The Czar’s Egg by W.H. Lock
The Czar’s Egg
by W.H. Lock
She was blonde and her name was Barbara Moore. In an earlier life she’d been a vigilante hero named Songbird. She worked with a partner called Dark Falcon or Blood Bird or some other nonsense. They’d been a hard knuckles team that chased crooks over roof tops of Sterling City. Songbird was supposed to be the gentle voice that kept Dark Blood Falcon’s rage in check. She was the good cop to his bad. But she’d made a mistake that a lot of women make, and fell for a guy she thought she could fix. He’d been a small time villain that called himself The Juggler. His shtick had been to mesmerize people with his amazing juggling skills. She got him to quit trying to rob banks, and get married to her instead. But marrying a low-rent villain wasn’t such a hot career move. Eventually she’d quit the game entirely to raise a family. Now she was in my office. Married women don’t come by my office for social visits.
“I want you to find my husband, Jack. He’s been gone long enough.” She said leaning back in to the leather chair I kept in front of my desk. “It’s time for him to come home.”
“Seems to me, Ms. Moore, that you’re qualified to bring him back.”
“If I see the bastard, I’ll break his legs. And I can’t get a sitter worth a damn.” She tapped her lacquered nails on the chair. The paint was flaking off her chipped nails. It had been awhile since she’d had a manicure.
“Where do you think he’s at?” I slid some paper out of a drawer and held a pen like I wanted to take notes.
“He’s holed up at the Grand Hotel with an old buddy of his, from back when he was in the game. This guy just got out of Low Max. Les likes to knock back a few drinks and talk about the old days. He says he’s trying to help them go straight, but…” she shook her head. She had the tone of a wife tired of dealing with her husband’s porn collection.
“But this time it’s different?”
She said, “This time he got an idea in his head. A damn fool idea. His buddy started spinning prison yarns. This guy says he was cellmates with someone who was part of the All-In Gang. You remember the Fat Man? “
“He retired, as I recall.” I remembered the Fat Man. Fat, had a nasty temper, and could kill a Yak from three hundred yards away with just his mind. He’d been a big name in the hero game almost a decade ago.
“And died. He had a heart attack. He was a big collector. He collected eggs,” she said looking vacantly out the window.
“Eggs?” I did my trick with my eyebrow where I raise one up with a slight wiggle. It usually has an effect on people. It’s a good trick.
She shrugged with one shoulder and said, “All kinds, I guess. Anyway, the All-In Gang decided he didn’t need so many. They broke in to his mansion. Took a bunch of eggs but something went wrong. The Fat Man woke up and started taking them apart; he was a rated Class-A hero after all. But in the middle of the fight he had a heart attack, died right then. That’s when the Gang decided it wasn’t so All-In anymore and they tore into each other. Or maybe that’s what woke the Fat Man up. Anyway, two of them survived the fall out. The leader and Lester’s friend of a friend. The two of them pulled a big haul out of the Fat Man’s house.”
“Where’s this going, Ms. Moore?”
“Call me Barbara. Anyway, they don’t get way for long. The Fat Man’s friends track’em down and they recover everything except for one thing. This metal or marble egg, maybe it was porcelain, I am not sure. Les didn’t seem to know. Anyway, the two go to jail. And the insurance company pays out to the Fat Man’s estate because he had his collection insured. The company spent years looking for that egg. They never found it.”
“But Les thinks he knows where it’s at?”
“His buddy said that this other All-In guy knew where it was at. And told him when they were in Low Max together. Les thinks he can find it, and turn it in for the insurance reward. The company still wants it. They’ll pay to get it back.”
“Not a bad plan.”
“It’s a damn fool plan! Some guy told some other guy where it’s at? That’s worse than an urban legend. Les wasn’t much as villains go, because he had a heart. He’s a good man. We got out of the game because we wanted a family. It’s time to stop pretending we’re kids, and start being adults. Jack, I want you to find him and bring him home. Can you do that for me?”
I said I could, and named my pricing. She looked down at her feet and agreed to pay, half of it up front in cash.
“Now, if you will excuse me I have a play date I need to make. It’s taken me five months to get Megan in this group.” She collected her bag and left me to her business.
It wasn’t a bad plan. Find the egg and turn it over to the insurance company for easy money. I wondered how many other people this All-In guy had told and why they hadn’t already gone after the egg.
It didn’t take long to find out where Les was hold up at. He and his pal had checked out of the Grand a few days ago with no forwarding information. But finding a guy who been kicked out by his wife is pretty easy, just check the liquor stores on the cheap side of town. I spread some money and flashed his picture. A tired blonde behind a glass wall at a discount liquor store recognized him. She thought he was hiding out at a motel down the block. Which turned out to be true. The motel desk clerk, with a little prodding from Andrew Jackson, remembered that he’d seen Les in unit 142, on the back side of the model at ground level. I’d have Les home before dinner tonight.
A mid-range sports car I didn’t think was important sped off as I rounded the corner to the back side of the motel. There was one door open. I didn’t have to guess which one was Lester’s.
I found a man tied to a chair, or what was left of a man. He’d been savagely beaten. The body was a blood-pulped mess. From the angle of his head, he was dead. Behind me a woman screamed, and started babbling in Spanish. I turned to see the motel maid cross herself and run for the office. I had seen things like this before. This was the work of cold killers trying to get information from a man that just won’t give it.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the cops. Apparently I wasn’t the only one after Lester Moore. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Les had come in to some information and then ended up beaten to death. A guy who called himself The Juggler didn’t make a lot of enemies in life. I gave the place a quick search, and found his friends body in the tub. He’d gotten off easier. He was mostly untouched, his arms tied behind his back and duct tape over his mouth. He was a small fellow. If he had been alive, I would have described him as squirrely. His mouth had been covered in duct tape but his eyes told a story. They were aghast at what he witnessed in the last moments of his life. I could only guess he’d died from a heart attack, but fright seemed good enough. I finished the room before the cops could arrive. I didn’t find anything other than the last day of Lester Moore’s life ending one punch at a time.
Sterling City’s Finest didn’t like bodies. Bodies made the flat foots nervous. The first prowler on scene was a rookie. I could tell by the way his hand shook when he pulled his gun. He kept me covered while he looked inside. To his credit, he puked all his lunch on the wall outside. Good head on that kid.
“Better call it in, kid. The dicks will want to look the place over,” I said.
The kid nodded and waited outside with me for the homicide squad to show up. Unlike the flat foots, the homicide dicks were a pack of lazy bastards. What was the hurry? The body wasn’t going anywhere soon. Meanwhile, prowler cars piled up around the motel. It must have been a slow day.
Markone was a fat prick, but he wasn’t that bad. For a cop. He took a look inside and said, “You finally lose it, Story? Beat a man to death?”
“Sure, Markone,” I said. “And I’ll do you one better. I spent the better part of the day wandering around town with his picture, looking for him because I secretly had him here the whole time.”
“And why would you be looking for him?” Markone itched his crotched. “He owed you some money?”
“I got a client, his wife. She wanted him found.”
“Working a peeper case, eh, Story? How do you live with yourself, sticking your nose in everyone’s business?”
“I don’t know, Markone, is it true the only reason you’re not on the take is because no one can believe you’re that cheap?”
That got me a trip downtown where I repeated the story few dozen times until they were happy I had it down pat or wasn’t lying. After they cut me loose, I made my way across town to knock on Barbara’s door.
She answered, pale as a ghost with bright eyes, dry from crying on the inside. Behind her a little girl played with a new toy.
“I’ll find whoever did this,” I said.
She nodded and closed the door.
I went home and drank myself to sleep, trying to forget what I had seen in that room. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a body like that. It didn’t get easier.
I arrived at the Traverse Insurance Company’s local office shortly after they opened. They had a lovely suite of glass and brass on the fifth floor of the Greer building on Eighth Street. It was a three office affair centered on a waiting room. The manager was portly in a comfortable sort of way. He had a habit of hooking his thumbs in his vest pockets when he leaned back in his chair.
“So, you’re after the Czar’s Egg, eh? I was just starting with the company when all that went down. Terrible. Terrible mess. Paper work for weeks, I hear.”
“So, it’s never been recovered?”
“No, and not for a lack of trying either. It’s been gone for ten years, Mr. Story, a real sore spot with the company. A real sore spot. I don’t know how many men we sent looking for that Egg. We pride ourselves on traversing the globe,” he pointed to the slogan on the wall.
“What do you know about the egg?”
“Just what’s in the files, of course.” He leaned back, slid his thumbs in to the vest pockets and looked up at the ceiling. “And company legend. John Meecham, also the hero known as the Fat Man, had a passion for collecting rare works of porcelain and delicate art. He’d taken out an extensive policy on all of them. The crown jewel of his menagerie, if you will, was the Egg of the Last Czar. It was red lacquer, gilded in gold and laden with pearls. It was the finest expression of the Fabergé family’s art.”
“An egg?” I try not to judge what people spend money on, but covering an egg in gold and pearls seemed like a colossal waste of time, effort, and money.
“Not an egg, but The Egg.” He laughed and said, “The Russians are an odd lot. I’ll give you that. I’ll give you that. They give each other eggs for Easter, and not the chocolate kind either.” He leaned forward and unhooked his thumbs. “The Czar couldn’t give his wife a white egg dipped in food coloring. No, he was the ruler of the largest nation in Europe. They had to be special. They had to be unique. Worthy of a Czarina! This was supposed to be the one for his wife that Easter in 1917. That was a bloody mess, wasn’t it?”
I nodded. The February revolution in Russia had been bloody indeed.
“The Egg, mostly unfinished, passed from collector to collector until it ended up with our client. And we know what happened to him.” The manager looked over his shoulder, like he was about to tell a racist joke. “It seems that anyone who owns the Egg comes to a bad end, Mr. Story. A very bad end. An unbroken line of tragedy from the Czar until Meecham.”
“It’s cursed?” I have a lot of personal experience with curses. They can be a real pain in the ass.
“I’m not saying one way or the other, no sir. No, sir. But the lowly lieutenant who took the Egg out of the Czar’s Palace became a Colonel within a matter of weeks. He was run over by his own horse the next day in the parade celebrating his promotion. The fellow after him? He got rich under some odd circumstances involving fire only to choke to death on a crust of bread a few days later. The next time it shows up is in the hands of an Englishman who suddenly inherits a banana plantation in Panama. He arrives, only to be ripped apart by the workers in a revolution.”
“That sounds more like a lot of bad luck and not a curse. What about the last member of the All-In Gang?”
“Last member? There were two, as I recall. Yes, two. A fellow that went by the name Jack of Clubs, and the leader who went by the name Queen of Diamonds? Yes, as I think of it, she was called Queen of Diamonds. Her real name was Jane Gillian. She doesn’t have it. She’s somewhere in Wisconsin. Lives with her daughter and raises chickens. She would have come to terms with us on it one way or another. It’s too much money not to turn it in by now.” He hooked his thumbs again. “The Clubs fellow is still in prison for the theft.”
“How much we talking on the finder fee?”
“Twenty five thousand last I heard. But you’ll never find it, Mr. Story. No, sir, you won’t. We have sent too many men and come up empty. Too many men! If you ask me, and no one has, it’s hidden in some private collection. Or maybe the Meecham estate had it all along and swindled us for the insurance.” He shuffled a few papers around on his desk, and glanced at his computer screen.
“Do you have a picture I can use? Of the Egg? “
“Sure. I’ll have Todd out front send you the official packet. We’ll pay out once the Egg has been verified. Make sure to leave a mailing address with him.” He nodded, and looked back at his screen again. He was done with me. Whatever excitement talking about the Czar’s Egg had for him, it had faded and he wanted to get back to shuffling paperwork.
As I stood up, he leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “Officially, we can only pay out twenty five on this. But if you bring it in, and let me claim this office found it, not you, I’ll authorize another ten thousand on top of that. This would be a real feather in my cap. Yes, sir, a real feather in my cap.” He wiggled his eye brows at me like we were friends.
“I think we can make that deal,” I said as I shook his hand. A little extra gravy never hurt anybody.
I gave my mailing address to Todd, who was an excellent example of his breed- handsome, well-coifed, and slightly disapproving of people who arrived without an appointment. On the way down to street level, a text message from a blocked number lit my cell. It said I was being followed by two men in a black Ford sedan. Whoever it was sent a picture of the car. This was helpful because the car and both the men were waiting for me outside the building. The shorter of the two opened the back door for me. The taller one pulled his jacket back just enough to show me he was packing a heater. I have a rule when trigger men for a local crime lord show up with a car: get in when they invite you.
I got in the car.
The red-headed moll offered me a whiskey. I have a rule when a woman offers you a drink, whiskey or otherwise-take it. I didn’t want to be rude, even if it was the whiskey of the third most powerful crime lord in the city. And had ice in it.
His name was Augustus Wind. Or at least that’s what he told everyone. I had my doubts but he had enough guns and money to make it stick without any one laughing at him. He ran the illegal gambling parlors in Sterling City. The parlors offered a bit of everything: slots, tables, off-track betting, sports betting and wheels. Wind catered to the thrill seekers, the hobbyists, and the truly desperate. They were also the sort of parlors where bones got broken when the tab wasn’t paid. Augustus sat behind his desk with his arms poised on the chair as if he were a king awaiting tribute. A tumbler with more ice than whiskey sweated it out on a cherry wood desk.
It was good whiskey. Even with the ice.
He stared at me trying to make it uncomfortable. Then he smiled a huge California smile. One that said we were pals and always would be. He said, “So, Mr. Story, is it okay if I call you Jack?”
I gave him my eyebrow trick and let him guess whether it was or not. Either way I was going to drink his whiskey.
He waited a moment longer and said, “Jack, I hear things about you.”
I did my trick with the eyebrow again.
He laughed a warm sort of laugh that included the room. The red-headed arm piece tittered along with him. “I hear a lot of things, but about you I hear are good things.”
I finished the whiskey, letting the last of the charred oak liquid roll across my tongue and waited for him to get to the point. Guys like Wind offer a service to society. I didn’t disagree with it; I just didn’t like what happened to people who used the service for too long.
“You’re a man of few words; I like that, Jack. In this business I don’t get to talk to a lot of men like you. Usually it’s explaining why things are late. You understand.”
I nodded. The moll filled my drink up again. I waved off the ice.
“Good. That makes me happy. I hear you’re looking for something. Something I would like to get my hands on.” Augustus finally took a sip of whiskey. He set the glass on the desk, neatly squaring it on a round porcelain coaster.
I leaned forward, and broke my silence. “And what would that be?” This hadn’t gone where I thought it was going. Usually there are more threats involved. I finished the whiskey just in case.
“I hear you’re after an egg. A certain Egg that was meant to be given to the last Czarina of Russia. I want that Egg.”
I looked around at the room. The room was filled with the sort of objects the suddenly wealthy felt gave them respectability. The requisite Pre-Raphaelite women lounging on flowered landscapes in lovely frames along with tribal masks from Africa hanging on the wall, and stone relics from dead civilizations tastefully placed on shelves. There was even a statue of a ballerina in the corner.
“You don’t strike me as the sort to be interested in collectible eggs,” I said.
“It’s not just an egg is it?” He grinned like we were both in on the joke.
I went back to playing it silent. This didn’t seem like the sort of time to let on I thought it was just an egg with a lot of bad luck.
“Come on, Jack! It’s the key to anything you might want!” Wind threw his hands wide in the air. Apparently I wasn’t that good at playing like I knew all along what this was about. “The man who owns it, not just holds it, but owns it like a man should own something, well, he gets whatever he wants. And if you’re not man enough for it, it kills you.”
“You think this thing grants wishes, and then kills you with them? Like a damn Monkey’s Paw?” I wiggled the glass at the red-head sitting at the small bar on the other side of the room. She obliged and refilled the glass. It was really good whiskey.
“If you’re not man enough to handle it.” He finished his whiskey in one shot.
“And you want it?” I matched him and finished mine in one swallow.
He waved the red head over again, and she brought the whiskey. I told her to not waste the ice, and pour it neat. I shot mine back without waiting for her to pour one for Augustus. With only a moment’s hesitation, he took his neat and drank it all. He didn’t spit it up but I could tell he wanted to. Point for me.
Augustus took a moment to recover, and said, “I’m willing to pay for it. If you come in to possession of the Egg, I’ll pay you three times what anyone else might pay you for it.”
“Where did you hear I was looking for an egg?”
“The Egg, Jack. I heard it from the same guy who set you on the trail. Lester Moore. “
I had my doubts. Lester was likely dead by the time Barbara Moore hired me to find him. “When did Lester tell you about the Egg?”
He smiled that big California smile, and laughed like the Pacific Ocean. He said, “You know, Jack, if I didn’t already know you were a private dick, I’d know it by now. You haven’t said a damn thing but to ask a question. Yeah, I did talk with Les. We talked about many things, and as conversations with me naturally turn, this one turned to money. Les owed me. And he felt that debt would be made amends with the Egg.”
“Les was in to you? For how much?”
“Lester had a taste for betting on the ponies. He just had the poor taste to bet on losers.” Augustus set his glass aside. Apparently he’d had a belly full of whiskey.
“How large was he in for? Enough to tape him to the chair and beat him to death?”
“Do I look like the kind of guy who could order another man to be beaten to death over money? “ That big smile again.
I did think that.
He laughed again, this time it didn’t include the room. It was the laugh a man willing to pay other men to do just about anything.
“Lester was in to me, enough to break a finger or two, but nothing that would leave him unable to pay. That sort of thing only works for junkies. You have to teach those pieces of shit who’s in charge. But gamblers? Gamblers you rough up a little bit and send them on their way. That way they keep paying, and keep coming back. Brace’em too hard and they’ll move on. I didn’t have him killed, Jack. He was worth too much to me alive.”
“You’ll have to pardon me if I don’t take that at value,” I said as I stood up.
He stood up to match me. Augustus was a big man. Well over six foot, he had barrel chest and thick arms that strained against the sleeves of his shirt. The years of posh living as head of the gambling rackets had let some of that go to fat, but not enough. He said, “I don’t care what you take it as, what I care about is the egg. If you bring it to me, I’ll pay you three times what anyone else is offering you.”
“Oh, I understand. But I don’t think we’ll be doing business, Wind.”
“And why is that, Mr. Story? “ He leaned forward.
“I think you had your boys work him over, in that cheap hotel, and they worked him too hard. You want it as a trophy to remind people what happens when someone doesn’t give the baby his bottle.”
“I’m the sort who’ll give a man a second chance, three times what anyone else offers for that Egg.”
I leaned forward and planted both my fists on the desk, “Near as I can figure it, not only no, but hell no.”
He leaned in so our faces were only a few inches apart and smashed that California smile across his face one more time and looked at the bruisers stationed behind me. Without a word they grabbed me by my arms and dragged me up over the chair.
“Don’t forget, Mr. Story three times the amount,” he shouted as they dragged me out of the house. They threw me in the back of the town car, and drove me to the poor side of town. They dumped me out at an abandoned lot about three blocks from my office. The driver put on weighted leather gloves. The gloved delivered extra force to the punch, but spared the knuckles. They were the mark of a man who did a lot of beatings in his work day.
I stood up and dusted myself off. The second guy did a little jumping dance to loosen himself up. I folded my jacket up, and rolled up my sleeves.
“I hear you’re pretty good, Story,” the driver said, planting his feet. It was the solid stance of a fighter that didn’t like to give ground.
“Why don’t you step over here and find out, buttercup?” And with that I punched his dancing partner in the head. I followed with an elbow to the chin, but I wasn’t fast enough to dodge the driver. He knocked the wind out of me with a hard blow to the gut.
The thing about losing your wind is not to panic. It’s just a nervous reflex. If you’re calm, the body will right itself in its own time. You don’t need to breath as much of you think you do. I took a swing at the gloved one. He ducked with ease, and delivered two more sharp blows to the gut, making sure the wind stayed out of me. I dropped to my knees trying to suck in some air. The partner got to his feet, and kicked me in the head. This was not going well.
A car came to a sliding halt; the deep note of the engine roared and settled to a low grumble. The headlights cut the scene, casting out shadows out behind us. A guy in a trench coat and heavy boots stepped out of the car without a word. He paused a moment in the headlights, letting the moment land. I took the time to stand up and get my breath back.
“Why don’t you two frails run while you still have the gams to do it,” the figure said.
“This isn’t any of your business. So save yourself the trouble, and get lost.”
“Trouble,” he said. He voice was a growl, the sort normally reserved for movie stars, “Trouble is my business.”
The driver looked at his partner and said, “Kill him.”
The new guy moved with an odd stiffness, as if his knees had been blown out and rebuilt. The dancing partner rushed the new guy. I took the opportunity to slug the driver in the gut, and sweep his legs out beneath him. The new guy punched the dancing partner in the head, knocking the punk down.
I fell on the driver, slamming his head in to the ground while he kept punching my kidney. He went unconscious. The dancing partner and the new guy were waltzing around each other. They bobbed and weaved, ducking under high kicks and some very fancy Kung-Fu moves. I thought I’d repay the favor by jumping in myself but they looked like they were having a lot of fun pretending to fight and I wasn’t feeling it. I patted the driver down, pulled out his wallet and his gun. It was a Glock 17 with Luger-made cartridges. The Glock 17 and the Luger rounds were the most common in the States. That made it hard to trace where the gun came from.
I pocketed the cash, put the gun in my jacket, and threw the wallet on the driver’s chest. I waited a few moments, watching the other two screw around. The new guy favored power moves that stressed joints and inflicted pain. The dancing partner was a fan of high energy moves that required a lot of jumps. Both of them used lots of flashy moves that look good. I blame the movies. I’m a fan of keeping it simple. I learned to fight by hanging out at the boxing club down the street when I was a kid. I gave them a few moments while I dusted off my jacket. After a few moments, I shot the tires out of Wind’s car.
I pointed the gun at the dancing partner and said, “Get your pal here, and tell your boss to piss off. Got it?”
The dancing partner nodded.
The new guy looked at me and asked, “Need a ride?”
I got in his car.
He drove us through the city streets going somewhere he wanted to go. We sat in silence, him watching the road and me watching him. He was medium build, a scar running down the side of his face. I felt like I should know him.
He looked over from the road, and said to me, “You’re looking for the Czar’s Egg.”
“Yeah?” I’d been on this case just more than 24 hours, and already half the town knew what I was looking for.
“You are. And you’re looking for it because Lester Moore is dead.”
“And I am going to help you find it.”
“Yeah.” He growled and clenched the wheel a little tighter.
“And who are you?”
“I am the guy who pulled your ass out of the fire. I’m the guy who knew Lester. I am the Black Falcon.” He sat up straighter. I could tell I was supposed to be impressed.
I looked at him for a long time, taking in the straight black hair and the pale skin. “Really? I always thought your name was…” I trailed off not finishing the thought.
“What?” He said with a sudden defensiveness. “You always thought my name was what?”
“Nothing. Forget about it. It’s not important. How do you know Lester?”
He fumed for a moment while the road rolled past. “Songbird and I go way back. I was her partner before she quit the game. When I heard about Lester, I had to do something.”
“You sent me the pictures of Wind’s guys on my tail.”
Black Falcon and Songbird were AAA rated heroes. They didn’t have laser vision, or the power to cloud men’s minds. They beat the hell out of anyone who came up against them. Falcon had kept his face behind a full mask, so no one but Songbird knew what he looked like. They’d had a falling out when Bird got married to Lester. He’d gone solo for a while and faded to obscurity like so many of the heroes do.
“The only thing I have to go on,” he said, “is a town. Brandon, Wisconsin. That’s where the Queen of Diamonds ran to ground. But I don’t know who the hell she is.”
“That works out,” I said. “I have a name.”
“You ready to go find that Egg?”
“Yeah,” I said. I had a feeling that once I found the Egg, I’d find who really killed Lester.
A few hours ride in Black Falcon’s mustang was all it took to get to Brandon, Wisconsin. As small towns go, Brandon wasn’t that much to look at. It was a sleepy place that didn’t have traffic jams and liked their heroes on TV. It didn’t seem like the sort of place a leader of a notorious criminal super gang would choose as a hide out. Which made it the perfect sort of place for a criminal super gang to hide out. Brandon is a fine city. It had a town square surrounded by the Brandon Bar, the Brandon Café, Brandon Grocery, Brandon Bank, Brandon Feed and Seed, and the Jud Sun Bowling & Lounge.
Falcon twitched his leather trench coat, and ran his finger down his scar. “What we need to do is hit the bars,” he said. “Rough some of the scum up to get their attention. Once we’re in the underbelly we’ll beat our way up through the thugs and the whores of this disgusting little city. We’ll root out the corruption and clean this town up.”
There’d been a lot of that on the car trip here. Black Falcon liked to talk a lot about cleaning out the cesspits of the world. Mostly with his fists. You can imagine how fun that had been.
“Or we can talk to those two over there.” I point to two old timers sitting on a park bench. “If anyone knows where the last of the All-In Gang is raising chickens, it’ll be someone like that.”
Falcon just growled in response. We strolled over to where the old timers were feeding pigeons. They were the solid sort that wore hats from the companies they’d retired from and always carried pictures of their grandchildren in their wallets. They reminded me of Laurel and Hardy, one of them tall and lanky with the other being small and round.
“I bet you two know just about everyone there is to know in this town,” I said.
The smaller of the two old timers spit a wad of tobacco juice at my feet.
“I’m looking for a woman, she—“
The lankier old timer laughed and said, “Ain’t we all, boy. Ain’t we all!”
His partner just spit some more juice at my foot.
“I’m looking for a woman, a friend of mine died, and she might know something about it. I’d like to find her so I can find the guy. Her name is Jane Gillian. Know her?”
Falcon cracked his knuckles, “Now, if you two are done cracking wise, why don’t you tell us where the woman is at?
The two old men looked at falcon without any sort of fear. These two men had been through decades of pain and loss. Some jackass with a violence fetish didn’t mean anything to them.
“Seems I can’t recollect anyone around these parts raising chickens. Ever,” the skinny one said. “What about you, Earl?”
Earl spat some tobacco juice on Falcon’s boot.
Falcon stepped forward, and said, “Do that again, old man, and I’ll—“
I stepped in front of him, and said, “It’ll be worth your while if you suddenly remember where we can find some chickens. We’ll be asking around.”
Falcon clenched his fists and took a moment to glare at the two old men before turning on his heels.
“Why did you quit the hero business anyway, Falcon?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t quit, it quit me. Too many shots to the knees. Too many broken bones. My trust fund will cover a lot, but it won’t cover a suit of power armor. It just made sense to change to the Detective role. I’m like you now. I’m still cleaning out the cesspits, still putting it to the two-bit thugs of the world.” He flexed his neck so the bones popped.
“There’s a bar just down the street,” I said. “We can go down there and try it your way.”
“You’re too soft, Jack. My way works. Every. Time.” Falcon slammed his fist in to his other hand, and said, “It’s about time this rotten town tasted Justice. There’s a stink that turns my stomach.”
I gave Falcon a hard pat on the shoulder. He threw the door open and sauntered in to the building. I wandered over to the Brandon Seed & Feed store. If anyone knew an old woman who raised chickens, it would be the feed store.
“What can I do you for, fella,” the chipper guy behind the counter asked. He was a store-keep from a different era. He had an apron wrapped around the waist, pencil thin mustache on his lip, and elastic bands on the sleeves of his red and white striped shirt.
“I’m looking for an old friend that may have moved back here,” I said. “She likes chickens, maybe lives with her daughter. Quiet types, I should think.”
“Fella, that’s could be any number of folk around here. You’ll have to be more specific. “
“I didn’t want to say, but she may have a colorful past. She used to run with those hero types but not on the side of angels, if you follow me.”
“Oh, I do believe I know who you’re asking about. Are you fellas with the insurance company? We ain’t seen one of you types around in a fair bit.” He went back to cleaning the counter with a cloth.
“Insurance,” I said, feeling a little let down the bit was up already. “Where can I find her?”
“I’m surprised the company didn’t give you the information. She’s up on Brandon road. A few miles past Reed’s Corner road. You’ll miss it if you’re not looking. It’s hidden behind some trees. She likes to discourage visitors. You understand.”
I admitted that I did understand and left the fellow to his cleaning. I walked out just in time to see a man get thrown from the bar’s plate glass window. He rolled in to the street, and groaned. It wasn’t Falcon, but I was pretty sure I could find him without much trouble. I helped the guy up, brushed the glass off of him, and held the door open so he could get back in the fight.
From the sound of it, there was quite a brawl going on in there. Falcon had managed to piss off the entire place, and jumped them all at once. A good detective backs his partner no matter what. A good partner would rush in there and start punching everyone. I called Barbara to ask a few questions.
“What,” was all she said.
“This is Jack, Barbara. Who else did Lester tell about the egg?
“I don’t know. As far as I know, just me. Can’t say about his pal though.”
“When’s the last time you talked to your old partner?”
“Falcon? Just after I heard about Les. Why?“
“Falcon and I are up in Wisconsin. We’re close to finding the egg. Once I have that, near as I can figure whoever killed Lester will show up looking for it.”
“Great,” she said and hung up on me.
Another townie flew out the window. Inside I could hear a a collective groan as Falcon walked out.
“How was piercing the soft underbelly of Brandon, Wisconsin?”
“She’s on a farm outside of town, about five miles to the north. Behind some trees,” he said. He looked pretty good for a guy who just took on a bar full of drunks.
“Good job,” I said. “We should probably take Brandon road. It heads north from here.”
Over his shoulder I saw a black sedan pull in to town. I recognized the driver. It was my boy from last night. His face was a bit puffy from the beating. I didn’t have to wonder if they saw us. All four piled out of the car and walked right for us. I tapped Falcon on the shoulder and nodded behind him. He got a good look at Augustus’s men walking toward us.
“I was hoping these assholes would show up. I just got warmed up, and I need a good fight,” he said as he cracked his knuckles.
“It was Barbara that told you about the egg and where it’s at, right?”
Falcon shook his head and said, “No, Les did.” Falcon bounced a little bit on his toes. He was like a kid at Christmas. “He and I caught up with some beers and he told me all about it.”
“You take the two on the left,” I said, “and I’ll get the other two.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “You creeps are about to taste justice at the hands of the Black Falcon!”
The thugs stopped, and one of them said, “Black Falcon? You?”
“Yeah, punk, I am the Black Flacon and you’re about to taste a world of pain like you’ve never known.”
“You? Black Falcon.” The thug looked at his pals in some confusion. “But you’re white.”
“What the hell does that mean? “
“Well, you know, I always thought you were…you know.”
“Well, like Black Bomber, Black Wing, and Black Samurai. You know…a nigger.” The thug took his time with that word, drawing it out.
“You son of a bitch!” Black Falcon roared and jumped the two on his side.
I took off my jacket and rolled up the sleeves. It was the same shirt I’d worn the night before when I had my tussle with Wind’s boys. It still had his blood at the elbows.
The Driver pointed at me, staking his claim, and the other split off to jump Falcon. The third one rushed Falcon, trying to pull him to the ground. Falcon planted his feet, and bore the brunt of the attack. He grabbed the middle one by the throat and squeezed while the other two tried to work his sides with rapid punches. Falcon was in his element when fighting groups.
The Driver did a little switch foot dance, and struck the same pose he had from the night before. I settled down in to a classic boxer stance and locked eyes. Once I had his attention, I pulled his gun from the holster in my back and I shot him in the leg. He went down clutching at the wound. I took the opportunity and kicked him in the head, laying him out.
“Hey, Falcon,” I said as I ripped the Driver’s shirt apart and made an impromptu bandage with it and his tie. Falcon choked out one of the lackeys. “I am just going to take the car and head to the farm. You’ve got this locked down.” He said something but I didn’t bother to listen. I ejected the rounds from the gun, wiped it down, and left it on the driver’s chest.
I called local emergency and reported a shooting and a fight in front of the bar. The sheriff’s car ripped past me as I drove the Mustang out of town. That should keep them tied up long enough for me to find the Egg.
The better part of an hour was spent looking for Reed’s Corner Crossing road on Brandon Street. From there I drove up and down the route looking for a house hidden behind trees. As it happens there are more than a few houses tucked away from the road behind a screen of trees. Eventually I found one pushed back away behind a small hill and a screen of trees. They worked hard at making the place hard to see from the road.
The house had been white once. Now it was patchy bare wood slowly being over grown by the surrounding plants. Out behind the back was a small barn that had been turned in to a large chicken coup. A woman just old enough to not be young anymore sat on the porch desultorily cleaning a broom.
“You here to talk to Ma about the Egg?” she said after giving me the long look.
“How did you know?”
“The suit. Anyone coming here in a suit is a dick looking to talk to Ma about the Egg. Been awhile since one of you has come around. With Insurance or you on your own?”
“Insurance. She here? “
“She’s on the back porch. Like always. She won’t talk to you though. She don’t talk to no one.” The woman went back to not really cleaning the broom.
“Thanks,” I said. I walked around back, picking my way through the overgrown lawn.
She was an older woman, graying hair escaping from a lazy braid that sat on her neck. She sat in a chair with her hands tucked under a blanket, staring at the chicken coup, slowly rocking. It took a few minutes before she looked at me.
“I’m looking for the Egg.”
“Go to Hell,” was all she said.
“Someone died because of that thing. An innocent man.”
She looked at me with dead eyes and said, “My husband and brother died because of that thing.”
“I need it to find the guy who killed my friend. They strapped him to a chair and beat him to death for it. I need to make that right.”
“It wasn’t sanctioned, we didn’t have a contract with the Fat Man but that didn’t mean he had to do what he did. We were just trying to make a name for ourselves, you know? We were just going to get in and get out. No one gets hurt. But as soon as George put his hand on that Egg the Fat Man came out of nowhere. He exploded Georges head with just a thought. There wasn’t any call for that. We didn’t have guns. But he did it anyway. He pulled Teddy’s arms off. He tore us apart! If he hadn’t had that heart attack, we’d all be dead. Mark and I got out of there with everything we could get our hands on.” She stared out a thousand yards through the chicken coup. “Not that it did either one of us any good.”
“His name was Lester Moore. He was a husband. He had a daughter. That little girl going to grow up without him because of these guys. I need the Egg. I need it to find the men responsible for his death.”
“I don’t know, Mister.” She went back to looking at the chicken coop. “If you do find it, take it to Hell for all I care about it.”
“Do you think the curse is real?”
“I know it is.”
The daughter walked past us carrying a basket, glanced at her mother, and headed in to the chicken coup. The wooden door slapped shut, bounced, and slapped shut again. A branch snapped behind me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
A voice from behind said, “Put’em up, Jack, and don’t try anything fast.”
I raised my hands slowly. Someone patted me down. I turned around. It was Wind’s men. They were battered, bruised, and the driver had a tight bandaged around his leg. He had a big grin on his face. He had found a new shirt somewhere.
“Where’s the Egg?” he asked.
From the clear blue sky a lightning bolt cracked down, and standing in the brilliant over-flash was the Black Falcon.
He howled in victory, and jumped on Wind’s thugs. They fell in to a pile of flailing arms and legs. The old woman screamed like a banshee, and pulled a sawed off shotgun from under her blanket as she stood. I threw myself to the ground as she pulled the trigger. The Drivers’ head disappeared in a mist of blood and buckshot.
One of the thugs staggered back from the pile on top of Black Falcon, and pulled a gun. He shot Jane in the chest. She fell down in to her chair, her eyes glassed over. She wouldn’t have to worry about the egg any more.
I swept the legs out from the guy with the gun and made a run for the chicken coup. In the slanted light coming through the roof I found the daughter. She was standing in the middle of the room, ankle deep in hay, and holding a shining red egg inlaid with gold and pearls. In the half light of the coop, it glowed. It was bigger than I thought it would be. It was bigger than her hand, like the size of a soft ball. The pearls had their own cool luminosity that off-set the warm red and gold lights. It was the life’s work of a master craftsman. The world would never see its like again. In her other hand was a revolver.
“I can be free now,” she said with madness in her eyes. “I don’t’ have to stay here anymore. I can do whatever I want. I am the new Queen of Diamonds. I will be surrounded by a million pretty boys. I will have all the money I could possibly want. And no one will be able to stop me. I’ll live in Sterling City on the Silver Coast, in a penthouse that can see the Lake.” She grinned as she held up the Egg, raising it up to the heavens. She backed me against the wall, keeping the gun pointed at my chest. Chickens squawked at me as I stepped back. I knew the look in her eyes. It was a look that spoke of an appetite that had been unfulfilled for too long. She wanted to kill me. She wanted to enjoy watching me die.
“The queen is dead! Long live the Queen,” she shouted and raised the gun.
A shot rang out from the door, and she crumpled to the ground.
I turned to see the Black Falcon, bruised and torn, in the door holding one of the thug’s guns. I kept my hands up.
He walked in to the coop and kicked her over on her back. The Egg was still clutched in her hand. Her eyes only spoke of death now.
“You killed Lester,” I said. “You tried to beat the location out of him, and he wouldn’t give it up.”
Falcon looked at me, and knelt down. “That dumb piece of shit didn’t know what he found. He was going to turn it over to the insurance company for the money.” Falcon laughed a cruel and hard laugh. “He had the key to enormous power, and all he could think to do with it was turn it in for a reward. The Juggler. What the hell kind of name is that?” He kneeled down and took the Egg in his hand. He stared at it for a moment, and stood up. He held it up to the slanted light of the chicken coup. “I will be the greatest hero this world has ever seen! Those assholes that kicked me out of the Guild for being too real, too ready to do what needed to be done, well, they’ll be sorry now! I’ll make them pay!”
In that moment, he changed. He stood straighter, his clothing changed from the leather trench coat and torn shirt to a tight fitting body suit. It was all black with the grey falcon symbol on his chest. His arms were suddenly sheathed in steel bands that somehow conformed to every bulge and dimple of his muscles. Around each now impossibly huge thigh was a bandolier of small pouches. The automatic pistol in his hand changed to some over-sized future ray gun that had an over-under double barrel. He gained mass while I watched. His muscles swelled to inhuman proportions. His height easily increased by a foot until he towered in the confines of the chicken coop. You could set a tea cup on top of his pectoral muscles, and it wouldn’t fall off. I dodged left, and then dove forward, scooping the revolver up as I rolled. The Black Falcon causally fired his now massive double-barreled pistol at me. He missed and disintegrated a chicken in a ball of plasma and feathers. I rolled up to a stand and pulled the trigger. The bullet bounced off his Black Falcon logo.
“Idiot!” He snatched the gun from my hand, and crushed it. He picked me up by my lapels, and threw me to the other side of the coup. He stood for a moment, admiring his obscenely muscled body. “I will tear this world a new one. I am going to just fucking wreak it! Man, I can just feel I’ve got a huge cock now. It’s sticking to the side of my thigh. You know?”
“It must be a new feeling for you. Congratulations.” I shrugged, wiped the chicken shit from my face and took stock. It probably wasn’t just the emblem that was bullet proof. All those muscles would push a bullet out with a simple flex. No, I’d need a bigger gun. A massive shotgun-like cannon had appeared on Black Falcon’s back. It was ridiculous in proportion, something only an overeager adolescent qualified as a weapon. It looked powerful.
“I am going to enjoy killing you, Story. You smart-mouthed bag of dicks. Don’t think I didn’t notice your little smart comments. Oh yeah, now it’s time for pay back.” Falcon threw the egg and the over-sized pistol on the ground and reached up over his shoulder, a seemingly impossible task given his new anatomy. He swung the shoulder cannon off of his back and slung it at his hip. He pulled the trigger.
I dropped to the ground, and the wall blew out behind me. The remaining chickens ran out through the gaping hole in the building. The nice thing when someone hip-shoots a rifle is they can only hit the side of a barn from the inside. But with limited space, he only had to get lucky once and I had to stay lucky. While luck is one of my skills, I knew better than to push it.
“Is that how it is? You use a gun now? What happened to the Black Falcon way? The way that always works? Or are you all talk and no walk? Too chicken to fight. “
“I see what you’re trying to do, but you’re right,” he said and tossed the gun on the ground in front of him. “I’d rather choke you with my own hands than blow you away.”
“I know how you feel,” I said as I charged him. I had planned to duck under his behemoth swing, and slide under his feat, but he was too fast. He snatched me up by the back of my coat and lifted me up to his eye level.
He laughed, “You’re just like all the rest of those Champaign-sipping, caviar-eating sacks. You think a beer and peanuts guy like me is too dumb to know what’s going on. Well, I’ve got news for you, pal. I’m the smartest guy in every room on the damn planet!”
He threw me across the room again. I fell down through levels of chicken nests. I was covered in shit, feathers, and I had egg on my face. Not exactly my best day. I stood up.
“Sure, pal. A dim bulb like you can really light up the room. The best day of your career was the day you quit. You know, I heard crime actually went down that day because no one gave a shit.”
Black Falcon roared and charged me. I ran at him. This time I went over him, jumping up and sliding down his back. I could feel his massive hands rip my shoes off my feet as I vaulted over him. Hitting the ground rolling I grabbed the ray gun as I stood.
The pistol was ludicrously overweight at the top and front of the barrel. I had to aim it with both hands. Black Falcon spun around and snarled at me. His teeth and hair had changed. His hair became an upswept style that resembled wings on the side of his head. His jaw had gotten narrower. His teeth had gotten smaller and there were too many. He even had vestigial fangs. I pulled the trigger as he came at me.
The plasma round hit him square in the stomach. Black Falcon lost control of his legs, and fell face first in the chicken coup floor. There was a matching set of holes in his back, right where were his spine would be. He looked up, and reached out with his massive hand to try and grab the Egg one more time.
I kicked the Egg away from him.
“You killed him,” I said. “You killed Lester Moore. You tied him to that chair and you beat him to death. She was your partner, and you killed the man she loved. I have every right to put another bullet in you, and this one right between the eyes for what you did to her. To him! But I like the idea of you sitting in Karkosa, rotting in a chair for the rest of your life. So don’t you dare die, you worthless bag of crap. Don’t you fucking die!”
I pulled an oily rag from off the wall, and scooped up the Egg. Tucking it in my pocket, I limped out to meet the sirens I could hear in the distance.
Falcon lived long enough to get medical attention. The shot had passed right through his spine, taking away his ability to walk. He’d be in a chair for the rest of his life. He was sentenced to Karkosa for deep therapy. Officially the place was called Yellow Oaks Island Rehabilitation and Therapy Center. But people still called it by its original name- Karkosa Asylum.
True to his word, the manager at Traverse paid out an additional ten thousand on top of the reward money. I handed the reward check over to Barbara and kept the ten for myself. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could do. The last I heard of Barbara, she used the money to film a reality TV pilot about how she was a single mom by day and a hero by night.
It ran for five seasons.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright W.H. Lock 2014