by Devon Monk and the Deadline Dames
How did the Deadline Dames meet? Well, let’s just say…
Rumors are easy. It’s the truth that takes a bottle of rye to get down straight. I’d planned to give the tall dark and dangerous on the other side of my desk another line of bunk for the rags to print. But the reporter was a real right gee, if you overlooked the loosened tie, bloodshot eyes, and sleeves rolled up like he knew he’d have to wash his hands once he left this place. One drink more for either of us, and gin-fueled rumors was all I’d be singing. He knew that, I knew that.
So I poured us both another drink.
He left his glass on the table and leaned back. The shadow from the overhead fan wiped light off his face like a dirty handkerchief mopping up sweat. He was gunning for a story and planned to get it no matter how much booze I poured down his throat.
“The Dames,” he said, laying on a smile bright as a wedding-day diamond. “Tell me how it started.”
Chump didn’t know what he was asking for.
“You know the gin joint down on Thirteenth?”
“Hair of the Demon?” He dug in his pocket, pulled out a pad of paper and pencil, but stayed back there in the shadows. Not that it mattered. Shadows wouldn’t keep him safe from what he was about to hear.
“That’s the one. Owner’s a tall, cool drink of water, goes by the name of Sweet Shot Elliott.”
He frowned. “Don’t they say she walked into town, a dagger strapped to her thigh and no past left behind her? Like she fell out of the sky with vengeance in her eyes.”
“They say a lot of things.” I smiled. “What they can prove is that she runs a tight joint, doesn’t put up with goons or bindle stiffs. And there isn’t a man walking she can’t drink under the table.”
He made with the notes so I kept on with the talking.
“It was a Friday night, and I was nursing a drink.”
“Let’s just say it had been a long day. There were a couple gowed-up big mouths across the room who liked to rough up girls but didn’t have the brains not to brag about it. Sweet Shot was about ready to put that dagger of hers through one of the lug’s eyes. Thought she’d do it too. She’s done it before.”
“Stabbed out a man’s eye?”
I shrugged. “With Sweet Shot, losing an eye is her polite warning.
“Then I noticed the boozers weren’t talking anymore and Sweet Shot was still behind the bar. Tiger Lili, the burn-scarred darb who lives outside town in that junkyard and can fix anything she puts her hands on, was holding court on the thugs. She had her katana across the throat of one rube, and Susie aimed at the other sap’s head.”
“Calls the gun ‘Susie’–when you can get her to talk at all. You won’t see her coming unless she wants you to. And when she gets there, you won’t feel a thing…unless she wants you to. Goddamn surgeon with that shotgun of hers.”
The man’s pencil flew across the page.
“So the rubes weren’t talking. They caught on quick that they were lucky to be breathing. The whole damn joint went silent. So quiet that you could almost make out what Kiss of Death Kessler was whispering to herself over in the corner by the stage.”
“Crazy Kessler? Sweet as pie,and mad as a loon?”
I give him a stare, thinking that over. “You ever been close enough to hear what she’s whispering?”
“Some people say she’s crazy, whispering to herself like she’s got all these secrets and can’t keep them in her brain. But when the room is quiet and the acoustics are just right–and you’ve put away one too many–you just might hear someone or something answering her.”
“Did something answer her that night?”
“Let’s just say this story ain’t done.
“So I’m trying to listen in on Kiss of Death Kessler when I hear Tiger Lili say something real quiet. Whatever she said, it got the bruisers standing up like their dogs were on fire. They marched out the back door without so much as a peep, Tiger Lili ghost-quiet behind them.”
I settled a little deeper into my chair. “Pretty soon, she came back in, but I never saw those mugs again.”
“You think she killed them?”
I took another sip of my drink, letting the burn clear my head and the reporter make up his own damn mind.
“Doesn’t matter what I think. What I saw was Tiger Lili stroll back to her table where a bottle–on the house–waited for her.
“Place was crowding up. Three drink minimum, gun and sword pulled, possible fresh, dead bodies out back, and there wasn’t room to exhale. It wasn’t the booze they were packing in for, even though the booze could make your sweet old granny kick a hole through a barn door.
“They were all coming for the singer, Angel Eyes Andrews. Pipes like honey and a body made for sin. You’d know her if you saw her–always wears a gardenia in her hair, and a dress made to be taken off. All the men were falling over themselves to buy her champagne cocktails and anything else she wanted. Every one of them hoping they’d be the one she went home with.”
“She goes home with the customers?”
“Not any more.”
“But she did?”
“Who was the lucky Bo?”
I took a sip of my gin. It tasted like pine and tears. “Maybe I’ll show you his headstone someday.”
“Murder?” He leaned forward, eyes shining with more than alcohol. The idea of blood, chaos, sex, and revenge lit him up hot. Typical newshawk.
“You know the above-the-folds in this town,” I said. “Angel Eyes shook that murder rap.”
He nodded. “Yeah, but I heard she got help. Baby-face Vincent stepped in. Then the prosecutor turned up dead–without a mark on him–and no one else would take the case.”
“Doctors said the prosecutor had a heart attack,” I said.
“Doctors weren’t the ones trying to prove Baby-face’s enforcer, Black Heart Jen, was behind it,” he said.
I shrugged. “You want to ask Baby-face or Black Heart about it, you go right ahead.”
He paled and licked his lips, eyes darting like he expected Baby-face and Black Heart to stroll out from the corners of my office.
There were a lot of rumors about gorgeous Baby-face Vincent and Black Heart Jen. Vincent was a mob boss who looked the same today as she did a hundred years ago. I’d seen the pictures. Woman never aged. She once told me that was one of the benefits of immortality. Another was hiring enforcers who did more than play tough.
Rumor mill had it pretty Black Heart Jen was demon possessed.
Sometimes even the rumors got it right.
“So the torch singer was about to go on,” he said, sitting back in the safety of his shadows.
“That gin shack didn’t have room for one more slag, and the girls couldn’t keep up with the orders. I’m tipping the frail to ankle me over a bottle of rye and next I know it, someone’s sitting across the table from me. I look up to tell her to scram and realize this doll ain’t from around here.
“Eyes carved from the heart of a glacier and a smile that could make a preacher weep, she put a gun on the table and leveled me a cold look I could feel down to what was left of my soul. Told me there was some information she needed. I did my one plus one, added the accent, carried the cool, divided the deadly.”
“Told me her name was Mahoney. Double O Mahoney. You do the math. Then she slapped down a pile of greenbacks to show me she wasn’t interested in wasting time.
“I pocketed the dough and asked her what she wanted to know. Woman had dark things on her mind. Strange, dark things.”
I paused, took another drink. Stared out the window at the watery yellow street lights stabbing holes through the night air. Somewhere, far off, a siren headed out on a call that was already too late to answer.
The chair creaked as he leaned forward, picked up his glass, and took a gulp. No rattle of ice cubes. We were hours past ice cubes. Still, he wanted to break ink on this so bad, he was willing to wait me out, or drink me out. I liked that about him. But not enough to shoot the works.
“What sort of things on her mind?” he asked.
“You ever heard of Keri the Carver?”
“Who hasn’t? Hell of a chef.”
Most people thought her nickname came from free time spent in the kitchens, but anyone who has seen her work on demons knows better. Downunder steel has a language all of its own and Keri the Carver speaks every deadly word of it.
“There isn’t enough liquor left in that bottle to get me to tell you any more of what Double O Mahoney wanted to know. Our deal was for one story.”
He polished off half the glass and cradled it in his left hand, his right free for notes. He flipped a couple pages and kept that pencil scratching. I had to wonder if he’d be able to read his writing in the morning.
“So spill,” he said.
“Here’s the meat: we were all sitting there when hell broke loose.”
“Sure. Let’s call it a brawl.” Sometimes I forgot how little people really knew about this town and that bar. Tall dark and dangerous on the other side of my desk wouldn’t believe the truth if he heard it.
So I told it to him.
“A door to hell opened up and all sorts of trouble boys came pouring out into the bar. At the same time the front door slammed open. And there stood Baby-face Vincent, Black Heart Jen, and Keri the Carver.
“One look between the nine dames in that joint and an unspoken understanding was reached. Those bastards from hell never knew what hit them. Let’s just say the bodies we dragged out back weren’t human, but they were very much dead.”
He’d stopped writing. “Door to hell?”
When I didn’t say anything more, he tried again.
“And after the fight?”
“That’s when things got interesting. Once the joint cleared out, Sweet Shot Elliott poured drinks. All of us had stayed behind. It wasn’t often you ran into dames who were into the same…career.
“We jawed for awhile. I don’t remember who mentioned Agent M. first, but when we made that we all had ties to her, it was cinched.”
He flipped back through his notes. “Who’s Agent M?”
I smiled. “Let’s just say she takes care of things on her side of the track, and we take care of things on ours.”
He shook his head. “That the story, then?”
“That’s the story.”
“No one’s going to believe it.”
“Just tell them Monk the Maker was there when it happened. And the Dames don’t tell lies for a living.” I raised my glass. “To the truth.”
“To the truth.”
We drank down the last hard hooch of the night. Then the reporter rambled out, shaking his head. I had no idea what his writeup would look like in the morning. Frankly, I didn’t care.
Like I said before, rumors are easy. It’s the truth that’s hardest to believe.