The Lonely 70 percent

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
A man who hates the ocean visiting a coastal California town meets a woman from his dark past. You know that kind of cliche.

Admittedly a sophomore effort but I'm proud of it. Certainly could use a better editor than myself.

Submitted: October 04, 2014

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Submitted: October 04, 2014

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Some polite advice: “If you're gonna be touching a fella there you ought to buy him a drink first.”

The kid let go, leaving my wallet where I'd put it. My right back pocket.

I gave him a good looking over. A pick pocket surfer punk who spent a lot of money on clothing that didn't do much to cover his frame, or maybe his parents had spent the money. Wife beater shirt, board shorts, sandals on his feet all with a lot of embossed tags. Implication: the manufacturer's cheap cotton and child labor was somehow better than the competitors.

A pair of Ray Ban sunglasses hung off the “collar” of his shirt like a hood ornament. He was bigger than me in just about every proportion that counted. He didn't look mean. Just like a really big kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar.

The amber liquid in my glass tasted bitter. Heavy crystal hitting mahogany was inaudible over the commotion around us.

Tonight's special guests were playing music inspired by the European gypsy tradition. The band wore outfits to match their instruments: acoustic guitar, bass, tambourine, violin, some accordion tossed in. Three men in dark vests and driver caps. Two ladies in bodices and frilled out skirts.

“They grow pick pockets awfully big in California don't they?”

The kid seemed to have some trouble developing words. Getting busted hadn't really crossed his mind until just now.

“Leave.”

I had other things to worry about. The kid disappeared into the crowd turned standing room only. Everyone who was anyone was there. Save the fire marshal who had put the “Max Capacity 250” sign over the exit.

Everything was tinted blue. Sort of the Blue Martin Club's shtick. All the lighting fixtures hung in blue lamp shades. By all accounts the place was high class. I suspected a bottle of luminol in a few of the corners was good for a health code violation.

“Ladies and gentlemen” announced the MC “the moment you've all been waiting for. She's entertained for Middle Eastern princes and oriental rajas. Now she performs with the Frac Tank Ensemble. Ladies and gentlemen, the profit of doom herself, Miss Cassandra.”

Applause.

A dancer with olive skin and even less clothing then my surfer. A soft strap of leather pinned across her chest. Strands of silk hooked in at the waist, wisps of multicolored smoke around a shapely pair of legs. Coins and bells hanging off her jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, and anklets. A mid-drift exposed save for a navel covered by an emerald the color of her eyes.

At least that was how I imagined it. Frankly, the damn light made it damn impossible to tell.

She let her dark curls of hair fall loose as she moved waist gyrating in tandem with the violins and guitar. Her arms held up crossed above her head out of the way.

It was her alright.

Claims about Rajas and Princes were mere stage exaggerations. Ex-GF to master thief then to a Russian Mobster being more to the truth.

Profit of Doom — Check.

A waitress approached me empty tray in arm. Name tag on a for tips tight UCSC t-shirt.

Go Slugs.

Taking my downed soldier her mouth formed “Can I get you anything else?”

A gesture of two fingers drew her close.

“Whatever Miss Cassandra is drinking is on me.” I told her.

The waitress didn't laugh but she wanted to. The face in front of her being the reflection of a handsome man in a broken mirror.

“Tell her it’s from an old friend.” A big tip convincing her.

Three more sets followed.

It was getting hard to keep an eye on Miss Cassandra. Lots of people all moving: weaving in out, coming forward, backing off. Cat calls and hoots. A group of girls emerged from the crowd and tried to dance along. Ms. Cassandra stopped: critiqued them, taught them. Nearby the gals' group of frat boy escorts high fived one another.

A break — Musicians with a frosty beers.

A gap in the crowd, all the patrons heading for the bar or out to a smoke. Miss Cassandra with a glass of pink foam. The waitress pointing over her shoulder at me.

Miss Cassandra gave a this happens all the time look, flattery all over her face.

And then she saw me tipping another empty glass in her direction.

Her face crumbled.

Cassandra wasn’t on stage when the waitress came to give me a napkin. Blue ink print: “Casablanca Hotel on Beach Street Room 114 I'll be done here at 1.” The waitress then passed me the key. The look on the waitress’ face more surprised than mine.

***

The Blue Martin Club didn't put up much of a front. A sign for the long gone Santa Cruz Hotel still blinked out the second floor window. Damp people milled around front holding their smokes. Some people pinched cigarettes between the index and middle fingers. Others held something else index and thumb.

Street light suspended in maritime fog. No moon visible, no stars. When I was a kid I saw commercials about how California was a paradise in the sun. Someone at the tourism bureau owed me an apology.

I cut through the parking structure across the street and onto Pacific. Downtown's main drag. A pair of movie marquees flashed. One just above my head, another a ways down the street. A one way road flanked by strips of building, first floor shops with the second and third floor offices.

Shops running towards high class, catering to the tourist crowd and the few locals that could actually afford to really live in the area. All the architecture was new. Frequent flooding linked to semi-frequent earthquakes kept the architecture fresh.

Bumper stickers stuck on structures and in windows as hip decorations. “Einstein failed math and you slackers never let him forget it”. “Republicans for Voldemort”. “Keep Santa Cruz weird”. They’d stolen that last one from Austin.

The streets of Santa Cruz California are busy every night. The weather doesn’t matter.

Dirty disheveled people huddled in vestibules, stoops, or in any shielded space they could find. Bum male and Bum female argued over an emaciated pit pup. At least I thought they argued over the dog. It was hard to tell. Maybe they didn't even know.

On the corner of Soquel a man with a label stripped can and a hand painted sign. “No excuses, just broke”.

That would make one hell of a bumper sticker I told myself.

High property values, low valued people — Pure California mentality. Apathetic compassionate — homeless gotta live somewhere. Santa Cruz was the perfect place for me. A vagrant with a healthy number of millions rotting in some Caiman Island bank account.

Hands in pockets. Zero eye contact. “Sorry pal, I don't have any change”. Walk the path of least resistance.

I heard the bleats of a saxophone from the next corner down. The player had a scraggly beard and a lot of gray hair under a tattered newsboy cap. Boney fingers running down the brass body of the instrument. Instrument case open to catch loose coins and the occasional bill. It was gonna be a slow night for the guy. He wasn't very good.

Mostly I noticed for the strangeness of it. Buskers always called it a day when the sun went down. The cops would sweep up the ones that didn’t know when to put it up.

Ocean Street intercepts Pacific and exits downtown. Curving around a hill of Victorian style houses, Ocean meets with Beach Street near the pier. Not a thru street the sign says. Monterrey Bay gets in the way a tad.

Waves crested shattering like glass on the sands. Sea gulls squawked, and Sea lions barked somewhere out in the mists.

The boardwalk was in front of me as I stepped onto Beach Street. Ferris wheel and roller coaster sitting dark and silent. People still drifted on and off the pier. Late night is the best time for fishing and drinking.

The Casablanca hotel was just a little way down Beach Street. A place with two different signs. One for the Hotel and one for the restaurant. The Hotel sign reading “Casablanca”. The restaurant's “Casa Blanca”.

Oops.

I saw the ocean for the first time six years ago. My entire life before and since people have continued to tell me of how the ocean is this magical beautiful place.

I’ve never agreed. I see the sea for what it is. Seventy percent of the world's surface cold, empty, and dark. Its few scattered inhabitants terrified. Waiting to eat or be eaten.

Time to kill.

Casa Blanca advertised fine dining. I ordered a steak, garlic potatoes, and the soup. On a clear day or night one would have been able to see the beach from the bay windows. I just saw the fog.

Six years ago I was some twerp computer hacker contracted out by shady groups to do shady things. Fun but the anti-capitalists never equaled much in the cash money department.

Until one day I was approached by a man. He called himself Risk. It was a good name. A man with a plan. High risk but high reward. Boredom, curiosity, and a student loan officer ready to hire hit men got me to take the job.

It was at my first face-to-face meeting with Risk that I’d met her. The Pelican Cafe in Miami. My first time seeing the Ocean.

Risk was in his late fifties looking like his late thirties and dressed so that you could slit a wrist off his shirt cuffs. Suit and tie on the seashore. Miss Cassandra showed as bikini clad arm candy he referred to simply as Moll.

The mark was a man named David Kulaski, an Eastern European gangster. Polish by way of Georgia. Risk's idea: to rob one of the richest men to never pay a dime in taxes anywhere ever.

The take was all of it.

The crew was five people; Risk, Moll, myself, a crooked Interpol agent Risk called Angel, and an unhinged strong arm Rook. We'd split the take evenly five ways. Why be greedy? A fifth was more than any of us ever needed.

The rule was no real names. Everything done in aliases.

Admittedly my work was a snooze. Break a couple email accounts, manage some networks, and cover some tracks. I could have done it anywhere with my computer and a DSL connection, but with Risk footing the bill why not see the world a little bit.

London, Vienna, Paris, Lisbon I got the whirlwind tour of Europe. I also got tight with Risk. For a grafter he told a lot of true-esque stories. Maybe he was looking for a successor or he was just that confident. I was a young kid with not much going on and an ear to listen with.

Long story short, the crime was a smashing success.

Kulaski got snuffed by his pissed off gangster buddies. No risk of retribution from him. All of us walked away rich enough to never see each other again… almost.

I had made the occasional spot check over the years. I had some colleagues in Chicago that were good at that sort of thing. A sad reality of the digital age. No one has secrets anymore. But seeing Moll that night was a fluke. An events poster on a bulletin board had brought me to the Blue Martin.

I finished my dinner, paid my bill, cleaned the steak knife with a cloth napkin, and then pocketed it for later. A serrated blade with a decent point.

There was a liquor store near the corner of Beach and Ocean that killed some more time. I got a bottle of Captain Morgan and two litters of Coke. The hotel would have ice.

114 was three star casual and fairly clean. A pink/red floral bed motif. Mini-fridge in the corner. A queen bed facing the TV. Some mirrors. Hotel logic: mirrors make the rooms feel bigger plus it is harder to do naughty things like petty larceny when you have to look yourself in the mirror doing it. Bed stand bibles help the latter as well.

Ms. Cassandra had been traveling light. A single suit case resting on the floor. Of course I searched it. Conservative clothing, nothing by way of identification.

1:15 in the morning the door opened. Bare legs between boots and trench coat. Black curls snug behind her head. Arms crossed, head cocked to the side. All Bravado.

“Baby Face. It’s been a long time.” Door closing behind her. “You look like shit. Oh, and where is your buddy Risk? I'd love to talk to him.”

She didn't seem to have a gun handy but looked ready to shoot me.

“I left him with you, so I figured you knew.”

“Let's say that I do, but tell me anyway.”

The truth, nothing to be cagey about: “Risk is dead. A pimple faced gas station attendant in Little America Wyoming planted him. Pulling a stick up at the tender age of sixty five.” I crossed myself like a catholic. “Must have invested. Would you like a drink?”

She b-lined for the beverage oozing vamp in every step. Walking on her hips. Her knees hardly bending in order to emphasize the sway.

Cup in hand she told me that was hard to believe. “Serves him right. Losing all my money.”

“Your money?”
“The bastard ditched me in Des Moines six months after you all split. He took my share of the profits with him.”

“Well, your first mistake was going to Des Moines with him.” I said helpfully.

She made sure I took my drink first. Dryly: “yeah, I sort of figured that out. Thanks.”

“It's true.” I assured her. “A white male shot outside the Little America Gas Station in Little America, Wyoming. Later identified as Wendell Smith of Rock Spring. Supposed to have been a laid off machinist. Really Grant Durkee, almost master criminal. Never made by police. Of course, I'm the only person who knows that last part.”

She took a spot on the corner of the bed where she looked deep into her plastic cup. “So he told you his real name.” She placed it to her lips. “He never trusted me that much.” Then drank it down in one gulp.

“No, I found out for myself. Durkee, Risk, never someone I completely trusted.”

“I almost did, once.” She commented without hardly a note of regret. “You were smart Baby face. You've been keeping track of things.” The drink had a bitter effect on her face. Maybe not so much the drink as everything else.

“Angel is locked up in a Turkish prison. Ten to fifteen years so I doubt she'll leave alive. Unless her money saves her, hasn't yet. Rook is in a New England insane asylum. He kicked the steroids and went off the deep end anyway. And you're a burlesque dancer touring with a small time folk band. We're all that's left.”

“Then you know their names too.”

“I do.”

“And mine?”

I shook my head. “Not unless Miss Cassandra Profit of Doom is your real name.”

“It's not, but a girl’s got to make a living. And how do you keep track of me without a name?  Dare I ask?”

“I haven't been keeping track of you.”

“Then explain tonight.”

“Tonight was a fluke.”

It was her turn to shake her head. “Sorry Baby Face, but I don't believe you.”

“I wouldn't if I were you.” I admitted.

“Are you going to try?”

“To convince you, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“I don't think I can, but maybe I just trusted you more than I trusted them. Maybe it was just easier not to know where you were. Maybe, I hoped that one day you'd tell me your name yourself.”

“That’s pretty fucking corny. And a lot of maybes.”

Uncrossing her legs less than carefully she stood for a refill. Mixing this one herself: “I always like you. Used to think you were kind of cute. You just didn't have enough balls for me. You'd of never tried to take me away from Risk. Risk may have been two faced but you were, after all, baby faced. I'm not trying to be cruel here. It is just the truth. Lackey isn't exactly a turn on.”

“He was the boss. For all his shit he did have style.”

We toasted to Grant Durkee’s style.

 “What would you do if Risk was here right now?” She asked.

The cup of fell from her hands. Me pushing her onto the bed. Yanking the sash from her coat exposing her dancer’s uniform beneath.

She told me her real name was Korena.

I already knew that.

***

3 AM, Korena/Cassandra/Moll asleep. I left a note: a place on the west shore of Tahoe, a date, Meet me.

Beach Street twists up the tide worn hill to become West Cliff. Soft white sand inviting to beach combers shifting to hard jagged rocks. A levee against raging waters. Lots Guard rails and warning signs. Six people had been killed climbing those rocks. I couldn't see the water just three feet over and fifteen feet or so down at its height. I could only hear the breaking waves.

Fog to spitting rain. No people on the street. All quiet on the western front.

I was cursing myself for not bringing a car.

In gap between the street lights, ten yards of darkness apart. He came up behind me silently. He had been hiding on one of the stairwells meant for surfers and kayaks to gain access to those sweet curls forming off the cliff walls. I don't know how he knew I'd walk that way, but he’d always been a clever bastard.

The cold metal of his gun dug into my spine.

“Hello Risk.”

I didn't have to look. I just knew. I always knew. I dropped my hands from my pockets.

“Good evening Baby Face.”

Death himself couldn’t have had a better voice.

“I half expected to see you tonight. Killed in a gas station robbery.” I scoffed. “That was pretty sloppy. When I left you, you were a millionaire a couple hundred times over. If you'd blown that much money, gotten that desperate, I would have found out.”

“You made me kid. Rules are for a reason. And Rules entail consequences. As fond as I am, and believe me I still am, I can't let you live.”

My knees were shaking, but I shrugged my shoulders all the same. “Well, at least Moll gave me a good send off. She didn’t know your real name, did she?”

“We've been living happily under false names for years. I fear your curiosity and frankness with her this evening has sealed her fate as well. Fortunately, sentimentality isn't a weakness I suffer from. As they say, curiosity killed the cat.”

My heart was racing, but I was still trying to play it off all.

“I never much liked cats anyway Grant.”

A click — the hammer pulling back.

The ocean surged below us.

“Now, now,” he reproached, “we both know that that isn't true.”

“You're losing it too fast Risk. The gas station stunt didn't trick me and now you want to shoot me execution style on a high class residential street near a popular tourist district. Police don't like it when people get knocked off in these sorts of places. Costs the right people the wrong kind of money. The police will be looking hard for a shooter.”

“The first shot is always a car engine backfiring. I have a boat waiting down in the rocks. I toss your body in the water. They'll find you in the morning, maybe. Depends on the tides. By then I'll be long gone.”

“How many people have you killed in your life Grant?”

I could tell the use of his first name rankled.

“One David Kulaski, you remember him, and one Wendell Smith. Both by proxy, but a man my age needs to remember to try new things.”

“It's true what they say Grant. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.”

Twisting away—Seconds into hours.

BANG.

Tinnitus — a bullet hurling straight past my ear. Going out over the cliffs and into nowhere.

The knife falling from my sleeve.

A Serrated edge raking over ribs. The gun falling from feeble boney fingers. Landing useless on the pavement.

Risk pitched forward. I caught him, held him, kept him up straight against gravity.

A dying late night busker. A Wendell Smith. A Risk. An almost master criminal almost never made. A reflection of a handsome man in a shattered mirror. All these things and much less. A single definition to best fit him: a broken old man terrified of anyone knowing who he actually was.

The body, the knife, my blood covered clothes, all of it went straight into the bay. Fingers of white foam licked up pulling it all down into the deep nothingness.

That is the thing about the abyss. You can never fill it. It only gets deeper.

Its column only rises.

The girl, of course, I never saw again. But I guess that goes without saying.


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