ..."

Door slams. Lock clicks. Last instant I had a gut-shot cross the room ... or a pop at the wrapped cabbage head only  shadows ya think about it,  but a man  can't start thinkin' that way.  Not just that I owed him for kyboshing Sauls thugs.  When ya got the chance  it's too easy ta serve - no man's a blue-plate if ya clean yer own table.

Steps I heard beating away over metal then nothin' , but I got cold sweat like crab-Loui-in-aspic. Ya had ta go, Sammy didn't ya should'a stayed in the park-N-pee what's the matter three mugs ain't enough beatin' on ya?  Pint a' rye I grabbed let  two-fingers at the bottom swirl down my throat. It burned some. I'm thinkin' ya want more parts bloody and broke you ain't got spares ...  and I sit down in Cabbage-heads chair cause fingers a' steel ice at my throat I'm shakin' so bad I can't stand straight up.   


It's later. I snapped on the yellow, overhead light.  Floor had stopped vibrating maybe they got tired. Smoked one a' Sauls Reds then another ...  who likes to sit in a  rocking, cold steel room and how long - depends on what side a' the gun barrel you stand on. Or might. Two hours ... Rolex don't make one with a hot lead case I sat - then  ya just get so pissed off ... I grabbed the chair and bust out the port-hole. One swing. Smash!  Tool - smash!  Smash  there's a hole  big enough ta squeeze through a kosher ham maybe who else ain't eaten good the last two months ...  glass didn't so much shatter as the whole rotten frame punched out  ... exactly the time two thin knocks slapped at the door and it  swung open ...

"Mr Levine? Sam ...?"

... I got  steps and  grip and the chair leg swung around  head high about two-thirds  yanked it down like a chin-up on my own elbow  cause Nona Cohn  was  slipping  right around the metal door and into the light Jeeez I could'a brained her ...

"My God, Sam you're a wreck." Head ta 5-penny loafers she wore a  surprise, breathy freshness sez  'I'm  free for the moment  now how 'bouts you' ...  rushing over both paws on my face and head and shoulders squeezing to find broken parts that didn't hurt so much now. "I think the lump on your head looks worse than your black eye."

"Ouch ... What'cha  doin' here, sweetheart?"

"Why ask me? I got your message ... Electric meat! "

I dropped the chair-leg glanced behind her expecting ... "How 'bouts that and I wuz expecting steamed cabbage ... What message?"

"On my cell phone ... it's got a GPS plugin.  I knew where you where to the foot! Right here!"

"GPS wherever we are that's one disease I ain't managed  ...  right here, huh  where's that?"

"You don't know? A shamus lost. His day begins  rescued." She kissed  my cheek  her nose wrinkles smarmy and composed like the 4-th  grade teacher taught  ya  A to Z. "Lucky you had a girl around ..."

Around where ... I said. "Message? Impossible. I  don't have one tin can and a string." 

"But here you are," she sez  provoking,  hands jumped from my shoulder ... walking to the table. "And what ARE you doing here? Oh, I bet you have Shamus stories for that! Have you been drinking? Sam, the whole pint is ..."

"Heh, it's a grain product, healthy ..." Her kiss had left hot, black smudges all over my cheek. " ... and I didn't drink all of it. Ya got a tip, right?"

"Just the telephone ..."

There wuz plenty I didn't have ...  then I'm thinkin' about the pack a' Reds Saul-the-bastard left in my car and I got in my pocket  flashing piece-a-wizz at the bottom  FLIM-FLAM don't need 6-ta-2 on that I grab for it ...

Nona sez. "Forget the ripped pocket, Sam. That trench is American cheese. If things are tough I'll buy you Brie. Or your girlfriend will. Do you have a girl, Sam?"

"Yeah sure ... maybe not recent, but the eXs remind me."

"You need a better memory ...  let's  split this rusty nail ..." 

She swung the door wide and salt air  gusts blew in. "The  catwalk is a little slick, so don't fall. It's sixty feet to the water."

"Up or down ..." I followed her out.  Grey metal sides of the ship brushed my right shoulder - with a  huge, slow easy roll ...  over three guide-wires on my left, and  60 feet below rolled  the inky Cooper River.

"Down, there, sweetheart how 'bouts an elevator?"  Then I'm thinkin' how Cabbage-head musta climbed up this piece a dry fly-paper with me on his back. Obvious then, how obvious are we now?  "Not much privacy here."

"More than you think ..." She bit her lip,  leaned over the guide-rails pulling my cuff. "We're on the Savannah, Sam just under the main deck. Look at the angles, top-to-bottom, front-to-back. The  catwalk runs under the  main concrete gangway -  and looking down  the hull tilt  hides from above." 

Down ... Jeeez Sammy when does it stop going down ...  the catwalk swayed grinding against the steel hull. Must run fifty yards, at that angle under the  gangway and into a clump of  oak. "I'd stay in the bushes, sweetheart."

"Oh really, Sam, why I haven't kissed a boy in the bushes since the fifth grade ..." Nona started padding down, hand still on my cuff feet scampering. "But hang on any way  you need."

"Hang?"  I gulped. "Ever miss an angle? Must be an easier way ... quicker, huh ...?"

"Lovers leap,  dear Sam," Nona sez and moved  on pussycat feet into a rising sun. 

A term of affectation - that's all it wuz had ta be ...  Sammy ya ain't gonna take lovers leap more splashy Pinot what it missed a' me not one part ... We ate sweet rolls at  Nonas marina. For so early young couples packed it noisy -  Mr and Ms Italian cuts  -  couple a' punks beside us the boy had broken his bagel into eighths passing them 'round to his goth dish with  the cream cheese carton and algebra book  passed every other one back.  They don't know crappola yet ... bigger pieces ya dork! Upstream from  the bakery window  loomed rust hulk of the  Savannah.  Some tourist attraction. The metal room had been just under the deck -  Cabbage Heads idea of a chat room, and the walkway angled down the near side. From three miles away, where we sat now that walkway looked like a spider web maybe what passed up didn't  pass down so easy ...

Coming down it had felt  like a fly feels in a spider-web and I gulped the second coffee. Nona still had sun and morning breeze in her  voice. "Poor Sam ... your face green. Envies cousin I can help you."

"Try white ..."

"But you may have a sunburn."

"I walk a lot." How ya been sweetheart,' I wanted ta say, 'ya walk a lot too?'   What came out hard was, "how did you know about the walkway?"

"Isn't it cute? I do volunteer work for the Preservation Society ... guided tours of the Savannah pilot-house and chart-rooms."

"That's real generous for a new gal in town ... Who tours the walkway?"

"Teenager hotties  who want to make out - and a new gal in town who wants to fit in. You might try that yourself ... Sam." Nona wiped her cheek below the eye where a blush had started and leaned forward. "You ever need to get away, Sam, doing what makes blood  boil? Doing something just because it's you."  

Again she's with the 'Sam' thing ... Nona had turned her face, so the eyebrows hid her eyes, but I bet they  hadn't missed a shot since the fifth grade. Nothin', am I going to believe. "Hot blood yeah, I take a shower if the boiler works." 

"Nothing personal ... a task a ... a grail you'd give your life for."

"In this business ya don't give your life it gets yanked away. Streets are cold; the back alley ... they come dark and darker."

Nonas eyes could never look hurt .... they didn't miss me - "Your clients Sam ... aren't you faithful to them? All your guts, all your brains. Really and truly faithful?"

I got a nose fulla coffee ...  "That's my business - only business what I get straight from a client I give back."

"Nothing like the kids necking ... it tears out of them you know, young blood and the urge to .... to create, to live."

"What ain't I seen they're gonna  create and live forever, die bad at twenty cause a pal  or homey sez  bloods too thick. Me? Next year maybe ..."

"That's cruel, Sam. I don't believe it."

Our eyes locked  hers no longer soft and doey, but clear who blinked? Beady eyes, I think I got from watching through camera lens how people misbehave ... take that for granted, what looks back at ya. That lens never lies about lies can't tell the truth neither, about Nona. That's what I think .. eyes tell you nothing.  "Believe what you need."

"I will ..."

"Right to the hot blood dead end."

Deal  top card from that crappola not me, not never ... Our eyes averted  two positives each rubbed off the other. I tried nibbling at my bear-claw ... claw - fang - spider it didn't taste so good. Nona had eaten through the center of hers, and was breaking off the crust in tiny pieces.

She had leaned away. "Who locked you in the cabin?"

I told her.

"He ... he didn't ..."

"Skinned a shin, maybe that's all."  I told  most of it, from Sauls three hoods, and Saul himself to the snatch by Cabbage-head, and salty sharp her mouth stayed open biting at every word.

Toward the end her eyes rolled  forgivingly. "An unlikely cast ..."

"Unlikely as the boyfriend sister Julia doesn't quite have ..."

Nonas eyes pegged steady like a roulette ball on 29 black. "Mr Levine ... Sam, all families have the deficient, hopeless, cloying member and yet ..."

"And yet," I interrupted," You've never told me why Julia came ta Charleston."

"But I did  Sam. It's the weather - the cold ..."

"Suppose I say I got a pal thinks otherwise ..."

"A pal? Sam, you haven't ..."

"This pal talks like lock-jaw's his favorite gene. Smart too ... name's Ben Hricko."

Nonas doe-eyes have gone wide and staring. "Smart in what Julia does?"

"He seems to understand nobytes."

Consciously  Nona broke the stare, and darted off. "This  pal of yours, this  Hricko character ... more confidant is he or more pervo please don't answer ...  he is a magician ... supposed to  locate Julia?"

An incredibly subtle guess, the comparison she made slamming the door shut.  "Maybe  Hricko knows her ... " Across the table Nona buried  skeptical  eyes behind her coffee none a'  that I thought and tapped the hot paper cup. "If  Julia   turned  mercenary ...  just went for the bucks you'd ..." Nonas eyes flared. "OKey can't happen ... but Hricko,   he knows lots a' people got little green pals tell him everything about money. Kinda like yer boss, Davidson. Now YOU, sweetheart ... ya gave Saul-the-bastard trots."

"Green pals ... you don't mean DMT ...  Mr Hricko and  Mr Davidsons fantasticals  are no concern of mine ..."  Java she poured fresh  herself, brushing away the waitress. "Do all your female clients get these ... these stories?  I don't believe it, a tough jake like you getting sapped twice. And because of me?"

"Don't take it personal. Vego  gave me the lead haircut wanted to find  Julia real bad. Must be hot blood your sister's got like all those nice, suck-face kids."

"But Vego ... where do you find these names, Sam ... Vego, cabbage-head ... I wonder what you call me ...?  Anyway he  ran off you say  ... after you told him you had seen a redhead trailing me. Julia? Of course a hot clue!"

"Hot? Like a fire ant got in his drawers."

"Did he threaten her?"  Nonas eyes narrowed. "And you didn't follow him?"

"Cabbage-Head had a piece."

"You might have tagged  along ..."

Bump throbbed on my head. "Yeah well  sweetheart I wuz try'n till ya came in the door."

"Hours after the action, only to find a suspended PI. Spent your own sweetheart time busting out that window. Are you skinny enough to fit through maybe yes." Nona squeezed my arm. "Maybe no, but certainly slow."

"I'm faster than I look."

"Like your silly car?" Nona swung a  leg from beneath the counter. "And how fast is that ...?"

"Hundred miles an hours, sweetheart, maybe ... maybe ten I ain't no fan a' potholes."

Nona winked. "And on a smooth road...? Straight! Accelerate?"

Ya couldn't argue with the gam or the  sloe doe-eyes or the line I ain't never tried I got skinny legs. "Yeah well no offense,  way I see it this patch a pavement got black-ice kerb-ta-kerb, so  not now."  Her lips pouted. My Rolex ticked off one-PM. I said. "Got a hot date," I said and stood up.

"But you can't chase him now - not Vego ... Cabbage ... whatever you call him.  Sam you have no idea ..."

"Ideas I got, but one idea I don't have." I tossed  the pack a' Reds on the table. "How'd ya  scam the transponder code for  Saul-the-scums gizmo?"

Nona blushed. "That's a girls secret." The doe-eye saucers slapped me.  "Do I have to tell you everything ...?"

"Yeah ... I mean no hell no ...!"

"Oh Sam,  you aren't jealous ... I mean we aren't ..." 

"Yeah we aren't nothin', nada nix !"  So I'm thinkin' what's nothing's hard ta know ... "Today pronto this second no.  Maybe a day's not so long ta wait."

"Am I a client in waiting?  An indiscretion ... Woman  simply suspended?" She grabbed my hand. "Honest, Sam let's not fight. Anything ... I mean anything but a fight."

"Then how comes I get anything from you but a straight story?" I shoved the chair back. "Get what ya pay for sweetheart - nothing less. Right now that means listening ta Hrickos jabber. I'll camp at the office, soon as I ..."

We stood at the door. Quick as a kitten Nona  pulled me close and kissed my cheek and clung there like this once she had cut the slices bigger. "Call me Sam, before ...  before you return. Julia needs you ..."

She turned and her eyes dropped me. Simple. Brothers, sisters, clients  ... I figure everybody noodling  this case needed squeeze outa my hide. But you, Sammy ya don't need nothin' ... I pushed through the glass door  battering across  wet dock planks  cause if  Nona ever called me dear Sam again ...  stop-it Sammy will ya ...  Sammy  ... what steam  ya got  broil an eyeball - that's all.  Just stop ...  Business just enough time  for business ... ta make a fall-back meeting with Ben Hricko. It ain't just you alone. Brain-steam  that's it. Think! Hricko didn't need nothin' but an under-age lay.


'Julia needs you ...' Crap. Which a' the nobytes numbers wuz that? I drove window open so  smoke wouldn't gag.  My  74-Plymouth stumbled along icy Mount Pleasant Drive. 'You and me, Palsy ...'  How comes this can't be a normal missing-persons case, huh? Even two sisters ... one's mad and one's been had so she flings off to a different city.  Drinks her way through a half-dozen gents before guilt sets in ... what's she done to her loving sister, huh? Booo-booo-hooo then the tears start and that's when I step in. Missing sister's left tracks like an elephant in sugar-cane. I make an appearance ... Sammy-da-smooth.  Don't ball yer eyeballs out sweetheart the sister sure wants ta make up ... booo-hooo-hooo.

How comes I don't see no tears? Just west of Sullivans Island drawbridge  it's a shiny, ice-covered skeleton  my bumper run up  tail of a battered  Ford pickup it uset'a be red. Hricko must like the rust color. Maybe he took a safe drive class ... maybe he figures ta tail  obscure from the front I seen that in some PI story who's that stupid for a smart guy? Not so stupid he pulls ahead drops back, couple a' times like somebody might  shag  speed figures and know when ta be where.  Not today.  Okey all right I sez  swerved round and pull off in front ta the clamshell siding.

Out the windshield looks like Kodiak Island. Couple a'  Palmettos  ...  pray'n branches bent over   got icicles hanging.  Swamp all frosty slides off into the Inter-coastal Waterway. It's a beaut, too bad all the shrimp gonna  freeze tail and die before they're boiled.  Tail - die - maybe  shrimp ain't such a good word eh Sammy?  Pall Mall I light tastes like Angel-piss open a window.  I hear tires crunch sleet crust Ford followed me off the road and stopped behind.  Engine kept rattling like a fresh-dredged Cooper River stiff got the chills, or  it's Lazarus no Jesus in sight.

Then he's out  sliding, pounding on my door. “Are you nuts, Sam are you absolutely ... Chris-sake Sam what happened to you? Looks like a seal chewed your face.”

"Seals, Ben not seal. Plural. Not all seals are friendly."

"Iced by the Feds - I was thinking that way  when you missed the meeting yesterday  ...  but your face. The Feds usually don't leave marks on a mans face. Not when they kill him."

"Maybe I don't like the bernaise sauce on CHE PALM oysters, huh ...?" 

"You look like the chefs mistake. Anybody I know?"

“You got pals, since when  Hricko?” He's  staring at me chewing on a city-roll reefer size and shape of a tooth-pick and dressed like a seal-hunter been out all day no luck.  "Not the Feds neither. First seal wuz a couple a' Sauls thugs."

"They try a snatch? Didn't get you though ..."

"No thanks ta me. I got help from a cabbage.

Hricko's snickering ... "And second?"

"Cabbage again, except it wasn't so friendly ...  but I don't know so good heh watch it - Jeeez Ben that smoke's  illegal, and  yer wet azz genuine Naugahyde my front seats gonna shrink  fabric you been sittin' on an iceberg?"

“Too damned close,” he sez obscure ...   He's shaking sleet off the Russki hat and  black, furry slicker  lips blue they are thin and aggravated from whatever he sez last I could'a told him Ford makes crap heaters bony jaw hardly moved at all. "Gawd sakes Sam move.  Don't send the bastards a postcard.”

Pervo got my ears ringing. “If you say so ...  what  postcard, what bastards I seen too many today?”

Hricko nervous,  rubs on his bony cheek, like he does making a long calculation short. Then wouldn't tell a bird it's got a beak.  He rolls down the windows tosses the lefty still burning and  snorts. “Them!”  His arm snaps  pointing through the sleet covered windshield.

“Oh yeah see 'em real clear last X-ray I give girl slapped me.”

“Don't take it personal  -  you're a man in need of information  ...  can't be sure now, but I believe those fellas are too.”

“What fellas?”

"Popeye the Sailor man and the fleet that brought them." He cracks the door. "Can't see them from inside."

Outside, where it ain't been warm since the last ice-age. Pork-pie hat  never covered my ears; stand on the hood.  Stomp my feet. It's OKey Plymouth hood I waxed last August. My feet get warm. Wind blisters my nose. Hricko sat  balled up on the bumper patient like a seal hunter.  I got  eyeballs pointed east toward the Inter-coastal. It's a mile, maybe across frosty swamp to open water. Over that  swamp  lay Sullivans Island all crusted white then the Atlantic Ocean. That's always empty.

Our side a' the Inter-coastal is  empty too,  and the waterway - no barge, no dredge no sailboats or cruisers - oysters ya can't eat and clams all left for Folly beach almost empty  ... except for the  shrimp trawler. It's hacking south toward Charleston Bay. Furuna turns -  deck awash in brine slop, nets reefed and ice covered.  Trawlers dark stained-wood hull  punching forward rocking sloppy alone in the chop.

Bens jaw nods. “Too cold for shrimp trawlers, eh Sam?” He got out Leica binoculars 3-bills at least 'bouts opera-size find pimples one county over on a camels ass. "I make a Captain, three deck hands ... no nets working."

"Maybe they're union."

"They smell like  narcs, Feds -  government thugs.”

I grab the peepers. Focus. Nice open water rock-shrimp boat.  Hull should be twenty miles out and the nets down ninety  feet.  If rock shrimp's what yer gonna catch ... Two figures in the pilothouse;  clean-shave kid in a yellow rain slicker, and a rough type - blue cap, Jeeez, first-mate needs a shave how comes he got a flounder gig heh that ain't no gig  ...   steel barrel stuck out the mate had it swaddled, like the trigger might get froze stuck to a finger.

I suck the Pall Mall. “How long they been  cruising?”

“Under the drawbridge? Back and forth,  west to Shem Creek then east again five times since breakfast.” Hricko lights one of his Straights smells like aged Camel-piss coughs, blows a smoke ring. “Yeah, I got a wet ass. Spent an hour watching the damned  trawler base of the bridge. Wet  handrail down, wet  in the gravel beside a frozen water moccasin, wet  coming up.  Anything's possible - if they're searching,  the boat-crew does nothing but watch the roadway.”

“Maybe it's an ecology expedition walking catfish... huh ...?”

“Fishy ... real fishy ...”

“Catch anything?”

“Not me. I came cross from Sullivans  Island behind a fire truck -  power-lines went down ... maybe burned an orphanage ...”  

“Yeah there goes yer next date, Hricko ... Heh so the trawler - maybe they specialize in fresh-froze. Gonna shoot any poor bastard fins don't work right.”  I dropped the Leica. “That an SKS the first-mate totes?  Yeah thought so ...  you sure they're looking for your pick-up. Maybe they  want me ..."

"Ha! What have you done to them?"

"That don't seem ta stop nobody from puttin' the arm on. Not recent."

"So the squeeze is on you as well as me."

"You, me  and ..."

"...  and Julia Koan."

"What a connection,  making lots of square pegs round."

"Pound away."

"Where did we stop ... oh yeah, with Julia Koan ice-cold."

I cranked the engine. “Serve her up, Ben will ya - hot Julia and slice a' cheese. Wha'cha got for me,  that ain't ice-cold?”

Hricko wrinkles his nose pulls up the seal-skin collar. “Frigid, yes! That's what it's all about, now isn't it?”

We smoked couple a' Ben  Camels they're always turds, but don't taste so bad in the cold. The engine rattled - heater coughed chunks of ice. We had turned down both side windows like hot grift wuz gonna warm the car and big ideas blow out the glass.

Hricko was watching his breath frost then said.  "The serious nobytes problem always was to find those special numbers - the numbers within p-i that started the code for important events."

"A penny's worth a' special numbers for sawbucks worth of data."


"And Julia Koan  found a trick ..."

"Trick is hardly the word, Sam.  You see, Julia had a theory that the digits in p-i change with temperature, and what data gets coded where within p-i changes also. Julia believed  at very low temperatures the differences in p-i were always short code for important information ... special, easy-to-see values like it had been all worked out beforehand ...”

“First I ain't say'n how strange it is ta cool a number ... I've known a couple numbers  mostly zeros 'cept when the bar-bill comes make yer balls freeze solid -  but yeah I heard about those magic temperatures  ... where cold fusion works huh ... and Maxwells hemorrhoids get smaller.”

“Sarcastic little bastard ...” Hricko looked up, out the window like he seen something very far away ... "but  you're right this much;  no algorithmic reason   has ever been presented for why Julia is right - the facts may be just so."

"Like I'm right and you're not."

"Like truth is a greater true thing than provability."

"Tell that ta the judge ..."

"The Feds pay all the judges ..."

"And all the scientists ...?"

"I'm not going there ...," sez Hricko pissed. "All  Julia needed to prove  her conjecture was a very large metal circle and a way of making that metal circle  very cold.”

“So why didn't NOBYTES do the work?”

“They started. I've got twenty investment clients who would  murder their wives  to  know why NOBYTES.inc  stopped working.” Hricko's chewing on his lip. "But sometimes trivia determines crucial events.  Trivia like this:  making large metal circles very cold requires lots of power, lots of  juice.  At the crucial time California ran out of electricity. NOBYTES  had its power supply cut in half. They even turned off hot-tub heaters in the company lounge, and passed out wax candles so programmers could see their computer keyboards. The company was bleeding volt-amps. No way NOBYTES  could give Julia the 90 Mega-watts her idea required for an honest test. Not there, not then.”

“So that's why Julia dumps NOBYTES.”

“Just a guess ... But  for Julia to disappear ...?”

Hricko's agitated, like one a' his little green DMT pals just jumped outa his belly. I'm scratching. “I don't know, Ben. 'Bouts this whole case. First it looks like a missing person serious dame gone south joy-riding. Who cares only the sister Nona. Then I find somebody really, really cares 'bouts the sister gonna bend my nose ta  convince  me. Now ... it's Federal, national ... gonna make Guinness  Book a' Records and IBM get into the goat-cheese business ... I dunno ... OKey, all right so where does Julia find 90 Mega-watts for free in Charleston? Power's expensive here ...  electric shave I gotta take a loan ... "

“Loan, borrow, take ... take-over ... "  Hricko was mumbling,  face grabbed a bony, cracked smile he wuz pushing up from the table, like he had an idea brain-locked and another stroll at the window make it fall out. "Sam, you told me Nona took a place East of the Cooper ... just where?"

“I didn't say  ... Bayview Apartments, Mount Pleasant got a view  of the Cooper River and  Charleston Harbor just like San Fran only cheaper.”

“So that's why ...!” Hricko bolted straight up arms flapping. “How far up the Cooper can she see?”

“Heh ya want distance get a yard-stick who's a real-estate agent. See?  She can see the bridges, see the tourist attractions all the girly stuff ... ”

“Can she see Patriots Point? Can she see the  Savannah?”

Must be what it's like seeing a nobytes number. Julia, Nona and Cabbagehead - it all spilled out together. I poked the Camel at Hricko. "Can she see the Savannah? Nona can count the port-holes. What'cha thinkin'?”

“I'm thinking pothole at an alleys dead end. I'm thinking what makes the  Savannah so ugly  makes the hold below deck real private ... There might be a safe area near the bow, in the original  crew quarters. All  cargo ships have a few  cabins for  passengers - even an  queer duck  like the  Savannah. If  fuel rods were left in  Savannahs reactor ... damaged, maybe, too  weak and too dangerous to remove  ...  the thing about radiation , unlike people, is that it never dies ...”

“You think Julia is using that!”

“Simple rule Sam. If you have heat, then you can make cold.”

"I felt it!"

"Felt what, Sam?"

"Heat making cold ... last night on the Savannah."


"I said seals not seal remember? Who beat on me. Yesterday afternoon Sauls thugs jumped me in the Alreed Building, when I wuz comin' ta meet cha. They woulda had the snatch, but some big fella beat crap outa them - I got loose and headed for you. Just over the Cooper bridge I ran into Saul. He had bad noise about Nona. When the noise stopped I got sapped, and spent the night in a cabin on the Savannah talking to the big guy - Cabbagehead - who had kyboshed Sauls Nazis."

"Christ, Sam why didn't you say so."

"I just did."

"What did you feel on the Savannah."

"Feel ... feel? This ain't an encounter group, Hricko. I felt  more vibration than waterbeds in the hot-sheets hotel."

"Power turbines?"

"Or two horny pelicans."

Hricko snickers. "But not so much vibration an original name escaped you ...  why  call this fella Cabbagehead.?"

"Maybe he's missin' something huh ...? If yer sensitive try Vego ... He wears a scarf wrapped around his face. What's under that scarf ... it ain't all face, not like faces should be. He's looking for Julia Koan too."

When I sez that Hricko bounces up head bangs the ceiling. Maybe the car's not cold enough, or too small for the story ... Ben and me pounded out the doors, walked down to the edge of the marsh. First bits of evening grey had fallen over the frost. It's cold there, and wind strips out words. I  shout. "Julia's got a brother, ya said ..."

"Yes, has or had. A scientist like Julia ... but an experimental type, and an outdoor type. Or he was." Hricko kicks at the brine slush. " There was an accident in Julias lab. One involving the brother. A super-cooled magnet blew up in his face.  So the story goes  liquid Helium washed away half of it."

A shiver ran through my guts. "And who's responsible, but the sister ... he musta hated her."

"In the beginning, and after operations on his face failed, yeah maybe. He disappeared for a while - word was he joined some religious cult in Idaho, but then returned to Julias lab. Totally dedicated to his sisters work."

"I'm thinkin' he still is ... him and the sister Nona."

"Working together!"


Hrickos hawk-face has come out of its hood and jabbing over the marsh. "Julia  using the Savannah to complete her work on nobytes, that it Sam? You'd think the Savannah reactor would be too hot ... too dirty to use, but Julia found a way ... while Nona and the brother support her."

"That's what I'm thinkin'. It explains why Julia's around but  not around,  and the wrapped head and the scarf.  It explains where's the last pothole at the end of the last alley  for a Left Coast dame with too many bytes and one bite left that's Charleston."

"Yeah, Sam ... all it doesn't explain is why Nona Koan is your client. Why would she bother?"

"Maybe ... maybe somebody's on her tail, she needs a brush."

"And you're the brush."

"Who's the other itch in all this, Hricko, huh tell me that? Maybe your pals the Feds know  ...  and  maybe that answer's on the Savannah too.  What PI leaves a client ta row her own boat?  The Savannah? Maybe WE should have a look.”

"Look?" Hricko got a pained look now, on the beak face like he wuz havin' twins without Lamaze. "It's got to be locked tight!"

"I ain't never seen a door locked tight. Not one I couldn't make loose."

"Dammit, Sam  look for whom ... for what?"

"People, places and things. First off ya want a scoop on the nobytes project right?  Supposed Julia set up a lab on the Savannah. Then, nobuyes might stare ya in the kisser. Second  fer Julia and  Nona.  What thug's pawin' all over her ...  she's my client she's  payin' my bills."

“A look ... okey, then we split. If the Feds got one sniff of the Savannah, then  serious men will be around. Men who shoot quick, kill easy and don't think. Thugs we saw on the SOGO will look like Kindergarden teachers."

“Yeah, yeah keep yer drawers dry, will ya? Where's the balls, Ben where's the guts!  Ya got wet socks step on a boat? Who sez the Savannah ain't a clear sail easy-in easy-out?  Maybe we see what's behind a door maybe two, huh that's looking too. I got the tools make locks sneeze open.”

“Okey.  One door.  Just to see  who's been around ... "

“We got the door open, dark stairs or a ladder ...  we might as well climb ta the bottom."

Hricko slumped  down into the slush. “We ...?”


What PI don't dream of a locked door? Fifteen minutes by  back roads and I parked  in building project  rubble east a' Patriots Point. It was two-hundred yards down-bay from the  park, and another hundred of tree-cover to the Savannah. Couple a gates opened themselves  when I shook my lock-picks at them. A  heated shack and pile of  creme donuts  had dozed one park guard.  On this sleety evening, Patriots Point wuz empty, silent and world weary dead.  No neckers hung on the walkway up the carrier side. 

I'da hated pitching  snot-nose punks overboard. Bottom of the catwalk  we knelt  glassing  three pairs a' black-shoes and trenches.  They paced steady top of the main gangway - got pitched nowhere. Agents, coppers, Company two a' the stooges left one behind while they marched  top ta bottom. Who wanted those odds? We waited an hour under the oak scrub; one man disappeared into the hull,  leaving only the two biggest. They had lumpy, heavy heads and lumps beneath each trench said who pitched what only them. Their pitch wuz nobody gets in ...  like most Feds they don't know why or where sure I'd send 'em a postcard.

I said. "Special deliver, Hricko, you're the postcard."

"They're the ports, I'm the scan ..."

"Whatever ... I need  forty minutes."

"They'll shoot me after thirty."

"What kinda flowers does Peachy-da-squeeze like?"

Hricko's smiling a dirty little smile - he  pulls a small, battered  silver flask from his parka, splashes bourbon near his mouth and stumbles out onto the lawn.

Perv got guts. Maybe this wuz how dames  snuck aboard ...  he's stumbling up toward the two thugs,  making loud steady rap I'm creeping  up, beneath the concrete gangway which might a' been thick as their heads.

Not me padding  metal rungs  working up, ta top of the hull, just below a rusted crane ...  in the background I hear Hricko swearing curses on the two thugs fulla taxes, black helicopters and some place in New Guinea where heads got shrunk I thought that wuz everywhere  ...  like the room Cabbagehead  bust chops.

Reminded me a' detention room at  Charleston High ...  same steel  room,  broke chair, wiff a' rye and cordite mixing with bay salt sting. Maybe a wiff of desperation that hung over Vego still clung ta the walls.  First time I didn't feel it thick as two stumps, how a washed-away life had claws at Cabbageheads throat. Cause yer a young man Sammy gonna live forever ...

Jeeez ya were right here never looked  twice at the back door straight there  I headed ... shimmed it open threw a flash into the black - a narrow, spiral casement dropped straight down.  Red  light glowed at the bottom, fuzzing out in hazy layers of frost air. One more door, Sammy one more keyhole who bets this bimbo never wore frillies ...? But all ya want's a peek, just a peek Sammy ta finish the clients business.

First time, what's hidden surprised me ... years ago. If down means hot hell I musta been going to heaven. Fifteen feet down  cold ate through my trench and pig-skin glove, and when I  cracked the hatch  bottom of the casement could'a been a food locker for electric meat. It stank electric ozone and burned paper. Vibrations ran all over, strong and high-pitch. My hand found the light-switch and fluorescents snapped on.  It wuz a wreck, the oval room  I seen stairs to a mens room ain't been stepped on that much.

What's left ... that's yours, pal I muttered. Electronics covered the walls  them I ignored ...  all but the four switches with POWER printed below and gauges above flickered near 100%.  'Whatcha doin' Sammy ...'  twice ya got mugged, bill's paid - this is for free. I killed the first three switches and vibrations stopped.

It was quiet enough ta be dead. I turned back to the door, and felt into the slot above the overhang. Empty.  Three stacks of computer fanfold sat  on the floor near  corner. Three stacks of print-out numbers. A forth stack was missing, and showed only by a dust-rim. Top of a wooden desk was bare, shelves open and rifled. Lab manuals had been ripped apart, and stacked in a  metal bookcase.  Couple a' pages had been  re-assembled  like puzzle-pieces ... Beneath it, ashes filled a metal can. One low wooden bookcase had been stripped clean ... no dust on the shelves. An ash-tray sat on top. No ashes or butts - just a melted piece a' plastic.

Above,  a white-board had been erased ...  I felt behind it found nothing.  Fingers I counted, to be sure one-two-three. Ya didn't find it, not all of it yet,  not the nut  - did ya, whoever stepped hasty on the room ... something else they were looking for, or someone else who beat them out of it, but just by fractions.  More pieces ... a story in three pieces, what the room babbled part closed, part shredded and a puzzling together of ragged remains.

There's a curtained side room little more than a closet with a cot, sink, fridge and a john. The pillow's been ripped up into the sink, and bottles a' juice and fifth a' rye poured into the john. Three lipstick smear butts kept it company ... A Virginia Slim smeared red, a Red smeared black and a Straight smoked right to the end like a roach bits a' pink hung on the last edge of paper. I feel behind the ice-box tray and folds of the cot there's nothing ... not yet. I light a Red go back out to the computer bench.

Middle of the room was a lighted  metal tub size of  two  wine barrels - twice the depth - with a folding plexi top. I stripped it off - and stepped back. How comes a pro don't finish a job, I thought? Electric cables led in and out.  A thin coax  led to a computer terminal. It was dumb as copper wire, but the cursor blinked.  Think, will ya  Sammy ...  sometimes what ya think doesn't steam a brain just tickles fingertips.  What did the niece teach ya, huh Sammy? I sat down and typed.

  SU <nobytes>


  SU <brothers>


  SU <sogomaru>


  CD </>

  RM -r </*>

What dames around when ya need 'em, huh? All ya got are fingertips  ... how can they say 'how ya doin, sweetheart. Tough day? Who's gettin' ya down? How 'bouts lunch, huh!' Makes eyeballs steam, what sometimes ya can't do. Like  power gauge needles, text on the screen didn't disappear, but  page by endless page just started melting away. Some bastard's never gonna leave this room I couldn't count the heads - if they wuz ten good for me. What I could finish I did. Maybe data does want ta be free that's great go find it palsy.

Under the keyboard - I felt around where plastic legs folded. Bingo! One folded down, and a leather notepad dropped into my hand. Pages thick as a matchbook. Each page had a date printed, in a womans stylish hand, and two numbers one short one long.  Last date wuz yesterday. I  stuffed the notepad into a pocket.

Smears a' data I left fly by on the screen, then got up. Some a' the bone-deep chill had drained from the air. But it didn't steam  like the metal tub. I looked down into the blue-tinge foamy liquid and it's rotten how I thought ... 'anybody but Nona, please ...'  It had stated ta boil. The tub didn't age Pinot. Some years ya can't grow two grapes. And sometimes a good vintage just goes sour.  People go sour. The  naked body stood straight up and frozen. Its hands and feet were bound; plastic wrap covered the mouth and part of the face. Part of the face couldn't be covered ... A metal bicycle wheel lay  below it flat against the bottom. Bicycle wheel - hoola hoop ... maybe a metal frisbee that flew anywhere it wanted; swim with the fishes, fly with the numbers ... what the hell. I snapped a picture. A perfectly round  metal wheel it looked to me not the body floating above it. Nobody  shoulda taken off that scarf. 

Stars had come up,  in twilight between slatey clouds and across Charleston Bay the moon hung low over Folly Island. Lightening flashed behind it, where the storm gathered strength. Stainless Rolex read 59-minutes since I left Hricko.  We met  end  of  a dirty beach  just off  the construction project. I was puffing from the frantic, zigzag jog. Hricko ...  he was drunk and smoking a short, fat spiff. 

"How comes they missed, Hricko?"

Hricko pulls a cell-phone like piece a' plastic from his coat. "Nobody told them to shoot."

"They gotta ask permission?"

"Yeah ... they 'gotta'," he leared. "And when they did I sent the bytes to Persian Kitty. My picture did not come back."

"Kidskin, huh ..."

"Yards of it."

"You're a real prick, Hricko, ya know that?" We hunkered off the beach, into a thick elm grove. My Plymouth was on the other side. I took the spiff. "But  somebodies picture came back."

"Not Julia ...!"

Spiff I forked back. "What if it wuz ..." I couldn't think how Ben hung out his butt while I groped the Savannah. No ...  dollars signs ... the perv wuz seeing only dollar signs from the next deal wasn't gonna happen. It made my jaw clamp shut. Finally I say. "I think she split before the  hammer bust through. Coulda been hours ...  think she got the problem solved?"

Hrickos  doob smelled like shake and burned green-violet from it's bad-azz eye? "No end to p-i, Sam, so  no end to the problem ...  Julia  probably  squeezed out enough for one last-gold-Buddha before aloha." Roach-clip he snapped on casual. "So whose picture? Anybody I know?"

"If ya know  Julia Koans brother ya do ... 'course what a mans face looks like froze in liquid nitrogen's not so easy ta say. He looked happy."

Hricko thought about that. "What about ..."

"He wuz naked, but got no more explaining ta do. No more hiding."

Cold as a damned frozen cod Hricko sez. "I meant what about ..."

"Yeah, Ben yeah the circle wuz there ... a metal circle laying  bottom of the same tank wuz floating Cabbagehead. He deserved a better deal."

"You think if the Feds burned him that's better?  Cold is better. Frozen is organized. Now they'll just feed him to an ice-chipper and scatter the bits over  Patriots Point. That's a  great return even the universe can't match."

"Great! Return? First, yer one G*d forsaken sick perv and second I ain't so sure it wuz the Feds iced him cause the room was real untidy and third ... third I turned off the power."

"Nobody stinks like the dead."

"He saved my azz!"

"Trust me Sam, in the end we're all better as chips."

"We could fertilize the whole park. The way I count it, one down four ta chip ... Nona, Julia, you and me ... "

"I was kidding."

"Damned straight you were. Our azz is outa here."

"Out of here and land where?"  Hricko's got one leg up on the Plymouth bumper. "One dead body ... at least,   and packs of scavengers prowling ...  maybe ... maybe it's time for the coppers, Sam." He's got out a cellphone. "What say I give Nicky a ring?"

"Crap no I ain't ready for that."

"Then, you ready to run?"

"That neither ...  cop, coppers wait-a-minute which badge payed my last rent check?" I slide into the drivers side unlock the door. Hricko's in. "Who's client is Nona Koan?"

"She and Julia, Sam they're nobodys client till you find them."

"What da ya mean find, sure I'll find ..."

"Nona and Julia ... they both could be on frozen slabs headed for Borneo."

"Don't talk that way, Hricko ...  think Sammy ... we gotta think, Hricko ...  you figure Sully's still safe?"

"Nobody thinks in Sullys since the condom machine broke."

"Too bad ya  tried using nickels. What about pilgrims?"

Hricko groans. "Pilgrims are safe from everything  except customers, waitress and  the food."

"That's clever, Hricko damned clever for a man somebody might want ta freeze solid. Remember, huh we're try'n ta breath steady for another couple hours."

"Who breathes the air or drinks the water in Sullys ...? It should be deserted. But then only three ways off Sullivans Island, Sam. Over the drawbridge, out Breech Inlet to Isle of Palms and ..."


"And if floating's your thing, then out to sea."




I  parked under the Flying-A which ain't moved in sixty years - but maybe it floated onto Sullivans Island. I hate salt water. Clouds hang low, sullen ... spitting  sleet.  It  come sideways cutting at your face and stinging. Hallucinate I ain't never done ... but one a' the clouds looked like grey morgue slabs and when  ... oh crap ...  Slush ran to the kerbs . We passed no one coming across  the marsh from  Mt. Pleasant. Hrickos pick-up stayed behind, on the chance an eyeball would freeze to it not us. 

Sullys Cafe winked  lewdly cross the street  A  large sign in the window flashed blue neon COORS FOR ME ... none for you, pal ...  just below its  greenish brother  spat FRESH BREW TEA. It's a friendly place, Sullys an oblong cinder block rat-hole with two windows in front, one on the side. It's where ya go when the last pal save your life got froze stiff as a Chinese Pollack. We slammed in.

Cinderblocks shook. Hush-pup calendars covered the cracks.  What covered the floorboards  five tables, seven chairs and a bar.  Lard steamed on a crusty  grill, but the smell was ritz like steamed truffles were soup-de-jour.  We sat down.

In hell the waitress could'a froze ice-cubes next ta the popes.  “Heh you two creeps - yeah  the seal-pup-bros  how come Nanook ain't clubbed ya close the god-damned door  this ain't an outdoor cafe  ya smell like rotten  halibut  fish locker's behind the building. We don't serve Eskimoz fer god sake get the coats off don't drip on the floor I'm a waitress not a mop ... and cash only.”

She would'a spit too, if the Camel dangling from her lips ever stopped smoking. Two shots got served first, then second. Bourbon. Crappola - tasted real good. Hi-yellow waitress  been taking vocal lessons finally slung mugs a java  scratched an eyeball on Hrickos shavehead  maybe she left something there then left us alone.

"Thanks ..."

"Screw you, Hricko."

Tattoed thug with a beard  worked the stove, and pawed the waitress when she came close. A large enamel pot boiled. Otherwise Sullys was empty, except for  two crabbers chewing chowder  and us and a rumbling oil heater  that stank and shook the table and made coffee spill outa  heavy stone mugs. Spilled the crabbers Coors. Spilled our Wild Turkey Jeeez that stuff's crap. I had two went back ta the java.

“Clean escape, huh Sam? " Hricko wipes his face. "What happened to the trawler snoops?”

“Heh what do I look like the British Encyclopedia? Hricko I don't know nothin' they might be brothers a' incest ..."

"So what's it all for, Sam? What do we have?"

Now that had occurred to me - what did I have? I had no client no missing person and shook worse than the oil heater, cause a coldness about this case wuz chewing my gut. Leather notepad  I flipped  on the table beside Bens wrist. The faded picture of Nona and Julia Koan mugging came with it. Notepad and picture they coulda been twins ...

I  palmed Nonas picture and said. "Scavengers missed this, hidden under a keyboard.  The notebook's in Nonas writing. Some numbers and dates ...  she  musta taken notes for Julia right from the beginning."   

A Captains oil-lamp swung above the table. Pale ,  thread-bare orange flames threw  wrinkles onto  the checker table-cloth. Sleet hammered the windows some got through. It  formed little piles next ta the radiators maybe they're all related or no one pays a power bill in Charleston. We threw wet coats on the floor.  Dog sniffed Hrickos fur collar dog whines runs away maybe the coat ain't seal, but sea lion. Underneath he wore baggy corduroy and a black-and-white check shirt, and except for the Titanium Shaefer in a patch-pocket and the silver Rolex he could a' been any out-of-work farmer come in from a tomato patch.

He read straight through the notepad while ice melted through his bourbon and the cigarette smoked and fumed and died. Then looking up and shaking the pad he said. "How could Julia just forget this?"

"Like I sez, pal the handwriting is Nonas ... wouldn't Julia have kept her own lab-book?"

"Yes ... yes ... probably in the computer."

"No longer, pal ... I think Julia was long gone, before the room got bust into. Nona and Cabbagehead were there together ...  and  leaving, who wants ta bet she had encouragement? Ten minutes ... or ten steps in front of the thugs that killed her brother."

"So you figure Cabbagehead stayed behind. To clean up, or ..."

"I think to him it made no difference, if Julia got what she came for and Nona escapes."

Hricko was jabbing at the notes. "Julia got plenty ... much farther than I thought. Look at the number pairs, Sam. Each big number, a nobytes number is the perfect cube of the smaller number. Plus-or-minus one. Even power of 'i' I'll bet ...  just a phase shift. That's the kind of simple relation  and usable data Julia had been shooting for."

"So ... what does she know?"

"Enough to make Feds drool in their drawers. No specifics,  until I really study this,  but she knew enough ta say aloha."

"Aloha ... then where ...?"

"Assuming she had rainy day pin-money, but then any woman does ... Certainly not the States. Oh, the Kazaks would take her  -  some drug chieftains boast Oxford oars over the tent-flap -  an Oxbridge style, borrowed Russian electronics and a few old Crays  ...  more than enough lure for an ambitious woman on the lam. And the men?  They'll take any woman with two legs and a brain.  Then there's a group in BC ... all stoners ... all the Stanford  AI rejects ..."

"Nona with her?"

"Why not?"

"So she ain't no where near ya figure."

"Near Charleston? Why would  they? Of all the returns that's the least, even if she had a gold Buddha waiting."  Hricko glances over at me funny. "You, ah ... you aren't involved, are you Sam? I mean romantically?"

"Romantic? Yeah every keyboard I ever seen gives me a hard-on."

"What about the last time you spoke with Nona ...  did you tell her we had a palaver?"

"I mentioned it no details." Lit my own Red. "She wasn't so interested ... Nona had the deal already cooked. Nona and Julia got bunches a' pals waiting at  some ... at some great return ... kinda like the nobytes arts festival."

"Those are two  peculiar words. Nobytes indeed! Great Return ...  that's the end of it, Sam, the end of everything."

"That so...? Cabbagehead used those words ...  like he didn't figure ta make it! End of the day, end of the case, end of the line ...?"

"It's physics, Sam -  end of data, the end of time."

"It was for him." Hricko sez nothing. " He must have know the thugs wuz closing in. What's gone, eh Hricko, everything  ... everything but p-i ..."

"Perhaps  even that. Great Return is the final reality collapse into a black hole."

"Like us, huh?"

"All goes in, nothing comes out. Ever." Ben points the burning red eye at me ...  and smirks. "See the problem? How can a circle exist without p-i ...! "A hacking cough breaks the smirk. "Mass, energy and time all vanish ...  end of the world ... all worlds,  assuming that is, gravitational entropy  exceeds  that of the  Big Bang ..."  throws me two question marks  pokes  the doob back into his cracked smile. "Expand into infinite oblivion or contract to nothing ... Now  the optimists believe we humans  return as angels - or as gods, after the end, but actually  either way the Return is cold, forever, hell ..."

I had ta stare at the perv no voice ... "Kazaks, gold Buddha, the last piece a' nothing can ya hear yourself talk, Hricko?  Where's the person? Who thinks like that?"

Hrickos face buries into the smoke ... like he's thought about it,  the end of everything  even his precious Peachy hell cares and  he'd gone ta see before anyone else. Got his face buried in his hands then looks up. "Who thinks? Anyone who believes good answers get manufactured from scratch. The moral is don't plan a vacation."

"So you're one a' the optimists."

"You want the numbers, Sam?"

I fork cross the table said glossy, with Julia and Nona Cohn mugging under blue sky and a pineapple tree. "Don't freeze an eyeball."

Hricko looks ... nods ... “Some dame, huh Sam,” he sez grinning like he just read a PI-novel found a new word?  "Same arrogant Julia ..." He winces, hunched over,  black-plaid shirt hanging loose like a vulture just seen cow-bones pick up and run  ...  somebody divided zero.

Hricko looks numb-face then  slides forward, slams down his bourbon  throws two fingers at the waitress slides off the chair lights a Straight walks to the window facing seaward puts a knee up on the rail. He's mumbling ...  could be Ahab maybe he's looking for the whale I'm thinkin' maybe someone found it first! I walk over.  Nice view ... if you're a seal. Palmettos bend dripping ice. Bushes run down sleet-covered to a tide pool. High tide and the stiff easter'n filled it. A couple wrapped in grey rain gear and pulled-down Cod'r hats muddled oceanside holding hands heads together like suck-face wouldn't  weld their noses.

“Romance, huh Sam? Lovers are fortunate ...”

“Yeah,” I sez, “ the love-bugs sleet-N'-slush the guy got  bad lungs and millions in life insurance the dame sez lets walk more."

“He lives lifetimes in a day.”

“Not me pal."

He jumps to the table turns up the lamp flame yanks  four fingers at the waitress.

“Two craps and a  barf lite, Abe hold the beans, ” she echoes back.  Then winks. “You two horned owls want any desert? I got custard, custard and  sour-mash custard.”

“No thanks, sweetheart  I like old mash squeezed, not the new stuff pickled.”

Waitress come and slung blue-plate. She sez don't choke fast. Didn't empty the ash-tray.  I ate worse hash, but  never cut scrambled eggs with a knife. “She hates ya, Ben."

“Last year, she hated me too.”

“You should'a promised her nothin'.”

Hricko  was forking black bits of hash into catsup - he thought about that then grinned. “'Course she's talented ... in her own way.”

Sure I gag.  Musta be too much for the  two crabbers  who had shared the cafe. They paid their bill, spit on the plates and pounded out the door. I didn't see no tips.  Last of the eggs I'm dicing up successful by myself. 

Waitress slapped me on the back. “Hey bozos like the hash or should I thaw out seal meat?” She wuz wiping string hair outa not the worst soft brown eye on Sullivans Island.

“No, sister just fine a bit stringy but I got to the end of it.”

“You kidden' me ...? "

“No serious OKey alright I'm chewin' I'm chewing ...”

“Damned well better chew  you got a complaint start now I got all evening no action in this joint no thanks to your bony-face pal  what's wrong he can't find end of the fork  ...  never could find the good parts of  me ...  I ain't even started to bitch.” She swipes sweat. “Something wrong with that third egg, Hricko eat up I  hid a spear-point in it just for you ...”   slops coffee ... stalks off ... I got my head lift up spears had stopped flying. Funny how it wuz like we hadn't stopped talking about data who wants ta bet p-i ain't found d-a-m-e yet in its code maybe the guy who wrote it don't know neither. 

“Heh bozo,” yelled the waitress  seeing   Hricko up from the table, “don't freeze yer nose on the window - jump out!”  Sudden like she ain't from Venus no more slammed down a grease-filled pot flames roar up, and  she jumped the bar running toward him bare-leg  uniform flying and a 12" fish-knife dangling from a graceful, feline paw. “No - ya lying bastard  don't take one fucking step let me push ... pieces ... ”

Frail struck like a tiger me  watching Hricko float away  inspired half-way between a mouthful a' warm Turkey and a  smoking  Red. Could'a been some Freud thing, how dames use a knife should'a been a bread knife and the loaf fresh from the oven, but maybe everyone bakes different ... I never thought what the perv Hricko deserved, or what he expected. Both  he got there half-way ... it was 50-50 Hricko wandering toward the window in a mental daze, our  waitress darting cross the linoleum murder eyed and me -

Diving  over the table at her bare legs everybody moving ... ain't it a funny thought ta strike I paid good money for worse ballet. I'm flying eyes wide -  head first  like my nose needed one last pound a' pain.

I yelled, “No fish fillet it ain't Friday, sweetheart ...”

Jumping  higher and farther than  figured I'm gonna nail her tits then side-a'-the-eyeball a shadow crosses and  Cabbage-head fills  it. I wasn't looking how can ya look flying through the air? Looking, thinking no way, but  eyeball scratch that's different.  Cabbage-head  scarf and gun and  black-wrap shades could'a give hernia to an optic nerve.

The figure slid into the sleet-streaked window pane just popped up wind whipping the checkerboard sport coat  him standing straight with a 45-caliber Colt automatic stretched out in his right hand.  Maybe I tried ta scream what gets screamed in 2-tenths of-a-second. What's he shootin' at or who we three  Hricko the waitress and me hit the same spot on the floor same time  and my nose smashes  ... BLAM -0- BLAM ...  the  big dog 45-caliber  barking twice I didn't hear no lead teeth  howl biting flesh we tumbled, and when my nose hit the floor lights  started flashing  ... BLAM -0- BLAM -0-BLAM ...

Yeah I'm flashing  first when the waitress 12" fish-knife slides over my cheek and buries in the floor second when the Captains lamp hit just behind it spilling cinnamon-scented diesel fuel third  Hricko's on his knees his 357-caliber break-handle sparked SLAM-SLAM-SLAM  where'd the skinny pervo hide the damned thing?  Three shots sprayed out through the window, and Hricko's staring numb-face at the smoking barrel.

“You said he was dead. Shoot him for Christ sake, Sam ...”

Ain't so easy ta shoot a  dead man and not miss.  How comes  Cabbage-head's still standin' in the  shattered window  howling.  Nice shooting Hricko ya killed a damned cloud-a-sleet not the chop-o-matic  my gut flips.

Helps the nerves I shout “What'cha got stuffed behind that scarf, leaf-top ya 4-bit  vego.” I'm pawing at the 32-calber tucked under my left shoulder it don't come so smooth ...  “How come ya ain't movin' you a carrot not a cabbage?" My hand is just rooted ta the wood grip. “What  kinda meat are you ...?” 

Maybe I heard nothin' it's a laugh, deep throat comes from the bottom a' reckless pain  - then he ducked and vanished I seen  laying on the floor pawing the 32-caliber even when the barrel fell and T-sights rested clean on the scarf you wanna pull that trigger ya wanna pull  nickel-plate,  bloody-slick  trigger that guest house is full.  Who wants ta sign the register today not me ... not me, I'm on the oak floor shakin' ...

“Oh sweetheart ... you saved my life!” Waitress got me by the collar shakin', “you okey ya little runt sure ya are got a brush-burn I've given worse love-bites than that.” She's crawlin' all over me arms and bare legs  had me pinned while flames from the diesel fuel crept closer ...” oh baby it ain't much but ya sure do bleed let moma take care of you kiss it all away and make pain feel so good."

One a' those years ago I had already ...  but seen through blouse rayon what Hricko meant about  abused, unused talent. “Heh OKey, all right compress the wound  not the chest ...” yeah she had me  wrapped up  Anaconda style ... I struggled to one knee .. “What happened, huh what in two-cold-hells happened ...?"

Waitress meowed. “Musta been the chowder, huh  sweetie? I didn't recognize those fisherman anyway.” She sopped  her apron in bourbon. “That's all right baby momma  knows how to make it better ...”

Sweetie? Moma? Better ...? “Heh, com-mon, here, gimme the bottle ...”  Two gulps I took. Then she slapped the booze rag on my cheek it burned like hell came from Tennessee.  Maybe Hricko was all bust up when he met her. Soon as he got better she tries smothering him then out comes the knife. Hricko's standing at the shattered window poking the 357-caliber through at nothing particular and looking crazy. SLAM-SLAM he pops two caps.

“Heh ya see him,” I shouted?”

“I don't know something moved ...”   The barrel waved like a boat mast he sez ..."I lost him. Sam, better get the hell away from that fire. Wipe off the blood.” Hricko's white-face and shaking and hostile.  “Let's bust some ass! Got your piece?”

“Are you nuts?” Then I felt heat. The smokey flames had licked up one table caught blue-plate fat on fire, and run  cross the floor to the juke-box. I tossed the wet apron onto the table it burst into sick, yellow flame. “Jeeez will ya spray foam, call the firemen and scream for the coppers!"   

“Coppers ... firemen  what'r you nuts,” screamed Abe the grill-man? He hustled from behind the bar with a foamer might shampoo a kitty scratch-pad. White, stinking foam  he squirted something at the fire;  juke-box plastic melted and smoked.  From beneath the linoleum came the stench of wood creasote bubbling ... “Better shampoo the damned thing, bitch ... what a waste ...”  Abe spit squirting away and backing up.

Waitress came right behind him carrying the steaming, boiling enamel pot. Hricko pulled me against the wall. “What a waste, Sam. That pot's boiling two months worth of peyote tea, and the buttons  taste like crap on  grilled flounder without the sauce.”

“Ain't that kinda illegal ...?”

“They sell it for chowder, too. Pay sales tax on every bite how illegal is that?”

I got no answer ... Waitress slung the enamel pot at the table flames rose and fell, hissed and died peyote buttons rolled over the floor followed by waves of green, sticky sauce. It stuck everywhere and where it stuck the flames spit and died. Truffles-da-jour locals would lick that linoleum all winter.  Only the juke-box smoked. Abe was squirting it cautiously. Electric wires behind the juke are sparking. Above on  cinder block a naked, copper pipe started dripping, then a squirt went half cross the cafe floor.

Sudden I  got worries about the glossy photo - yank it from my pocket no damage visible. Two smiling girlish faces still mugging the pineapple trees. “How come Hricko”, I sez, “it starts like this and ends like  THIS!”

“The goddammed Feds!"

“The dames, Hricko, the dames ..."

“Oh yeah ...” Hricko's gotta be brain-shocked too dead and too alive. He's hunched up against a chair looking down and smirking. “Julia really is a babe, if you like that sort. And the tall one's her sister?  Hard to believe.”

“Yeah I sez that ...  who ...?”

“Julia just washed her hair, cause she pins back the waves with a stickpin.  A silver stickpin ... yes,  shape of a  flat, Mobius strip.”

“Silver ...?”

“Of course, Julia prefers short leather skirts.”

“Short ...?”

“Yeah,  for a short babe Julia's not afraid to show everything. Amazing, actually ..."

“Julia the gal with  NOBYTES is the short dame!”

"Sure, who's the redhead?"

"That's the same dame I seen stalking us at Gerts, and outside my office."

"Who believes that?"

"Maybe Julias brother, huh, pal ..."   Sometimes ya  sweat all week for a nickel other times the yards just slap your face. I tossed two twenty's on the floor, grab Hrickos arm and  dragging his bony carcass headed for the  exit.

“Call me sweet-stuff,” yelled the waitress  spraying on a flaming, smoking  juke-box with a seltzer bottle.

"You mean ...," Hricko burbles unsteady."

"Yeah, and ya can call me  Sammy-the-Baptist."  Yeah, sure I'll come back for an olive  neon still winked WE BREW FRESH  in the window where smoke seeped grey.  “Amazing,” I said ta Hricko? That ain't half ...  “Trust me, you ain't started ta not believe ...”


"Julia Koan was your client from day-one."

"Looks that way, huh ..."

"Nona Koan never existed."

"Looks that way too, huh ..."

"Her brother Cabbagehead is dead frozen, but a shooting fool."

"Three-for-three, Hricko."

"Red the stalking  redhead stalks nowhere."

"Maybe she hired one a' the black helicopters."

Overhead the red flashing flying horse was blinking 'shoot here ...'. We hunched down in my Plymouth, like tin sides were made a' steel and  cigarette smoke didn't pour from  the open windows like a billboard shouting 'don't miss twice'. When bullets fly on Sullivans Island there ain't much ta run to. A 308-caliber can shoot from Breech Inlet to Moultrie Point and kill ya either way.

Wuz Hricko bent he's screaming. “You let a damned frail fool you. What did  Julia give you huh, what kind of half-wit, half-brained tear-jerk story, complete with tit-flash, two bare knees and a girly sob.”

“OKey all right I got the right sex.”

“How could you possible confuse them, Sam? Julia is, well ... Julia!”

“Heh, Hricko first contact a telephone call long distance the dame pays. The voice at the office comes from the same throat.  Science magazines don't show no glossies. What do I know ...?”

“What about her  Harvard yearbook?”

“I stopped at the cheerleaders.” Sniffed. "Sure ya pervo I checked,  and with her sailing club rag. They both got the red head picture."

“Government plants - you got gigged, Sam. But the tall  redhead  is obviously ...”

“Yeah, as dumb as your last  redhead. That doesn't answer  who's the dame I've been chasing - gums beat raw and  shoe leather thin - who's the redhead?"

"In from the start I'd wager - Company man ... woman, The Company."  Hricko should'a been sweatin' bullets some ape tries ta plug him oh no.   “Fscking Feds, Sam they want the first  piece of NOBYTES action.  Tax farts before you pick the beans ...” Hrickos head pokes up and out a window. "All along, it was me ..."


"Anybody who knew Julias work."

Smoke had started oozing from Sully's broken window. "You, me ... I don't understand this Hricko we got so many reasons ta be dead so how comes we're still alive?" I cranked the 419 and wheeled off Sullivans Boulevard onto a side-street. "Julia's gone ta the great return, whether frozen chips or dip a' nobyte."

"My money's on the chips."

"Cabbagehead's on ice, but whoever got his scarf  the attitude came with it."

"Nice cover for a  Federal assassin."

"Red's the dish we're the platter."

"We go down shooting. One clip, Sam that's all I've got ... head for the dunes ...  run this rust-pail elephant onto the beach, suck them in like Hannibal did the Romans,  retreat, retreat then chop them up from behind till ..."  

I wuz sayin' nothin', while the pervo rambled cause maybe he  took a French vacation recent or read Livy last week. He got guts I ain't never gonna tell him, but  got Cannes mixed up with  Caena - how he wus gonna whop legions a' hard men face ta face. Now me ... I was thinking more ta watch those hard men march by from the nearest hill. One was close and that an accident ... accidents always happen ta men running and to me ... And I was thinking about five 45-caliber slugs fired and missed three pilgrims from fifteen feet and instead killed a table, oil lamp and slot-machine while a spare scarf flapped away ...  I'm thinking three smears a' lipstick in the same pot and  Folly Beach suntans in  December ... where's the resort?

"NO!" I shout ... I musta muttered "Faebius"  and turned  sharp left along Beach Drive cause Hricko snaps a look over like he's been dreaming, but woke up sharp; peaceful part a' the look turns fast on the beak-face ta evil who sez a Jew don't believe in original sin one look at Hricko I figure he wus there ta tape it.

"NOT," he sputters! "Of Course..." just dribbles off the beak face! "Course they'll be there ... bastards driving  us like cattle, like whipped dogs ..."

"I don't see no collar."

"It's a trap. She hates me ..."

"What woman don't, huh Hricko tell me that?"

"Christ sakes,  Sam ... for how long ...?" I didn't know - since when or until when. So I said nothing just wheeled east. Hrickos beak pokes out the open window . "If luck runs out, Peachy ... she likes the wild Irish rose."

"Yeah I'll plant acres on your high-stone. ... ya gotta stop that crap, Hricko what comes ain't wrote down yet ... not all of it.  We still got a dice roll."

Rearview is dead quiet like the street. Ocean roar seeps through the windows, Palmettos hang overhead white and the tall, thick magnolias lining the road are iced dead.  Road too - black-iced and sizzling from the slap of cold rain. It's a  seasons thing 'bouts the barrier islands in winter - Folly, Isle of Palms and Sullivans they get real  casual 'bouts how they spend yer time. You want a vacation pal you bring it.

Six blocks east   we pulled into the clamshell  circle drive  past a pink  '64 Thunderbird parked inside the gate - twenty yards up where the grass started growing  sat the city payroll Chevy.  We parked and walked back toward the second car.  Nice T-Bird no sleet on the shiny  pink Simoniz. It said don't piss on me and sleet stops it sez I'm the boss bitch. Hood was warm, like the walkway  and front glass door frosted in dancing ocean nymphs so wide an elephant could storm through. 

Some doors make ya feel like stray wind. I rung the brass bells which chimed three flavor Italian ice while we waited ... Hrickos sealskin wus wrapped up ta his nose and his eyes screwed tight as his grip on the break-handle 357-caliber. I  left the trench hang open cause sweat just poured from my left shoulder where the 32-caliber belly-gun slept. Heels slapped on wood floor inside - sounds echoed off the glass. A  light-crystal glowed, and camera lens whirred  over our heads, before the door swung open. Piney fireplace air ... and  Anita Bowers blew out.

"Look what the sleet blows in," she raps copper style. She wore a thin blue sweater and hugged it with her arms. "I  thought the storm mighta stayed  on Folly Island."

"Only the sun-tans, Sargent."

She sniffed Hricko. "Drinking all ready? You're late, boys," she sez casual  palming her blue, eel-skin belt. "Do your mothers know your visiting an unattached woman unannounced?"

"Unattached, huh ... well ... maybe, maybe we thought you'd throw us a line."

"Maybe you need a better line, Levine." She was looking at us less surprised than curious. "Some two cold fish you are ..." and   blowing out a wax taper she held in her right hand reached out snaring Hrickos arm and pulled us inside. "But even with the best line, Sam, I may throw this one back."

Anita foyer had a rose tint to it, from the candles and chandelier and from a brick kitchen oven big enough ta make most men worry.

"Don'tcha need a license or somethin' ... for the fishing," I sez ...?"

"Not for bottom feeders like Ben." I understood  Anita had met Hricko twice - at toitsy Island parties slapped him three times never hard, but thought he was a skinny, shave-head  pig and treated him that way. I don't see Hricko disagree, 'course he had more a' Anitas paws on him now than he got the previous four years. Anita banged together a couple a' straight malt tumblers which we belted down.

"Cut this outa peat," I sez?"

"Any complaints I've got hot tea."  I took the refill. "You boys need a place to talk, I gather ..."

"Actually, you must be reading tea leaves."

"I got some ash, after the perv here smoked 'em."

"Yeah, Ben and me need ta palaver ...  no trouble, huh ...?"

"Are you boys trouble? Not for a real woman." Anita pointed out the patio door. "The gazebo's plenty private, and ...  anyway I got company."

"What are we doing out here," sez Ben?

"Resetting clocks for the great return. We gotta do nothin' ..."

Anitas gazebo perched up on the first dune line,  keeping sea-oats company and a beached catamaran and looking like a five-sided mahogany and glass aquarium.  In fact she named it Aquarius after some pelican species I think, and  gas heat worked better than mine after bills were paid.  Sleet still spit on the glass and high-tide roared. Shark-fins, too in the fluorescent waves  if ya looked close my Rolex read  8-PM and if sky could get any darker night  fell from the clouds.

Hricko glared  spiteful through the glass, like an army wuz about ta land just for him. "Oh they're out there all right ... one of the Navy's submersibles keeping eyes on us. Watch, watch watch then wammo ...”

"You're paranoid."

"We're flounder waiting for the gig."

“Heh I seen the movie nobody survived ...”

“... or maybe a robot craft circling just outside the tide-line ... infra-red, ultra-sound ... snipers in the bushes ... " Hricko's  slouching on a maple bench chewing the bent end of a City-roll lefty  'pass it over ...' he does. "Quiet like this proves we are total encircled."

I'm thinking quiet enough ta hear snow-flakes on the breakers ... I step outside to listen, like something's gonna get  special delivered. Sleet slaps my face - who wants ta go postal, huh? Who gives a damn ... "Is the Great Return this quiet?"

"No, it's bedlam. Everything rushes together causing  huge sonic waves to radiate out from the event horizon. Like X-rays they rush out , but get sucked back. Makes no difference, cause tidal forces have reduced everything to quarks --  nobody hears ..."

"That's us."


In the dark we crossed back to Anitas patio.  Gas lights flared automatic. I banged on the door. Anita  stalked her kitchen and waved us through.  A Captains lamp flickered orange above an oak table. Set silverware burn yer eyeballs her too. She had changed into a black-lame' party outfit she could'a painted on I had no complaints.

"Took your sweet time, Sam ...?"

"We didn't stop till end a' the line ...  men talk slow and funny."

She  squirreled at that, with an eyebrow and said. “It's always nice to see grown men get personal."  Her eyebrow winked. "Women can talk longer ...  more scotch, boys?”  Who needs irony from a copper dame with a hatchet? She was  standing behind a counter hacking at crab-claws, and what got hacked got thrown into a steaming, copper pot. "Stay for dinner?”

“Heh ya got company ...”

“Always room for a  gentleman ...” Thawak she swung the cleaver  head perked sideways  looking  at Hricko! “ ...   and a shameless, conniving, shavehead pervo ...”

Jeeez I'm thinkin' every dame on Sullivans Island hates Hricko ... she said it cute though, like good lookin' women do, and  it was a nice cleaver.  She had lit three burners on the stove.  All were busy. An onion and potato got hacked and tossed then a fish-head. Rock shrimp were piled in an iced crystal bowl. Diner plates had been stacked on the counter beside five whiskey tumblers. I made the count three times ... cause I hate ta miss parties where I ain't invited or the RSVP come late.

It was a big pine and stainless kitchen, but looked cosy beside the parlor where we stood. The room was high-ceiling and stylish beachy  without being cheap, and about twice the size of my apartment. “Diner sounds great, but I don't think so. We got a date kinda locked up ...”

“Shavehead too?” She whacked another fish head tossed it in ... brushes back a curl  looked Hrickos way again. "Breaks my heart ... get rid of that chippie?”

“No, not yet.”

“Too bad you have nice hands ..."

He had dropped into a rattan lounger and lit a Camel. “Don't take it so personal, Anita. Any time you need  better head in the pot ...”

Anitas eyes flew up. Thawak! “I'll come looking ...” The cleaver flew ... and buried in wood planks  between Hrickos feet.  Apologized she made her face say she kidded nobody.  “Oh, sorry baby next time I'll get a better grip.”

Hricko bent over pried out the blade, and strolled  in that arrogant mental way he got to the counter -  handed the cleaver turned and smiled. “Just remember what  you told me - first  time it's easy to hang on all night.”

“Shit on you I'd never waste my time telling  a pervo druggie something that smart.”

“Oh, but you will ...”

Anita didn't hit him with the hand holding the cleaver, and I think she could'a  slapped him harder ... but maybe not.  Hrickos lip bled and I  seen one second of concern in Anita Bowers eyes ...

Next second  a  hot  female voice snapped from the corner. “Good for you, Anita  when's my turn?” 

'How comes ya took so long' I wuz thinkin' - like a froze stiff on a bicycle got the RSVP, but  needs ta be late more than stylish. Till then watching  verbal love-fest I'd been shifting uneasy back-and-forth, looking for the opening , anxious ta move and same time I looked  I jumped.

Sudden-like there they stood ...  not  jumping like me too high. I sucked leather soles to the floor,  cause  the  pin-stripe  redhead  slammed away.

She sez. “He's too skinny for a pig. With  that bony head and sealskin Hricko stinks like a one-horned goat."

Jeeez I thought today all the women got vocal lessons.  Red. She wuz  posed  wearing a tan box hat sharp and aloof next ta  Lieutenant  Nicky DeLeon, who at that particular time was sparking a  Straight and leaning on a slab of teak wall doing nothing like a smart guy does when the dames are mad.

Was she mad?  Her voice cracked. “And the ugly, small piece-of-crap must be The-Mole ..., the red eyeball, the shamus  Levine."

“That's  Mr Levine ta you, sweetheart whose yer haberdash? What ya need ta cover that hair don't not today not tomorrow ... and certain as pigs feet toast in hell not yesterday."

Who sez de-ja-views don't end? I seen the  tall  red before. Hell I wuz  scraping Charleston dustbins for the tall  redhead cause she was Julia Cohn ... before Nona was ... then she  tossed hat aside leaving an angry red swatch that covered one ear not two. The kinda red hair can't hide under a box hat, and slicks out from a Cod'r.  Rocket red. That  spiky red hair a crime no beauty parlor would admit carving  glamour without sticking pins in everywhere soft enough ta stick in long, sharp pins.

"Wrap that nose around the mouth, Levine." Red drilled us cross the room. “ Hricko too ... I'd bust 'em both for screwing a gazebo in public.”  This rap she got  holding up a tape recorder from which Hrickos voice and mine started a replay.  Rocket  Red  toyed with the Fed-issue 32-caliber autoload on her left hip and sneering. “Two law-abiding American patriots, illegal drug pushers ... both accessories after-the-fact to one felony while planning a second. Both carrying concealed weapons ...  you two felons are nosed, hosed and closed.”

Push? My nose started ta throb least she didn't drool. Which amendment that violated I couldn't remember, but the  Constitution sez ya got rights bout as far as a baseball bat gets shoved so I hacked out. “Sister, don't I know you  when yer hair's decent?”

Her cheek blushed  hand settled over the 32-caliber and she took a step forward Nicky grabbed her arm like I seen him do before women don't mind his paw ... “No hasty action Agent Drills.”

Rocket Red is muttering into her cell-phone, then blurts,  “we have back-up Lieutenant DeLeon if these two lizards want to rumble -  boats just off the tide line, snipers in the bushes . ..”

Anita comes out from the kitchen to stand beside her like women do one-plus-one equals four I figure it takes a village when pms gets so bad I think Anita got a coy grin sez she and Nicky maybe worried about this nervous reaction  already.

The Lieutenant sez casual. “Boats - snipers ... I don't think that will be necessary.  We're all  pals here ... discrete. These gentlemen may be as perplexed as we are. Anxious to cooperate. You see it that way Sammy, Ben ...?”

“How dim is the Fed bitch, Nick,” spits Hricko the Lieutenant sez nothing.

I said. “How many 5-th Amendments do I need till I see a badge?”

“Badge,” sez Nicky walking over to the counter?

"Thug-U," mutters Ben.

"Yeah, badge, Lieutenant," I sez, "like serve and protect!"

Nicky hacks at the Camel. “A badge for Agent Drills? Oh - one might have been passed around like candy mints.  They melt. Different agency, different badge and all on a need-ta-know basis - what gets shown and what you pay for seeing it. Oh, you may want to see a badge,  but if  I showed you hers, well ... you know the drill.” He sucked lungfuls from the Camel  blows a thin stream of smoke over the crab-claws. “Let's keep this on the patriotic,  unofficial side, okey gentlemen? Sammy, Ben say hello to agent Drills ... Stella  Drills ..."

The name just hung there, like an ice-dagger in hell growing longer and fatter and colder while it steamed.  Hricko had let his sealskin fall at his feet. I took off my trench threw it over my left  shoulder so it covered the 32-caliber belly-gun. "One a' the team, huh Nicky?" I looked for the smile - it  froze her austere face. "Yeah I seen that tool in a dental catalogue ..."

“Drills ... Drills ... Dr Stella Drills ...” Hricko was grinding brain cells together. " You wrote the 2nd entropy paper with Prigogene.”

Red puffs up. “The old goat never saw the paper till  I put his name on it.”

“So the urban legend goes.  You're Astrophysics, as I remember, yes .. Berkeley ...  nine major grants ... three graduate student suicides ... "

"Enough of that spew, Hricko. We ... I do a steady business."

"Some business, Stella ... can I call you Stella?  One PhD to another ...?  Cynics  have suspected for years that you were a Company talent scout."

"Which cynic? We cut the legs off nosy ones. Now you, Hricko ...  for a man driving a car with bad brakes,   typing over a hacked T1 line and  punching admin through undetected buffer overflows in  CRON   ... for a man like that you  talk too much."

Hricko starts ta say something ... his cracked smile locked in tight as ten pages a' shell-script he thinks better about that ...  what maybe he knows she doesn't, and sez. "Stop the car, stop the man that's it ...? A real  paid-up agency attitude,  but who guessed the checks came direct?"

“When the case amuses me."

"Or come from PURELIES.inc", I snap.

"Clever little bed-weasel isn't he." Drills flashes a snicker. "For the under-employed,  it's an amusing  Company shop, Lusr."

"Heh when ya gonna laugh so much amusing ... And my client, Julia Cohn, she amuses you, huh?"

What it wuz about, I'm thinkin' got ta be. Till just then we five was in three places ... Anita sweating and banging away at her  gas  kitchen stove, me and Ben standing  beneath the living room chandelier and the Lieutenant, and agent Drills ... in the darker, curvy overhead space between rooms. Who wuz really in the dark?

Then Stella  shot straight across the hardwood toward me a tall, pointed, red-tip arrow. Hammer a' G*ds-on earth her voice. "Forget the 'my client' spiel, rat-nose. Her ass belongs to us!"

"Sez which amendment?"

"You don't seem to understand, Levine. We make the paper, blot the ink."

"Yeah I see the stain ..."

"Boy scouts to the rear, small-timer ...  Julia had something ... was about to have something that ought to belong only to the government." Drills reached down for a cold boil shrimp. "That information belongs to those who understand power and how to use it. Use, abuse and choose ...”

"NOBYTES, HUH ... that another Company shop?"

"Shut up, Levine, the word is off limits,  legend, secret, dim and gone. Eaten"

“Sucked her in, huh.  So Julia Cohn was running from you? That's why she came to Charleston ... what happened ta 'preserve and protect?'"

"Get off the civics 101 drool. We skin the meek and  eat the weak, slow and stupid."

"Don't ya need seal meat not shrimp," I spit.

Hricko laughs. "A real man eater, Stella  ... that also is the legend.”

“When the urban man amuses me ...”

“So it's natural you and Julia Koan should become ... pals.”

“The Company has had people on her for years ...” Stella shifted like she needed a better grip. “I don't like women  - in general. But the NOBYTES  girly? That was an assignment. By the numbers, till Julia beat-feet, and you and the runt show up. Cluttering ... I'd chew on you two just to clean my teeth.” 

"So maybe Julia got wise ta the creep, just like I did after ya pawed around Gretas hash-house."

Stella laughed. "Listen up rat-nose  nobody gets wise with me."

"But Julia  runs anyway, huh ... somebody tipped her off? How 'bouts her brother? You pals with him too?"

A quick hard line appeared, from the side of Stella Drills cheek.  "What brother?" The line curved above her eye and it twitched - her hand jumped up to stop it. "Levine you don't get two chances ... deliver Julia Cohns ass this instant! Talk and shut up." I said nothing. "I want everything you know about Julia Koan, I want it yesterday, today and tomorrow, and  it's nothing but my pleasure grinding you into bone meal to get it."

Then she laughed. Oh yeah  spotting missing persons was not Stella Drills specialty what she lost herself don't matter. Or dropped into a pool of liquid nitrogen oops pardon me this is just a cryo moment see ya next time round.  The twitch said plenty, bouts how deep the next bird in those kitty-red paws got swum ... . How come I ain't surprised?  Stella got assigned ... another robo-chop. What she missed only was a power-cord, and right now she had the Lieutenant ta spin. Ben and me standing pretty stiff our hands nowhere near the pieces we packed.

You could smell fuse burning ...  the Lieutenant he was casual ...  smiled. "That's too much brain-burn for a ... a  man of action, Sammy. Frozen cells need wandering ... know what I mean?"  His face too casual for a serious man. I knew that.  "Nothing personal in this Sam, not for you, is there? I mean we're going to need her ... Nona, Julia ... your client."  

"Personal? No way Lieutenant I want personal I read  your wifes Ms Peepers column. What goes ta the bottom she makes float. Nothing personal."

"That's good ..." Nicky shoots me an X-ray,  butts the Straight and  having followed  Drills to the table  chomped into a  cold-boiled shrimp. “Superb, Sargent Bowers. You laced  Moose Drool into the boil.”

“Too bad Stella jumped out so soon,” Hricko rapped.

Stella drilled. "If you were a bone, Hricko I wouldn't use you to pick my teeth."

Twice she ain't got clean teeth needs a dentist. Where's the drill ... Whoa I'm thinkin' who wants a shoot-out with a gal named Drills?  "Clean, pick ...," I sez. “Those rock shrimp got fins ...?"

“Only yours, Sammy,” Anita chimed perfect '50s style should'a had kids I told her that before ... . “Chowder, anyone?"


Fish heads, Anita could'a said. Maybe we gape-mouth around the table holding hands. Maybe Hricko got a sex-bite on agent Drills neck ... and mouthfuls of snake venom. Maybe the Lieutenant expects a letter so he don't go postal in my own, crabbed longhand. We sat at the oak table I talked mostly. Better ta talk and eat eat than shoot even if the shrimp got fins.  OKey  if Anita sprinkled cheddar cheese over the flounder might as well try it on the shrimp hell if I got cooked that long whose gonna tell?

And better ta tell yer own story not get it sweat outa you pass the rubber drawers. Nicky expected  no less, him knowing pieces second hand. What Hricko figured I wasn't sure he looked edgy never tried pawing  Anita or biting Drills, but what I expected ... 

“Pass the bread please thanks Anita no I never seen Cabbage-head better name than Vego huh  before he roughs up Sauls thugs in the garage. All three, huh he hit 'em sounded like a balloon filled with iron, liquid ...  sloshing  SWAKK  SWAKK ... Jeeez what a mess. Garlic butter anyone ...?”

If Stella saw the Rabbi she would. She was cutting up the baked flounder inta little pieces, before the  chowder got poured on like maybe two bones in the fish and a broken shell in the chowder were gonna link up and stab her in the throat before Hricko jumped her.  Course the pervo helped none leering at every bite she took.

“Heh the client Nona - I mean Julia Cohn just paid me so I felt responsible. Antsy, tippy toes that's the way I'd describe her.  Saul-the-two-face-bastard could wait I gotta meet Hricko here as planned get the goods on Julia ... I mean Nona ... heh ya know what I mean. Really, Stella Ben's a straight jake nice guy ya don't listen to him too close or do what he does ... Sure, thanks Anita I never broke an oyster shell. Gotta use the big knife, huh no pliers?”

Sargent Bowers ... Anita who would'a figured her making elegant table rap while fish and stew and bread baked three ways flew from the oven and she ain't quit smilin'. Course she's a copper and the dame-Fed picked  her for the sting that's Hricko and me got stung ... and Nicky's  got her back so the Fed don't get gropy.

"Yeah, whack! Side a' the skull right after Saul made tracks. First I came to figured Saul put the mug on me teach a lesson. Then I feel the steel floor rolling and the gun. Sauls careful about that he don't roll nothin' except dice. Enemies go straight ta the river bottom and they got no piece when they do.  Cabbagehead who DOES start yakking got a speech problem. Two many Ws, too little time, seemed to me guys in a hurry." 

Nicky sez. "That's the last time you saw Nona ... or Julia."

"Yeah, Nicky she just strolled in like she owned the place."

Stella Drills laughed. "And  like a  short, dead stump you put nothing together, did you? What a dumb little pocket-change , rat-nose squealer you are. I thought you might at least be nasty ..."

I felt Anita fingernails on my shoulder digging. She was serving  muffins, savory and almond I ate some passed the olive oil ...

“Sully's heat ain't no better than my office. Sure I ate whatever I could chew till the caps started popping. No, only Hricko got off a shot ... what wuz it nine - ten  Jeeez, pal you blasted away make sleet fall like rain  sure hope Sullys got insurance. It was serious ... any time ya throw lead it's serious, while Cabbage-head got the laugh. He was laughing ...  stood like a trooper, but didn't hit nothin' himself musta been a bad shot ... huh?”

“That tipped you off,” said Nicky

Table went quiet could'a heard clamshells grow ... I stopped biting the shrimp. “No,” I sez, " I hope not it don't tip nothin' off.”

Nicky don't never look kind, but  for a man whose eyeballs barely scratched forty and needs a haircut ... Good thing he got a wife to worry him.  I think right then he looked like once he'd been a young man.

He sez. “Still figure the client deserves best ya got ...” He shuffled back in the oak chair and turned on Hricko. “You really figured  on busting into the Savannah?”

Ben says. “Well ... we could have proven Julia was still working on the NOBYTES project."

Nicks got up both eyebrows gleaming lookin' for something honest. “So what? Nobytes was none of Sams business and Julia none of yours.”

Now Ben Hricko's flaring too.  He cracks and oyster shell leaves the knife stuck in. “I will thank you, Nick,  not to instruct me on business ... or on women.  Investors were anxious. Perhaps Julia needs help, got stuck in a rut,  preggers with one good idea and frozen to a bad one ... with the proper financial assistance her ...”

“Yeah - assistance - you figured doing a D&C to her brain."

“All people are fairly valued by the market.”

“You'd screw a corpse, Hricko if ya thought there was one egg  alive.” Nicky's face got a flush,  growing back from his cheeks to the reptile brain like coppers faces do before  fists clench and they start pounding on someone even a pal. Smart brain, dumb brain a man's gotta balance how easy is that?  Some men can't ... they gotta do violence, but Nicky ...  instead  he spooned a couple steamed  clams into the chowder and looked over at me. "Why did you come to Anitas?”

“Heh Lieutenant suppose I say this existential moment  got no sharp point yet.”

"You figure to change that?"

"I figure, Lieutenant ta do nothin' ... unless this crab grows fins."

Nicky figits uncomfortable. “Fins? Sharp? Hell sharp - sure, I know you're dumb as two oak stumps and the bad tooth that chewed through them.  Since when you become the gazebo type, Sammy?”

“'Bouts the same time a certain homicide detective can't tail a car over the Cooper River bridge. How comes ya ain't passed a driving test recent?”

Nicky sez looking nowhere. “So ya got eyeballs, Sam ...”

'Sam' he sez, but who's he talkin' to? Who's gotta  crab-leg out on the sand-bar  like they spawn, huh and get it sawed off?  Nickys head bobs up from a bit a' founder I can't bob no way - I think my brains gonna fry less the words come tumbling out.  "Jeeez first I'm blinkin' Jeeez the Lieutenant ... he's lost half-a-step then I'm thinkin' whose tail's he steppin' on ...?"  Nicky  flat-face sez nothing. "Maybe me and Cabbagehead got followed far as the aircraft carrier then some Lieutenant looses us. Does the natural thing and follows the main ramp - finds nothing."

"Keep moving the jaw, Sammy."

"This Lieutenant, see ... he finds nothing, but puts out a rap ta Agent Drills on the cell phone. What Fed don't expect it ...  what happens after that - exactly I don't know? Write yer own story, but  Stella and her pals got the paper, got the ink ... and she knows exactly what ta look for."

"Jaw with a twist, Sammy ... it gets men in trouble ..."

“Twist,  yeah, and I got a Rolex too. Tic-Toc-Tic  sez how long  coppers drive - Patriots Point ta Sullivans Island. Twice! Know what else it sez?”

Alarmed, what her face said Stella shoots. “So  the runt tells time -  if we squash his sniveling, weasel face it would look like a  alarm-clock!”

“Any time, sweetheart. Tic-Toc-Tic  sez how long  Red Rocket aka agent Drills  took  hot-stepping  from  Patriots Point  to  a Shem Creek shrimper. Know what else it sez?"   

“Don't ever, ever call me Red!”

“OKey, sweetheart.”

“Two-bit rat I've got the coldest heart you ever felt.”

“Heh I ain't pawin' till asked, and I won't never call you sweetheart. Girls don't like that no more,  but ya got a nice blush.”

Anita laughed, cause I think Hricko grabbed her knee. Stella Drills glared across the table at me like a police roof-flasher gone mad. She was going to enjoy it and I wasn't going ta stop her till a circuit melted ... she could still do that,  breath  and melt. Hrickos smirked had retreated into his thin face - a guest come to dinner half dress; he knew ... now.  Nicky picked at a piece of flounder. It had got so quiet around the table ya could hear clamshells grow.

Last bite of a potato I couldn't chew. I said to the Lieutenant. “Insulated, huh  he ain't gonna melt so easy, is he ?”


“You uhh ...”


“Careful, huh ya looked careful ...”

“What's at the bottom of a tank of liquid nitrogen ... I wasn't going to swim for it.”

“Yeah ... OKey ... crappola. How'd ya  get the address?”

“You spilled the ink all ready. What Ford can't tail a Plymouth?”

“Then ya figured ...”

“Just like you, Sammy. Oh yeah, Agent Drills sent her backup home.”

“How comes I figured that ... just us, huh ...?”

“You saw them? Them or him or it?”

“Something, yeah ... one of something ...”

Stella pointed her oyster knife at my face. “Rat won't stop chewing, will he.”  She broke off  bread crust and dunked  her chowder. "Agency policy - If there is any possibility of a leak we can freeze that too ..."

Anita said cautious. "What's she  talking about, Lieutenant? What nitrogen? What's melting?”

Stella flushed. "Shut up, Anita ... need to know only!"

"Heh come on now, Stella we all got dentists, and Anita ain't the only one needs ta know." Ran my thumb over the waxy mustache. "Like maybe I need ta know what happens ta Julia Cohn once ya find her?"

"Government protection ... naturally," she snaps.

"Protected, huh, so she don't trip over a number ... ?"

"Those numbers belong to us, dweezle don't forget it! She'll get what ever it takes ... I mean what ever she ..."

"Julia gets a vacation huh, tropical  with health insurance maybe a government lab? Or is what you need what you take!"

"We don't need to take what we own. Our NOBYTES, our numbers, our labs ..."

"Lab ... bet on it,"  Hricko roars! "The Company has one in Borneo, a real brain-syringe  called the CHOP SHOP. What you knew before you  drool afterwards, and even the test apes go insane."

"Borneo? Apes? Test?"

Stella beaded eyes on Hricko like two long steel gun barrels. "That lab does not exist."

"Heh Stella," I sez " easy on the hostess, easy on the pervo. He's lyin' sure he is. Take yer time. Try the crabkake. How 'bouts first ya finish the chowder take a walk make the stomach settle."

“With you no way, brother. I'd rather kiss frozen frogs." Scoops up an oyster from the bowl. "But frogs can't squeal, now can they Levine, and you'll squeal  guts on Julia Koan like two rubber tires mating."

Nicky sez nothing I said. ” Stella OKey all right lets kiss-and-make-out brother-sister huh ... who are THE BROTHERS?”

“I ... I ... I never heard ...”



Crackling, the way I felt it - Stellas voice ... electricity ...  deaf, huh, what she never heard. Stella Drills had a fork stuck in an oyster shell musta clamped shut. And in Anita Bowers  beach front cottage worth about three-million bucks till ya put in wood floor and windows the electric transformer on the lamp-post out front blew with a quick, mean CRACK, and  except for the wispy Captains lamp rocking over the table lights blew out dead.  It wasn't no drill just the reptile screaming. 

SLAM-0 ... the first shot came snarling through  patio glass  put a cracked moon in the window  and a red zipper top a Stella Drills shoulder.  She went down in a bundle. We hit the floor  same time,  in a stench a' cold, wet fear five bodies, two pieces out  Stella whimpering, Anita scrambling into the kitchen for her Colt and Hricko toward his seal-skin. Scrambling  away  from what they could see,  out the smashed patio door which was a few flickers.

Dim not dark that's us I wished I was a cockroach. Then three shots SLAM-SLAM-SLAM slammed through about belly-shot high shattering the glass and chipping wood behind us.  Shots from outside. Shots, slams, barks they wuz big dog 45-caliber could put holes in you day or night couldn't get fixed so easy. Shots outa the dark just above Stella Drills head and getting lower ...  What could ya shoot back at not nothin'. Stella got her mouth to a cell phone sobbing.

Nicky clamps his hand over ... “Not now, agent Drills ..."

"He ... she ... shot me ... kill the fucking bastard ..."Anita pops-one-357-cap ZAT and sez cool and low. “Give me a lead curtain, boys and I'll go out the bedroom window."

Nicky clamps paw on her arm. “You cover our backs.”

Eye ta eyeball Anita spits,  cause it might'a been a man. Bites her lip what shows red Nickys hand stays tight she sez "OK - Lieutenant ."

How come the Feds  show up hot lead hornets start ta fly like every African honeybee in Brazil got  horny ta fly north? Huh, I'm thinkin' how comes they make the perv Hricko sound so smart? Five of us now all lined up under the table barrels pointed at the shattered, patio door.

Nicky sez too casual, like I seen him  gotta be the damned bee-keeper. "Sammy ya got the bedroom window - give it a good creep. Anita, Stella and Ben ... give us 20 seconds then pop two caps.”

Nicky and me then crawdad backward,  crouched and flattened against the kitchen counter which smelled like fish and vineger and maybe the girls should cook more. Maybe the Rolex counted out  twenty-slow-seconds I never seen 'em that long. Lieutenant's got his paw out drawing a map talking low, a whisper, controlled. “Play it like this, Sammy - you're deputized!  We're here. Use the gazebo as a fulcrum - you loop east, me west then we pinch in together just oceanside." He points a steel 40-caliber paw out  the glass door fulla bullet holes. "If ya see the perp shoot him on sight  ... or her ... ”

"Shoot on sight who's he killed?"

"Feel like that write your own story."

I sez, “how comes I see the play, Lieutenant, but not the actors?”

"Parts of the script you haven't seen would gag you." Nicky said. “Who do ya figure is out there,  Sammy?”

“Go figure, Lieutenant, what sucked us here?”

“And after whom?”

“Try who, Lieutenant I don't do plurals so good. Figure Hricko first, then Drills. Maybe, huh maybe cause this dog got more bark than bite.”

“I'd turn that around, Sammy ..." now I seen the scratch on his cheek where a lead hornet stung him how comes I'm thinkin' accident...? Nicky sez. " I ducked slow ... makes a man older when lead's that close ..."

Which was more of an apology I ever heard  come from Nicky  to whom I'm thinkin' while my fingers work,  cylinder  cracked  -  my 32-caliber six slugs have gone nowhere. Plurals I don't do good, Nicky and me eyeballs apart  and sez. “How come ya missed him at Sullys? You and Drills.  Ya put on a pretty good creep at the tide pool, tromping slop ya  looked like two blobs a' bleached moss.”

"So you say ..."

"Sorry, Lieutenant a copper walks funny even crouched over ... You and Drills musta been following  Vego."

“Not that wrapper ...  we  followed you, Levine. Anyone say you drive like a nun? Maybe your car needs sand-bags ... anyway we  heard the shots, but ... agent Drills got stuck in pluff-mud.”

“Lucky ya needed her more than the crabs did ...  pulled her out, huh,  get much suckface?”

Southern planters face - that's how Nicky  mugs about 200 years late. “You want the patio door Sammy not the bedroom window?”

“Heh Lieutenant  words slipped out I  got a chest a' skin not steel  ain't seen nothin' never talk ta your wife musta been a mirage."

"I thought so."

"See suckface like an octopus and two squids?  Rabbis don't hear confession I use aluminum pots.  No way no how ...” I thought about it, how  Nicky  no slouch copper caged one idea so the second floats by. “Sez you , Lieutenant who's out in the dunes, waitin' ...?”

Nicky pulled down his felt Panama 'bout as close to his ears as it ever gets, and tightened a lug on his trench belt. That wuz a long second,  for a southern copper missed his proper century and he musta thought about an answer. One  from the gut not just what the brain screams 'bouts as long as I figured 'why me'?

A very long second till Nicky yelled, “NOW!” and bolted upright toward the patio door.

Five caps  snapped off behind  us - BLAM-BLAM-BLAM-BLAM-BLAM   damned perv Hricko musta used his own reloads.  Crashing out the bedroom window I heard glass breaking on the patio too as Nicky went through. I'm ass-over-heels. Lawn  took my tumble, forward I spread out  nose fulla sand.  I got  sandspurs biting  my cheeks slice a' glass I pulled out crap it hurt  before I left the overhead and crawled into slimy, brown sea oats and up a dune-side where sleet had froze solid.  Burned my cheeks - froze the blood smear ...  and the night clear black stars pinpoint, cold  twinkles so  hot hell mighta come to that one sand dune on vacation. What's dead all ready whose gonna die ...?

Hell's cold, huh ya wanna freeze, but ya gotta move. That's the drill,  staying alive under fire be where ya ain't faster than the one shooting. I buried through the dune-top  down into a swale where brine had slushed,  and the stink of cordite hung low and sweet and sick. Footprints. Wind hissed above, from the east  where the footprints led and  rolling waves grumbled and nothing else.  Ya could'a heard bubbles froth and pop from the tops of breakers as they died, yeah, fast  Sammy ... Deputy Sam heh Sammy yer a copper,  now flat-foot Sam we-serve-and-protect who's gettin' served like  roast pig head no-badge-no-overtime, but coppers take care a' the widows OKey, huh Sammy ya ain't got one yet oh Jeeez ...

Move, belly-squirm. Swale led east 20-yards to another dune I scrambled  revolver first over the top.  Roll on my back -  between me and the gazebo was a scrub patch and starlight twinkled through it from the glass. Nothing.  Roll-and move gut first over the dune and   belly-scramble far side. Dead still and the ocean roars in my ears. East, up the beach and into wind lay my eyes bare sat three catamarans lines ticking , hulls buried in sand and the masts rocking moonlight shadow.

Til now I ain't noticed that the storms blown over, and what sense that makes. Mouth-fulla-sand I eat, spit out, wipe away. First I seen the scarf blowing,  then a figure outlined in grey and silver crawling over hulls. Moonlight shafts stray  winking  on and off among clouds like old black and silver movies. Determined.  Bobbing  over the first then the second cat. On the third  hull  shimmery figure stops and  pulls up to the netting. Hesitates ...  knelt looking back over my head toward the gazebo. Left hand held an automatic made the paw seem tiny. I  started ta shout, then put the barrel bead  on the scarf.

OKey ya bastard Cabbagehead I'm thinkin' who's got the chop now huh? When  wind  wrapped  it tight the head became a toy head playing on toy boats on a toy beach  where most people played in summer when stars made the night warm not cold and  sailors  land or sea never got shot for it. Yeah, but they don't shoot no cannons, huh  ya wanna eat one a' those 45-caliber cannon balls you ain't big enough ta digest, tubes, Sammy you'll be wearing plastic tubes fer ten years till some shmuck needs a transplant heh what they gonna take first? Breath, Sammy while ya got two lungs  what'cha waitin' for Sammy?  Shoot on sight.

Wind whips the scarf.  A hand extends  gun slipping from the figures  hand -  fingers shake like something dirty just slipped away. Fire a warning shot huh Sammy fire a warning just  like got delivered ta Stella Drills. It's justice, huh Sammy just like the Feds own justice,  blast away  why don'tcha at an ape not meant ta stay sane ... what's deserved my hand does not shake. I lift my gun barrel as  the figure rises.

Changing clothes looks to me, how a woman looks taking her clothes off it's more like getting dressed.  Yeah, like works done, vacation ... tropical ... figure struggling  outa  baggy wrap-arounds and a plaid jacket into something sleek and slippery then falls in shadows. Wonder if the plaid jacket had ta get thawed ... maybe once is enough, huh, that's how ya think?  'Can't ya see? How comes ya don't call, huh one more time?'  Must have a client gotta do business,.huh ...  arms and legs and face  behind the cat-masts slipping  ... over the dune I seen moonlight flash from metal  pinned to the scarf, as it unwinds. A silver donut hold-the-creme ...  Mobius, huh what can't  tell inside from out that's you, Sammy. Or start and finish. Close as ya get to the return. Or escape. Or  quest. Heh ...

I wuz standing straight up top of the dune. That's what I remember, and couldn't remember when I had holstered the 32-caliber.  Smoking one a' Saul-the-bastards Reds and no way did I look east. No way no how nobody, nothing ...  must be peaceful out there, for a body can't find peace. The night sky felt like a bowl dropped over my head, and I didn't care how cold the damned circle got or how much it could tell you. I  wrapped my trench, it don't make my slush-fill drawers any warmer and walked down to the tide-line, then west  into a moon ready ta fall behind Folly Beach cross-harbor on fresh-pack brine sand toward the gazebo.

Somewhere in the distance a pack a' copper sirens are howling closer. I wonder if p-i got the mismatch tones ... or gotta picture of sleet-covered sand  even in moon-glow so white hurts yer eyes not blood red ...

Where wood steps lead up from the beach I run into the Lieutenant who ain't sprawled in the sand ta cop a shot, or  stomping bust-a-perps-gut red face, but sitting on  the redwoods step trying to light a  wet Camel  with a dead Zippo. He don't look so old now. I did the honors he sez nothing me neither.

When we got to the gazebo he turns on the gas heater and sez, “I didn't see a thing, Sam . No perp, no footprints no shell casing ... What about you ...?”

“Three boats, Lieutenant, that's what I seen gonna rot their canvas away by springtime.”

“Not a trace of anything ... even a flap in the wind ...”

“Pelicans ya know, Nicky they got long noses sometimes they look human.”

His head snaps up, then wavers he don't look at me for a while ... “Expected a bloody fight, yes I did Sam.  Tell you that for free. It's not over. Come morning we'll find the footprints.”

“Windy as it is, I figure the sand will be smooth by morning ...”

A good, stiff eastern wind. Like always blows on  Sullivans  Island.  Wipes a clean slate. It's warm in summer ... red glow  from the gas heater fills the gazebo. There's a puddle of slush on the bench I scrape  away  something's  in my hand - something's scratched  below  and I sit flat on it.

“Think the shooter came here first," the Lieutenant asks? "If he did,  come morning the sleet will melt, but maybe he left prints  ... course a careful man might not ...”  That Nicky thinks about, for a while then sez. “Questions will be asked, Sammy.  How you were involved."

"Involved, Lieutenant who's involved ... just another Koan ta me."


"I looked after clients interest before.  What PI needs ta be a smudge?"

"Client, huh what's her name again ... Nona?"  Nicky  chuckles. "Smudge - expect ta get stepped on, Sammy.  Stellas Fed pals will have the first crack. They'll want you to remember what ya forgot ... or never knew, not for sure. Won't make an ape out of you, will they ...?"

"Figure not. Borneo might be Stellas swamp, but Charleston's mine. We'll see who goes nuts first."

"Charleston coppers are next.  Because of the frozen body in the Savannah, we'll have ta sweat ya. Somebody at City Station will ... ”

“That's OKey, Lieutenant  I got ice-drawers now change 'em for rubber gonna feel like a beach vacation.”

Nicky gets up opens the door, and spits a' sleet start blowing again. “I'll do what I can ... Stella's not such a bad girl, and when she's over her knickers in cold mud does suckface  like a champ.  Any idea just who that frozen body might be?”

“None'a that. First I ain't really said  fer sure I ever seen one. Cool, cold, froze how can ya tell -  how many amendments I gotta quote, Lieutenant?  Client privilege I got till the judge sez holler.”

That, 'course goes nowhere with Nicky. “How about ... who it's not!”

“Who's not froze anybody just plain lucky. Ya know maybe some lucky jake got a grail.” Nicky looks unhappy like a mailbox at Christmas nothing delivered. What PI wants a detective pal ta go postal? What I deliver ..."How scrambled is this case Lieutenant ya can't tell eggs from chickens, but ... Julia Cohn does have a brother ... did ... First I thought he wuz the one made Julia come ta Charleston. Brothers love ta hate sisters, but maybe not. Maybe the brother busted Stella Drills for a  bad check and tried canceling ... . He's watching sisters back each way first nobytes, and also figures with a face scare Dracula nothing to lose."

"Nicky sez dropping the words out like top sawbucks from a City pay check. "Honest, Sammy I didn't know about the brother till ..."

"Who did, Lieutenant, huh ...?  Turns out I'm looking for Drills also,  Julias brother's my angel too. Now, if my brother-in-law Saul-the-bastard wuz  pimpin' fer Drills, who ain't surprised dirt attracts dirt,  then  I get rolled by his thugs Cabbagehead follows. And  while you followed, he's not stepping on your toes. Who's toes he stepping on, Lieutenant ...?"

I look straight at Nicky letting the implications hang. He's a straight copper, Nicky,  and the blank cop face I get in return sez nothin' but screams.   "It's under investigation," he finally says "and THE BROTHERS thing might be misdirection ...,"  looks away.

"Understood, Lieutenant. Even the Feds need an excuse when they wanna push we all got chickens and eggs and grails."

“Yeah, well , if you find one  broken - you know my number.”

Sleet crunches under his boots. “Fair enough, Lieutenant. Eggs, chickens ...  you got the first grail I find.”

I sit quiet as  the Lieutenant walks away. Clouds are black beating down, where the Island lights reflect, and the air thick and alive like a bowl of sky never been. What happens ain't wrote down not all of it ... not every last bit people gin out good and bad ... Copper sirens much closer now - pack a' stray dogs howling  who's gonna stop 'em not you, Sammy.  I stand up look where I sat.  Sure, there's a number, maybe could be worms ... twenty digits I counted - memorized, that much I got left, before I put my boot cleat into the scratches and ripped away those digits could'a been bad luck. Sometimes I remember them. 'Course whether they're something, or code for the start of something I ain't figured, not for certain ... The koan that too  same boot-heel I scratched out.

'julia needed you just whispering  thanks dear sam too fast  love i'm leaving'

Code, huh who knows what a frail means ...  must be an island somewhere ya don't need ta scratch out what ya need. Words or digits ... Enjoy the pals, I like ta think they say, all twenty digits someplace in  p-i ...  Couple a' candles lit in Anitas  parlour maybe the chowder's still warm and clams got fins tonight.  Maybe Hricko got a date ... And what grails I seen in the last week don't look nothin' like the pair a' red dice I  palmed from the slush pile on Anita Bowers  gazebo bench they was 9-hard-way. What the hell kind a' grail is that?