She was still breathing when I made it on-stage. Still trying to bring in air to lungs that would no longer expand, crushed beneath a sandbag that must have weighed at least three hundred pounds if she was lucky.
The bag was a depression in her chest cavity, her ribs bent and broken completely inward to accommodate the superior mass. If the lungs and heart had been pierced, then her death was going to be quick. If they weren’t, she’d more than likely suffocate or bleed out over a matter of minutes. I watched small dark patches pool at the sides of her dress, and hoped fervently that wasn’t the case.
“Madeline!” Desperate fever and a deep terror carried her voice across the room as one of the girls stumbled and climbed up on stage. Presumably a friend of Madeline’s. She was a cute little thing. Delicate, but sharp. You could see it in her eyes as she begged for her friend to stay awake. She refused to let her go down without a fight.
It was touching, somewhat private sentiment, one I nearly felt ashamed for just making her share it. But sometimes sentiment can be far crueler than we realize.
The girl’s friend began convulsing violently, gasping like a fucking fish out of water. She rushed over to Madeline’s side, desperate and sobbing. I deigned to just watching her. This whole situation was way out of my depth. I’d always been terrible at bedside manner.
The thought kept occurring to me over those precious few moments that I could’ve done something, should’ve done something different, even if I didn’t bloody know what to do. But I couldn’t. Couldn’t have if I wanted to, and I did. Believe me I did.
The noises the friend was making as she struggled were some of the most horrible I’d heard in a while. The sputtering, the choking, the scuttling and the clawing. The sounds she made as the sandbag timidly but powerfully bounced around in her open chest cavity with each new heave were particularly unnerving.
When most people say they’ll never forget something, most of them are just practicing hyperbole. I’m not. I wasn’t ever going to forget this, and before it was even finished I knew I wanted to. I wanted to so badly I was willing to pay someone to crawl around in my headmeat and scrub those memories out. Never trusted someone to use that kind of magic on me before. Now I prayed it would work if I could only find someone willing to do it.
I waited for it to stop, only allowing myself to watch because I thought it was almost over, but it never was. The more time passed, the more drawn out and fierce her flailing became.
Finally, finally, whatever strength she’d had left in her was gone. As she slowed down, she lost feeling in her extremities. I could tell from the way the muscles just seemed to relax and give up, even though the person controlling them still wanted very much to fight. Eventually she lost feeling altogether, and her angry rasping and rejections turned to quiet sobbing.
The Madam clumsily ran over to the stage in her high heels, almost tripping. Rosalina helped turn the girl’s head to face her, in case she had anything to say to her.
“Madam,” she whispered, so wanting for breath it barely came out at all. “This hurts… it hurts, Madam. It hurts so much…”
She coughed up little teardrops of blood, losing just a little more of what precious air she had left. The Madam looked away. She couldn’t take it, I think.
“Why did you choose the goldfish over me, Madam? Why did you do it? Was it their scales?” I didn’t understand what she was saying anymore. Was she delirious? “Was it their scales, Madam? Was it their scales, those beautiful scales?”
“Madeline…” It was then the Madam chose the humane thing to do. She gently laid her gloved hand over Madeline’s mouth, speeding the process along until finally she couldn’t breathe.
That was it. There was no more air left to give. A few short sentences, and that was it. She finally gave up the ghost, as inappropriate as that sounds. Her eyes still moved, and the Madam gently shhhhed her to sleep. The big sleep.
Gently closing her eyelids, the Madam stood over her for a moment, silently paying her respects.
“… Everyone… I want you to see to Madeline. See that she gets cleaned up and ready in whatever way she needs to. I’m trusting you ladies to take care of her.” She turned to face me, and Sostene who’d hurried her back down to the stage to witness Madeline’s final moments. “You two. I want this thing gone, understand me? Burn it down to the ground, down to the last cinder if you have to, but get rid of it.” Breathing deeply, she regained some of her lost composure.“Earlier you asked me if there was anyone I might have suspected, that might have a reason to want to hurt me or my club. My ex-husband and I…”
“Say no more, Madam. We’ll get it done,” Sostene assured her.
I didn’t say anything. The last moments of Madeline’s life kept replaying themselves in my head. What she said… it didn’t make any sense. Was the poltergeist speaking through her? If it was, why would it be addressing the Madam?
Sostene bumped me with his elbow, breaking me out of it. “Definitely,” I replied quickly, realizing where I was and who I was talking to. “Definitely, Madam. We’ll see to it.”
“I forgot to say this before, but… thanks.”
“Y’know, for the help. I’ve never really thought of us wiseguys as the type of fellas to take a bullet for someone, so it means a lot for you to have my back on this. I would’ve been screwed so many times if you hadn’t been there.”
“Well, Marq did tell me to look out for you if I had to. He seemed to think you’d have some trouble handling a real job. Y’know, as opposed to the whole freelance thing you were doing.”
Not gonna lie, that irritated me. Disappointed me a little, but mostly irritated me. “He said that, huh?”
Sostene laughed like he could read my mind. “Don’t let it eat at ya. This isn’t exactly a standard job. To be honest, I’m a bit out of my depth too. Don’t know what Marq was thinking when he put the two of us on this case.”
“You make it sound like we’re detectives and not vicious mobsters,” I said, laughing at the thought. “I dunno how long you’ve known him, but I have some experience with Marq and his crazy schemes. He’s sly like a fox and shifty like a snake, but he’s always got his reasons. It’s always part of some bigger plan.”
Sostene snorted. “You talk about him like he’s God.”
“I dunno about that,” I said, adjusting my hat. “But he did save me from a tight spot once. I don’t think my sister or I would be here without him, although she don’t know that.”
“That makes two of us…” Sostene mumbled. His eyes looked lost in thought for a second before he snapped back to attention. I think he’d only just processed the other thing I’d said. “Hang on. You never said anything about a sister.”
“Guess I didn’t, did I? Yeah, my kid sister, Anastasia. She’s the reason I’m with the family. Gotta pay the bills somehow now that my deadbeat folks aren’t around.”
“Think I could come visit her sometime?”
I raise an eyebrow, wary. “Why?”
“Hey, don’t look at me like that. It’s nothing creepy. I’m more than fifty years old, for crissakes. I just…” He paused. I swear to God if he was capable of blushing he probably would have. “… I just like kids, that’s all.”
“Wow, you really are a softie, aren’t you?”
“She’s a teenager anyway. Not exactly a kid anymore. If she was, maybe she wouldn’t be such a handful…”
The conversation trailed off as we made our way through Central Park down to Chinatown. It was an overcast day, and it had only gotten darker since that morning, so Sostene had thankfully abandoned the fuck-it-all conspicuous yellow umbrella. Looking up at the sky and sticking your tongue out, you could taste the coming rain on the wind. Big stormclouds. Lotsa coverage. Great vampire weather. Not so much for werewolves and some other species. Or hell, just people who like sunlight and/or being dry.
Come to think of, the ex probably wouldn’t like it much either.
Apparently, according to the Madam at least, her husband used to be a wealthy man, but he blew it all on gambling and the drink after they’d split. Now he owed various parties several dozen different debts of considerable size and was bumming off of the manager of a Chinese restaurant who’d given him a room four stories above the shop. Rather ironic that this kind of shit always happens to the kind of guys who leave their wives on moral crusades against the evils of things like prostitution and women’s rights.
For a moment I let myself ignore the job and immersed myself in the smells of Chinatown. Fried rice, chicken dumplings, duck, stir fry, and a bunch of other ethnic dishes I’d probably mangle if I tried to pronounce. Good stuff. Shame that it didn’t seem to be catching on much though. A world where you could buy fried rice and wontons in every neighborhood would be a world worth living in.
Finally we found the right shop. Just walked right in the front door, too. No one seemed to question us, or why we were here. I think Sostene was just glad people had finally stopped giving him funny looks.
“Excuse me,” I said, sauntering up to the counter. “We’re here to talk to Gresham Walsh.”
The aging man across the counter stared at us, as silent as his little statue of Buddha by the register. For a second I wondered if he knew any English. I tried again.
“He’s late on one of his payments again. We’ve come by to check up on him, see how things are going. Do you mind giving us the key to his apartment? We’ll only be a few minutes.”
Silent again. Just when I thought I’d have to look around for someone to translate, the fifty-year old stuck a hand in the pocket of his apron, and pulled it out balled in a fist with a key inside. As he slowly uncurled his arthritic bones, he nodded curtly, acknowledging our cover story without any questions. Was this guy really so deep in debt his landlord cooperated with the legbreakers?
“Much appreciated,” I said, gently taking the key from him.
We exited out the kitchen backdoor, ascending the fire escape to the fifth floor. The plan was to sneak in through the window, rough ‘em up a bit, and then lock the door from the inside to make it look like nothing happened. Wouldn’tve been that easy if it hadn’t been for the manager, but that’s what happens when all your money goes to paying off your debts and not your rent.
The windows were slow going. They obviously hadn’t been oiled in a while, so they creak like motherfuckers. Finally we managed to open them wide enough to slip through, Sostene a little more gracefully. Dusting myself off, I looked around the dingy-looking apartment. There was expired food and bags of take out everywhere. Nothing of value, it’d all been hocked to pay the loansharks.
“Doesn’t look like he’s home,” I said to no one in particular. “Well, we got nothing better to do until he gets back. Wanna find out where he keeps his porno?”
That’s when something poked me right in the back, just a few inches higher than the base of my spine. Metallic, roughly circular, and about as wide around as a wine cork. Gonna go out on a limb and guess it was a shotgun.
I held my hands up, and tried not to provoke him. “Mr. Walsh, I presume?”