By Zoltan James
Short Order Noir
As you read this, think hardboiled crime fiction. Think Mickey Spillane. Philip Marlowe. Think Maltese Falcon or LA Confidential. Think tight, tough writing, with a twist of dark humor. Read this with your lights off, you’ll see what I mean. Think to yourself, “Hey, this is good stuff. I’m coming back for more.” Yeah. Think that long and hard.
And, while you’re thinking, think of this as Part One. Don’t know how many parts there will be as I’m making this up as I go – one wonderful word, one stunning sentence, one perspiration-inducing paragraph, one pint of parody, at a time. So, strap on your hat, buckle your seat belt, and let’s ride.
The name’s Rocky. Rocky Chaser. Private Eye. This is a true story. Believe it or hit the road.
It was a Saturday morning. Early. The sun was still thinking about rising. The dark didn’t want to let go. Like your lover who’s lost her sheets and wants to crawl inside your skin to keep warm. That kind of not let go. The birds outside hadn’t even begun to chirp. And, I was hungry.
I needed coffee to clear my brain and open my drain, if you catch my drift. So, I crawled out of my toasty bed and covered my lover with sheets. For some reason she was shivering. With luck, I figured by the time I returned, I would remember her name.
My ’75 green Volvo with the red driver’s door was dead in the parking lot. My brother Mike, the mechanic, said I needed a new engine. But that was a non starter for me since that would cost more than the heap was worth. Mike had car skills like Einstein had equations. Mike was sharp as a syringe filled with Red Bull, but, he also had a knack for making people uneasy. Long ago, when he was starting in the business, a car jack slipped and took his right forefinger. So, instead of pointing for emphasis he used his thumb. He might argue a point against you but with his thumb stuck in the air it looked like he was being agreeable. That’s exactly how he looked when he said I needed a new engine.
At any rate, it was obvious my old beater was not going to run today and I wasn’t either. So, I walked the two blocks from my trailer to Rosie Rosita’s Diner.
When I arrived, the place was already half full. I could have told you the joint was half empty, but that ain’t me. I’m an optimist and I like to win. I always get the bad guy. Always get the girl. And, when I’m lucky, I get paid.
Ever the optimist, I’m also ever cautious. You only have to be shot twice, knocked unconscious three, your trailer robbed five, identity stolen twice, and your wallet lifted at the rodeo four, to feel suspicious of mankind. So, I scanned Rosie’s before I entered, always on the lookout for trouble. Every shadow and every corner was my enemy.
The tables in the diner were filled with the usual suspects; hard-working, blue collar studs who make America hum. Most were just getting off the night shift like Big Maggie, the 911 operator, over there in the middle, who was holding court at her table with a couple of cops. Maggie had the kind of sultry voice that when you called her with an emergency you immediately forgot that you had just ran over your neighbor with a backhoe. Her meal of choice was the “Triple Bypass,” a bountiful offering of biscuits and gravy, three stacks, three eggs, hash browns, and a side of chicken apple sausages.
Next table over, sat Pete, the UPS driver. He was Marine clean and no matter the weather, always appeared in stiffly ironed brown shorts, and forever chiseled like Mr. Universe. He chose the tidy bowl of granola and coffee with cream.
Rosie once leaned across the counter and said to me conspiratorially that she liked Pete’s package.
I said, “You mean the kind he delivers?”
She blew a bubble from her gum and snapped it. “Maybe. Maybe not,” she said in her usual cryptic way.
Then there was Jake, the Roto-Rooter guy, who always sat by himself in the back corner, with his usual crusty and dusty dungarees. We could always tell if he had had a busy night based on how blue or brown his jeans looked. Today, they looked septic brown. He wore his greasy hair long and tucked under an old St. Louis Cardinals cap that had seen redder days. He had cracks in his hands big enough to hold small rocks. When Jake finished his meal and left, no one dared sit in that toxic spot. Even newcomers were shooed away.
I stepped across the threshold, nodded round the room, and took the stool at the end of the counter. My usual. From my vantage point I could tell immediately if it was opportunity or danger walking through the door. I blew Rosie a kiss. She brought me coffee. Black.
Rosie is as pretty as her name and for a short-order cook, who’s medium built, she was a tough cookie. I think she liked me. She greeted me with her usual, “Usual?”
She sat the pot of hot coffee on the counter. The brown liquid sloshed side to side. She laughed, low and tough, “Funny. That’s how I like my dicks.”
My right eyebrow raised a centimeter, barely enough to be noticed. “You’re talkin’ P.I.’s, right?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” I saw the hint of a smile.
“Then, I’ve changed my mind. Make it scrambled,” I said. “That’s how I like my chicks.”
She drummed her fingers on the counter. Her nails were red as catsup. “You’re talkin’ women, right?”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” I said.
She leaned over the counter and kissed me on the cheek. “Nice to have you back.” Her lips were warm. With her thumb, she smudged the lipstick off. She threw me a wink and then moved down the counter sliding her pot along as she went. It left a trail of steaming condensation, which matched my thoughts. As she walked her hips swayed in unison with the sloshing coffee. I craved a refill.
Then I saw danger walk through the door.
He was a tall drink of cockroach, someone whom I’d not seen before. His face was pimply and pock marked like someone had used his head for a dartboard. His eyes were black as eight balls. He wore a beat up cap that said, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” He also wore a tattered hoodie and a brown ponytail that slung over and down to his waist. When he threw his leg over the counter stool, like he was mounting a bicycle, is when I saw the words etched in Century Gothic script on his well-worn belt. They declared, “I don’t give a fig, you sycophant.”
I shuddered. I’d seen those words before. Where?
Rosie greeted the stranger with a thin smile and a raised pot of coffee as if ready to pour and said, “Usual?”
“Naw,” he grumbled. “Tall glass of milk.”
# # #
To be continued when next the sun rises, the dark lets go, or soon as I finish breakfast.
Remember. Make every hour your happy hour.