The place we found ourselves a few minutes later—a bar named Midnight Ride—wasn’t too bad. I was sitting at the counter, rubbing my bruised wrist, and drinking a cocktail, which the bartender—a guy who looked like a zombie with many years of devoted service to his Voodoo master—recommended to me apathetically. “The war of the worlds it is!” he explained to me, but weirdly enough, he didn’t bother to wait and see my reaction after I tasted it. Before he even put the glass on the counter, he forgot about me and scrammed somewhere with an empty expression on his face. Anyway, the drink was awful, and I had it with a glass of club soda on the side.
“Well?” I heard a woman’s voice too close to me, which made me turn my head, surprised.
I saw a brunette sitting on the stool next to mine—a young and beautiful one, pale-skinned, green-eyed, wearing no make-up. She was sulking, obviously unhappy about something.
“Well—” I mumbled, uncertain what I wanted to say, letting my “well” hang in the air after hers.
“Who’s making the first move?” the woman asked.
“You know what?” I sighed wearily. “I think there are too many people around for us to make moves on each other. Don’t you think so?”
She rolled her eyes, annoyed. “I guess that would be me then!” she added.
I just shrugged. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, and I wasn’t even sure she was there with me at this moment! For all I knew, she might be another hallucination of mine, and the thought made me look around, anxious to find proof. I didn’t notice anything unusual, though. I only saw two glasses on the counter, near the woman’s left elbow, one of which was a Johnnie Walker—red label—and the other was something that seemed way too sweet and disgusting. I felt sick just looking at it. The woman slowly reached her hand to take it, put it in her mouth, and after swallowing, she smacked her lips. The sugar syrup dried up on them and glittered like fancy lipstick.
After that, the brunette, whose name was Sonya—somehow I was sure she was Sonya, although there was nothing to indicate such a thing—turned her head to me and fixed her sad green eyes on mine. While I looked at them, her lips caught another reflection from the light in the bar, and this time they gleamed orange. It was only then that I realized I had no recollection of entering this place. The last thing I remembered was standing outside—handcuffed and sick—and then, all of a sudden, I was here, sitting at the counter and drinking a cocktail in the company of this very strange woman, whose intentions I knew nothing about!
“My name’s Lara,” Sonya unexpectedly confessed, and her image quickly melted. First, the sugar coating on her lips split into pieces and peeled off; then, her green eyes lost their sadness and gradually turned blue; and, at last, her nose became a bit snub and her hair grew lighter and lighter until it turned completely blonde.
Quite shocked to see all this, I stared at her pretty much like a man who had just seen a witch. I knew it was a hallucination but just to be on the safe side—in case the creature kept transforming and turned into a Medusa or something—I decided to gulp my club soda all at once to help me sober up. Strangely, I splashed the drink into my face instead but it worked too, and the woman promptly stopped her transformation and became the person I was already familiar with—namely, the blonde who had saved me from my radiator prison about an hour ago.
“You know where my sister is, right?” she surprisingly asked me, waiting for my answer. I kept my eyes on her for a while, without any idea how to respond. I actually still considered her the other woman because her transformation happened so quickly.
“Your sister?” I faltered, puzzled.
“My little sister, Sonya!” She looked at me impatiently, allowing me to read a very distressing message in her eyes. Not only did she believe I knew her stupid sister, but she also firmly believed her name was Sonya!
“Oh, you mean your… sister?” I faltered again and stirred uneasily on my stool because some vague memory in my swampy head emerged unexpectedly and worried me. Unfortunately, I lost it right away, and I had to squirm painfully for nearly a minute before I grasped the slippery bastard and realized what was so bothersome about it. The ghost with green eyes and sugar coating on her lips that I saw a few moments ago had the same name!
“You sure your sister’s name is Sonya?” I mumbled, confused, after putting two and two together.
I saw pity in Lara’s blue eyes as she stared at me in disbelief, and the pity was totally appropriate for my moronic question. “What do you mean, ‘are you sure’? Of course, I’m sure. She’s my sister! Well, do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you know where she is?” she almost cried.
I didn’t answer and slowly scratched my head because I definitely needed a few seconds to think. Eventually, I kept doing it for almost two minutes, realizing that I couldn’t even know for sure who I was! And to get out of the awkward situation, in the end, I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind, “She and I broke up last summer. It didn’t work out because she was only up for sex and didn’t want to hold hands and meet my mom and dad, you know. I haven’t seen her since.”
“Don’t fuck with me, please!” The blonde gave me a sour face. “Her life’s probably in danger; this is not a stupid game! Perhaps I should remind you that I still have your Colt in my pocket, which by the way, is already becoming quite annoying in its attempts to get into my ass!”
Since her words didn’t sound like a threat to me, I smiled softly and pictured my old iron pal—.45—having fun in the chick’s pants. I even imagined myself in his place for a moment. Nevertheless, eventually, I decided to take a more serious approach to Lara’s problem because it occurred to me that I might be able to make some money out of it. After all, I was a broken private investigator, and she was a potential client, which I desperately needed right now.
“Okay!” I smiled disarmingly and reassuringly tapped my fingers on the counter a few times. “The truth is, I’ve never actually met your sister. At least I have no memory of it. And I have no idea why you would think I know her!”
Instead of answering, the woman reached into her pocket and took out a crumpled piece of paper. Then she held it out to me. It was obviously a letter, and I wondered where the hell it came from. Everything this lady had on her back or butt was actually mine, and I couldn’t remember putting letters in my pants pockets! Anyway, I reluctantly took it and briefly read through it, but there wasn’t much to read anyway. There were just a few lines scratched with a blue pencil, whose meaning totally escaped my mind. At the bottom of it all, I recognized my name and address.
“Well, this is strange,” I murmured, surprised.
“It was the last thing I heard from her,” Lara explained. “Even before this letter, I suspected she had gotten into some trouble and mixed up with the wrong people, but at least she would send a few words every now and then, and I’d know she was okay. But then, all of a sudden, she stopped writing, and I didn’t hear from her for three months in a row! When I found this in the mailbox one morning, I was really worried and took the train from Cheyenne to look for her. Since you were my only clue, I came straight to you!”
I pursed my lips and wondered what I was supposed to say. I kind of felt embarrassed, not because I was unable to help the woman but because I couldn’t explain my connection to her sister. From where I stood, there was none, but the sister obviously disagreed, which was hard to argue with without her being here. On top of that, her claim wasn’t even the most terrible part of the entire situation! Having amnesia is actually a bitch—it’s probably the most unpleasant thing one could ever experience because it makes you question your own reality. For all I knew, the blonde might even tell me I was abducted by aliens, and I still couldn’t deny it!
Eventually, I just said nothing because I wanted to avoid the hurricane of uncomfortable questions that were to follow. Instead, I reached for my glass of club soda, but then I remembered it was empty. I also did it because I felt sick again, and weirdly enough, I suspected Lara’s Johnnie had something to do with it. Anyway, I had already emptied my cocktail glass too, and since there wasn’t anyone around to help me with another drink, I just had to stop in the middle of my gesture, unable to grab anything.
Lara followed with her eyes the pathetic ping-pong of my hand, and she obligingly pushed her glass toward me. I shuddered involuntarily before pushing it back. There was definitely something wrong between Johnnie Walker and me! After that, I swallowed four times to prevent anything in my stomach from rising up, and in the end, I said shivering, “I’m really sorry! I think I’ve never seen your sister after all.”
“But what about your name and address in the letter?” The woman refused to give up.
“Many people have my name and address, you know. I’m a local celebrity, and I give away tons of business cards and sign autographs in Saratoga Square every other Sunday. There are even fraudsters who pretend to be me!”
Here, I smiled softly because I was joking, obviously. However, my blonde companion failed to acknowledge my wittiness, and she clearly thought my joke was at least as flat and lifeless as the Great Salt Lake in the mountains of Utah. “It has to do with the weird situation I’ve found you in—you being cuffed to the radiator and everything!” she insisted.
“No, it doesn’t have to! As a matter of fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with it!” I tried to defend my point of view, even though I had no reasonable arguments.
“It doesn’t? Could you explain handcuffs to me then?”
I slowly cleared my throat, hoping to come up with something in the meantime. It was an empty effort, though. I couldn’t come up with anything plausible, even if I thought about it for a whole month.
After nearly half a minute of struggling, I resorted to saying the only bullshit I could come up with: “I suffer from a rare form of amnesia. Every morning I forget what I did the previous day because my brain kind of reboots. It doesn’t necessarily mean I did something unusual, like hanging out with your sister; it simply means I can’t remember. My fair guess here is that I experimented with cuffs.”
The woman kept staring at me without replying, and her eyes were full of all the pity she was capable of.
“It’s a very unfortunate disorder,” I tried to refine my imaginary condition, practically destroying the last bits of dignity I still had. “You should be more sympathetic to me!”
Instead of showing sympathy, Lara just grunted and rolled her eyes again. She was visibly pissed off, and I couldn’t even blame her. Probably, I would’ve been too if I were her.
“You’re a PI,” she said unexpectedly after a while. “I’ve looked you up!”
“Well, I already know that, no matter how strange it might seem to you,” I attempted to discourage her from going on.
“And I’ve read a lot of detective books too! You, guys, are always so sensitive when it comes to sharing information about your cases. I guess it’s the detective-client privilege or some other bullshit, but here’s an idea for you! What do you say if I buy your fucking case?”
I looked at her, genuinely surprised. She had surely read detective books—too many of them! At the same time, I was mildly flattered. I felt like a famous literary character, and it made me want to look even cooler in her eyes. I instinctively straightened up on my stool to meet Lara’s high expectations of me, and if my name were Umpay Mpaccanna—the Indian detective from the Absaroka tribe—the wind would’ve probably blown into my raven-black hair at that moment, and my restless white horse would’ve carried me through the wavering prairie grass toward my next case. Unfortunately, my name was Murphy Mellrow, and I didn’t even have a damn car, so I only sneezed unconvincingly and wiped my nose with a napkin.
“I can pay you very well!” Lara pushed harder, obviously guessing my weak spot. “If you help me find my sister, I’ll pay you handsomely!”
I glanced at her, surprised again. However, I was now also interested. Generally, I always had these miniature black holes on the sides of my pants, which people usually call pockets, and since she had already laid her offer on the table, it reminded me of how bottomless and hungry they always were.
“And what’s the amount of money you’re willing to invest or… risk losing?” I asked cunningly, leaving enough space for me to retreat if I needed to.
“Why would I lose any money?” she wanted to know.
“I have no idea yet. Shit always happens! And as I said, I don’t think I know your sister, so, naturally, I couldn’t know how deep she has sunk. She may not want to be found!”
“Well, in this case, the investment depends on how you charge your clients. Is your fee fixed or by the hour?”
“My initial fee is fixed, but the expenses aren’t,” I said vaguely.
“Which means what? What would the total be exactly?”
I puffed, uncertain. “In your situation, it’s hard to say because you clearly can’t give me sufficient information. The only thing we’ve got so far is a dodgy letter, which isn’t enough for me to calculate the variables and time required to complete your case.” I virtually renounced the whole idea of having a fee at all.
The woman stared at me for a while, disappointed, and I could literally sense her extremely low opinion of me. Since she soon realized this kind of talk wasn’t going to get us anywhere, she reached into her pocket to take out a fat wad of money. It was probably four or five grand, and just like the moment when she pulled out the letter, I wondered how it happened to be there in the first place. Her hands skillfully split the wad in two, and then she turned her eyes back to me.
At first, I didn’t react because I still felt dizzy, but when she pushed one of the halves toward me, I sensed I was quickly losing control. I hadn’t seen so many bills put together except in the movies, and the thought of me having them made my gaze sticky and my eyes round like chocolate donuts. At the same time, I felt extremely nervous, and I didn’t know what to do with my trembling hands.
“Consider it a down payment,” Lara smirked, visibly happy with my reaction. “You’ll get just as much after finding my sister!”
To stop myself from drooling hideously, I secretly swallowed and then asked her if she had a picture of her sister. She said nothing and tucked her fingers into her other pocket, and there it was: magic worked again! Suddenly she had a photo in her hand, and I slowly reached out to take it. Then I looked at it theatrically.
I saw four figures on the piece of paper—two men and two women—lined up next to each other, standing on something that looked like a small pier. Behind them was an old three-story structure and a shack, and right next to it—a small parking lot full of garbage. I didn’t recognize the area, but it looked pretty much like East Downtown—maybe the port.
The two men were pretty much alike: they were dark-skinned and vile-looking, with an abundance of shiny jewelry on their fingers, wrists, and necks, as well as many scars and tattoos on their skin. One of the guys was slightly shorter and thickset, and the other was leaner and kind of bald—I wasn’t actually sure because his head was shaved. They both seemed to be Haitians or other Caribbean small-time thugs.
The chicks, on the other hand—they stood in the middle—were drastically different from each other. One of them was a platinum-haired “beauty” with silicone lips, a brainless look on her face, and huge breasts; compared to them, Lara’s looked like those of a newly bloomed teenager. The bombshell wore a fitted blouse bursting at the seams and white pants that were even tighter. However, the weirdest thing about her was that she had brutally stained her pants on the butt—she had two rusty spots on each hip, clearly visible even in a front-view photograph. And it was weird because the pants were so white and she was posing for a picture!
The other woman was a whole different story. She was neither slutty-looking nor exceptionally beautiful. She had very nice features, in fact, but they seemed rather ordinary—green eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, a small face with a straight nose, and thin lips. In the photo, she was sulking as if she had just fought with someone—presumably her boyfriend, who stood on her left side with his arms hanging awkwardly as if he were afraid to touch her. He was the baldy, and in his pose, he looked just like a British high-school student from before the sexual revolution. Unlike him, the other guy had grabbed his chick’s hip from behind so greedily that I was sure he had left a mark on her skin!
Since I felt a bit uneasy about asking Lara which one her sister was, I assumed she was the slutty whore with the stained pants, but just to be sure, I mumbled vaguely, “Who are the others?”
“The slutty whore with the stained pants is some fucking redneck from Wichita. My sister mentioned her once or twice when she was still writing,” Lara explained. When she said that, I looked at her, weirdly, because I found it strange for a person from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to ridicule someone from Wichita, Kansas, for being a redneck. “As for the black scumbags,” she continued afterward, “I know almost nothing about them. I suspect they’re some Puerto Rican shitheads—one of those who, if they got shot in the middle of the day among a crowd of eyewitnesses, the police would say it was a suicide. They probably have my sister involved in their game—drug dealing or something—and now she can’t get away.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, expressing my doubts about it and putting the photo on the counter near my empty glass and the letter. “She doesn’t seem held against her will!”
Lara just shrugged.
“And how did it all begin?” I asked her while trying not to look too interested in the deal. I hadn’t actually decided to make a case of it yet, but at the same time, I didn’t want to lose the money. I was particularly unsure because the whole thing seemed too dangerous, and the missing woman could be anywhere on the continent right now. There was absolutely no guarantee that she was still here.
“It all started about half a year ago,” Lara explained readily. “Sonya has always been nerdy and rarely went out to meet friends. In fact, I have always doubted whether she has ever had real friends at all! And it’s not that Cheyenne is such an exciting place to have fun, but we do have a couple of nightclubs where you can smoke pot and relax, as well as a fair and a rodeo festival. Anyway, she has never been into any of it. She stayed home all day, reading stupid books, listening to music, and watching weird European movies. I was so worried about her that six months ago, I made her visit our relatives in Orlando for a week or two. I just wanted her to chill out, and I had no idea she’d never come back! I guess it was then and there when she met these fucking scumbags. After three weeks without any news from her, she called to say she wasn’t coming home. Knowing what a loner she was, I didn’t believe it at first, but eventually, that’s what happened—she never came back!”
I thoughtfully looked down at the picture when Lara stopped talking. The green-eyed woman on it looked exactly like the ghost from my hallucination a while ago—the one with the dried sugar syrup on her lips. I found it frustrating. I was sure I had never seen the chick before, but on the other hand, the fact that I had imagined her so precisely remained. Another disturbing detail was that I correctly “imagined” her name too. Was it possible then that our paths crossed, but I had been too wasted to remember? Or even worse, maybe I had been too wasted to realize I had gotten into some trouble?
Since I was unable to confirm or deny any of these things, after a minute, I decided to stop dwelling on suspicions, at least for now, and turn my attention back to Lara instead. She had just finished her Johnnie, and before I realized what she was doing, she somehow managed to get the attention of the zombie who served the bar and order two more glasses of whiskey for us. I promptly tried to say “no” but my reactions were too slow, and the bartender disappeared before I could do it. It was to celebrate our newly formed business relationships, Lara explained to me when the jerk returned with our drinks a minute later. I didn’t remember agreeing to any relationships yet, but my “partner” obviously did, so it was decided—I was having a Johnnie to celebrate them. And it was a very big mistake as it turned out because very soon we were going to be asked to leave because of it.
Actually, the accident would have been quite funny under any other circumstances had it not happened to me. By the time it happened, the club atmosphere had grown pretty wild, which was weird for a place called Midnight Ride. It was also weird because of the time of our visit—around noon. Anyway, we had already done two rounds of whiskey, and I really hoped they would eventually cure my hangover when the party moved on to the next step. The music suddenly boomed even louder than before, and the lights started pulsating with the rhythm like in a discotheque. Shortly after that, a whole flock of striptease girls of any skin and hair color—all wearing only a pair of thongs—came out of nowhere and started dancing between the customers. Some even climbed onto the counter, zigzagging between the glasses and exhilarating the people who had drinks there. I was not among them; I was not exhilarated at all!
Feeling worried, I looked around because things were obviously spinning out of control now, and it all promised to become an unbridled Byzantine orgy very soon. The problem was that the flashing lights and loud music completely neutralized the soothing effect of alcohol on me, and my stomach rebelled again. Probably because of the impact of low-frequency sound on my inner ear, my head spun hideously, and when my eyes lost focus every now and then, everything in the bar was wildly turning around me. I felt like Saturn—having a crown of rings that desperately tried to stay in orbit without bumping into one another or me.
“You know, it’s too noisy in here,” I said to Lara at some point, crying into her right ear. “I’m not feeling well! What do you say we call it a night, huh?”
“What did you say?” She turned her head to yell into my left ear.
“I said I’m not—” I started repeating myself, but then I suddenly stopped because I realized I was talking to an ass and almost kissing it. We had parted our heads only for a moment, but as it turned out, it was enough for a stripper to wedge her butt between us. At this moment, the owner of the ass was shaking it so vigorously to attract my attention and earn a few honest bucks that the whole counter was vibrating. I felt really awkward and tried to turn my head to the other side, but unfortunately, there was another stripper there who was trying to win the attention of the guy next to me.
I waited a couple of seconds for the girls to give up, but it didn’t happen. And since I desperately wanted to regain contact with Lara and persuade her to leave with me, I squeezed a bill from the pile of money she had given me half an hour ago. It was a Grant. I was aware it was too much, but I didn’t have anything smaller and I had to act quickly. I cautiously tucked the valuable piece of paper into the stripper’s thongs, as proper behavior in such a situation demanded, and I waited for her to scram. It was really, really stupid of me! I should have known better. The terrible result of my action was that my reckless gesture fired the imagination of the other girls, and before I knew it, the whole party was all over me, expecting exactly the same treatment!
I looked around, startled and desperate. So many female genitals piled together I hadn’t seen in my wildest and wettest dreams, and I had no idea what to do. They were everywhere, dancing for my money! I was so shocked and panicked so much that I tried to splash club soda into my face. Naturally, I had better chances of putting out the fire in the sun by pissing on it than doing this, because my glass was still empty. On top of it, the first stripper read my gesture completely wrong, and she believed fortune had smiled on her a second time. She literally sat on my head, hoping for the next round of fifty bucks.
What followed next actually happened so quickly that I didn’t even have enough time to anticipate it before it happened. A powerful pair of butt cheeks clenched on my face and shook my head so violently that I lost all sense of orientation. The floor and the ceiling twirled around me and melted into one, and I got the feeling I was riding a roller coaster while I was dead drunk. As a result, a fearful chain reaction initiated in my stomach and quickly gained speed; I felt very weak and lost my self-control; my body shook uncontrollably, and then… then came the moment when we were asked to leave.
Outside on the sidewalk, the fierce August sun greeted us at full power, and the terrible heat blasted at us from all sides. I desperately opened my mouth to take a breath, but unfortunately, there was no oxygen in the air—only fire and brimstone. It made me feel sorry I was still alive, and I definitely wished I hadn’t gotten up in the morning and spent the entire day in bed instead.
After a few steps down the street, Lara abruptly turned around, furious, and asked me, “Seriously? You do that every time you visit a striptease club?”
I shrugged. What could I say to her? It was a terrible accident for both of us—the stripper and me—but it was all in the past now, and there was nothing I could do about it. Clearly pissed off by the fact that the saloon manager took half of my advance payment as compensation for the physical and psychological damage I had caused, my new employer reached her hand into her pocket—probably to take inventory and update her financial status—but instead of money, she actually took a business card out. It’s needless to say that I had no memory of putting it there, and neither did Lara, obviously. Highly surprised, we fixed our eyes on the piece of paper, but there wasn’t much on it. It simply read, “Inspector Greensboro—Twelfth Precinct, Gang and Narcotics Division.”
After a few moments, we almost simultaneously raised our eyes and looked at each other rather stupidly. To be honest, I should say I was probably much more convincing about it, and on top of that, Lara didn’t even try to compete.
“Don’t tell me,” she just grunted, furious. “You know nothing about this, right?”
©2022 S.T. Fargo
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