“Welcome to SmackyBurger, how can I help you?”
Her smile was cold and plastic, the kind of smile you saw in deserted online games. The greeting came out in a single, memorized flood of sound, and her right hand was poised over the simple pushbutton register. I pulled out my badge, and her smile faltered for a moment.
“Taylor Petraglia,” I said. “Private eye. I need to speak to your manager.”
Her eyes darted between the ID and my face. Then she half-turned to look behind her. “I don’t know where-”
“Yes you do, honey,” I said. “Just point me to Mister Stringer’s office and you can get back to shelling out the burgers.”
She looked towards a door behind the counter, and I started walking. “But you can’t-”
I held up the badge again. “Yes I can, sweetheart,” I said. Technically she was right. I wasn’t a cop, and I didn’t have a warrant. But the day I stop being able to intimidate teenagers is the day I give it all up and move down to Phoenix. I pushed open the door.
The man in the office was in his exhausted middle age. He looked up at me without any sense of surprise, and I can forgive him for that. I’m a private eye. It’s not good for us to be too shocking or conspicuous. Makes the whole business harder if you’re some lumbering giant in a greatcoat. I wore an off the rack suit that would have done for any low-level drone in any company. It was the standard uniform almost everywhere I went, and it granted me entry more often than not.
“What do you want?” he asked. Even in his question there was barely a hint of curiosity or anger.
“Mister Stringer,” I said, pulling the badge out again. “I’m Taylor Patraglia, private investigator. I’d like to ask you a few questions.” I pulled the other chair in the room over to the desk.
“What is this about?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, sitting down and pulling out my notebook, “it seems that your ex-wife has run off with a half million dollars from her employers, and is currently nowhere to be found. I thought I’d talk to you a little and see what we can find out.”
He shook his head. “Annetta,” he muttered. “Sounds like the kind of thing she’d do.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
He nodded. “Yeah. She was… impulsive.” He said the word like it tasted bad. “She had this dream. To buy a boat, sail around the world.”
“I see,” I said. As far as dreams went, it wasn’t bad. It certainly wasn’t the kind of dream an ex-wife of a burger shop manager could fulfill on her own. “Did you think she was serious?”
He shook his head. “She dreamed about a lot of things,” he said. “Opening a restaurant of her own, going to space, running away with her sister’s husband…” He grimaced. “She got that one, anyway.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “This sister’s husband – what can you tell me about him?”
Stinger leaned back in his chair and started rolling a pencil between his fingers. “I hated him the moment I laid eyes on him,” he said. “Of course, he was boning my wife at the time, so I shouldn’t be surprised.” He sighed. “When I came home and found them, he came at me like it was his house I’d broken into. Like I’d been the one screwing his wife. He yelled and screamed, and then he decked me.” He looked up at me. “Ever been beaten senseless by a naked man, Mister Patraglia?”
“Can’t say I have, no.” Not entirely true, but I didn’t want to derail the conversation.
“By the time I came to, they were both gone. I wouldn’t hear from her again until she filed for the divorce.” The pencil snapped in his grip and he looked almost surprised to see it there. He dropped the pieces and they rolled off his desk. “I didn’t contest it.”
“I can’t blame you.” I clicked the pen. “What’s the name of the sister’s husband?”
“Mark Malloy,” he said, and I could hear the anger in his voice. Before I could ask, he added, “Taller than me, built. Brown hair and a some kind of tribal tattoo down his side.” He smirked. “And bruised fists.”
I jotted the description down in my notebook. “And do you have any idea where your wife and Malloy might be headed?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to know. The less I know of them, the better off I’ll be.”
I snapped the notebook closed and stood up. “Thanks,” I said. “If I have any more questions, I’ll give you a call.”
Stringer nodded, but didn’t stand. “Good luck,” he said. He opened the drawer, took out another pencil and started spinning it in his fingers. “You can find your way out.”
Outside the restaurant, and away from the haunted expressions of the counter-workers, I watched the place for a little while. Something didn’t feel right here, and I figured it would be in my best interest to find out why. I texted a request to the local cops for info on Malloy, but didn’t figure on hearing back for a while. If I did get info on him, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be what Stringer had supplied.
Stringer was stringing me along. That, as many a would-be criminal knew, was a bad move.
Leo winced as the sunlight hit his eyes and he flung up his arm. He had told Marc to keep the curtains closed. It was summer. It was six A.M. On a Saturday. He looked over at the other bed in the room and groaned. The sheets were on the floor, and the pillow had been balled up at the foot of the bed, which was empty. He was already awake, somehow.
He groaned as he sat up and he rubbed his face. Six A.M. If his memory was clear – and there was no guarantee of this – he’d gotten about two hours of sleep, at least once he managed to block out the snores. He stood on wobbly feet, picked up his robe from the floor and tugged it on as he shuffled through the dirty laundry, used towels and general detritus that his roommate had left behind.
Three months, that’s how long that bastard had been there. Three months. Leo had needed a roommate when Wayne left for California, and this was the best he could find. A sullen, uncooperative slob who had been, as near as Leo could tell, out of work for more than a year, but still somehow managed to pay the rent. At least he had so far. The future, as they say, was uncertain.
The kitchen was a graveyard of cereal bowls and pizza boxes. When Leo had tried to throw them away, Marc threw a fit, saying he was saving them for “a project.” Some bizarre thing he found online that he was going to get around to once he had enough large pie boxes stacked up. In the meantime, the cockroach population had been throwing a big old party in the kitchen and Leo was afraid to walk anywhere in his bare feet.
Leo could hear the TV in the other room. He listened for a moment and groaned loudly enough to be heard in the other room. The shopping channel. What else? He made a derisive scoffing noise, the one his mother always used to make when she saw him reading comic books as a kid. A moment later, the TV became a little bit louder.
There was no clean place in that kitchen. A lump of dried, rock-hard oatmeal was stuck to the fridge, cementing the note that Leo had left asking Marc to, “do a little cleaning sometime, you know, when you get around to it.” Leo tried to take the note down, but only got a corner. The rest was there for good. He pulled open the fridge. Inside there was nothing but a selection of ten half-used bottles of chili sauce, an open jar of mayonnaise, and the same tupperware dinner that Marc had brought with him the night he moved in. Leo let the door slam closed.
He turned on the faucet and started emptying the sink in search of a coffee cup. Bowls with soup still in them, dried-up remnants of spaghetti encased in gelled instant tomato sauce, a mug with a quarter inch of slowly solidifying orange juice. The soup can full of soggy cigarette butts and broken toothpicks. Forks caked with egg yolk and half a can of tuna dripping into the drain.
Fine. If that’s how it had to be, he’d go to the SmackyBurger around the corner. Their coffee was crap, overpriced and ate through the lining of his stomach, but it was still better than breaking down and washing one of Marc’s dishes. He went back to his room and rooted through the closet until he found the most reasonably clean pair of jeans he owned and tugged them on. He thought about changing his shirt, but what the hell – SmackyBurger.
He grabbed his wallet and keys and headed for the front door, which was through the living room. From behind the sofa, all he could see was the TV – a bottle-blonde woman was showing off some kind of fake diamond bracelet for only three easy payments of $19.95 – and a pair of feet, with immaculately trimmed toenails, jutting out past one of the armrests. Leo stood there for a moment, watching Marc (at least his feet) and watching the TV. He cleared his throat.
A hand emerged from the sofa with a remote and turned up the volume.
Leo strode to the door, went outside and slammed it behind him. He didn’t lock it. Maybe if he was lucky a crazed psychopath would break in and kill Marc while Leo got coffee.
Fifteen minutes later, and Leo’s hopes were once again dashed. The door was still unlocked, and Marc was no longer on the sofa, but Leo knew he was still there. He just knew it. The TV was still on, blaring something about 24-karat gold-plated electrum medical alert bracelets. The smell of fresh cigarette smoke hung in the air, and he could hear the shower running, accompanied by off-key singing.
Leo took his coffee into the kitchen. Casually, without making a big production of it, he reached over to the faucet, delicately took the hot water knob, and gave it a sharp turn. A moment later, the singing was cut off by a howl that came from the shower. It was all the triumph he needed.
Marc exploded out of the bathroom, soaking wet with shampoo still in his hair, and Leo thought – not for the first time – that it would be better if Marc were ugly. It would be so much more fitting if Marc were ugly. Really ugly. With chest zits and an unshavable face, maybe a unibrow and hair that stayed greasy no matter what you did to it. A chest that sagged like a deflated balloon and a beer belly that defied gravity, all covered with enough hair to make a Wookie proud.
But no. Marc had to be gorgeous. Leo had never wanted to sleep with another man; he had thought about it, sure, especially when the captain of his high school swim team came out after they won Regionals and had suggested that if Marc was interested in being the captain next year then he might want to be a little more open-minded. But he could understand why some men might, at least after looking at Marc. The man looked like underwear models aspired to look. He had chiseled features that even looked good when he was furious – like now – and had the kind of smooth, hairless, muscular body that would have made Renaissance sculptors murder each other. Even wet and disheveled and furious, Mark exuded a kind of otherworldly beauty that marked him out as different from ordinary people like Leo. It was the perfection of the human form that would no doubt one day provide Marc with a future of luxury and decadence.
He probably does porn, Leo thought. Gay porn. Lots of it.
Marc glared at him, which was hard to do with shampoo running into his eyes. He stood in the doorway for a moment, then went back to the shower and slammed the door. The water started up again.
Leo waited for a count of thirty and then turned the cold water knob. This time there was no shout – more like the sound of someone clenching their jaw and trying not to shout. He chuckled to himself and sipped the coffee. It tasted like it had been recycled from last night’s leavings, but it was better than nothing.
He went out into the living room and changed the channel from shopping to history. Marc hated this history channel. Probably because he could learn something, Leo thought. Today was their all-Hitler all the time program. Good enough.
Leo looked around the chaotic mess that was their living room – the unfinished projects, the dirty dishes, posters of optical illusions hung on the wall with tape that was constantly unsticking itself. Empty tissue boxes and wads. The place smelled like old feet and old underwear, and somehow Leo could see the smell hanging in the air. The place had never looked like that before, Leo was sure.
Saturday morning, he thought. He studied the room.
What to do, what to do….?
This was written from the writing prompt in the Writing Excuses Podcast, episode 5.38 with John Scalzi.
“Welcome to SmackyBurger, sorry we’re closed!”
Erik looked up at the giant, garish sign that loomed above the restaurant, Smacky the clown projecting his grin across the landscape like a beacon through the darkness to the hungry and the lazy. He leaned out the window. “You’re what?”
“Closed, sir, thank you for coming to SmackyBurger and have a nice night!”
“Look, kid – it’s nine o’clock. You’re a twenty-four hour restaurant. Quit screwing around. I want a double burger with extra pickles, and -”
“We’re out of pickles, sir, sorry. Can’t be helped, have a nice night!”
Erik rubbed his eyes. “Out of pickles?”
“Yessir. Very busy today. We’re getting killed here OH GOD, sorry! Sorry! Not killed, nobody’s killed, everything’s fine.” An audible whimper came through the speaker’s distortion, followed by a breathy, “Have a nice night!”
“Christ almighty. Look, I’m coming in there, and I want to talk to your manager.” He put the car in gear.
“I mean, no, sir, sorry, no. No, you don’t need to do that. Everything…. Everything’s fine. No manager. Fine. Everything.”
“All right, then.” Erik put the car back in park and started ticking off items on his fingers. “A double burger with as many pickles as you can scrounge up, a superfry chicken combo, and a large cola. Got that?”
“Right. Double burger with pi…” The kid took a shuddering breath. “With pickles. And a super fry chicken gun. COMBO! Chicken combo, sorry, sorry, oh god, I didn’t mean it!”
Erik blinked. Gun? He shook his head. The night shift was never the place for fast-food’s rising stars, but this kid was obviously on something. Maybe he’d come back and talk to the manager in the morning. He turned back to the microphone. “Large cola.”
“Large cola. Right. That’ll be… Um… Th-th-that…”
“$12.95, I’ve done this before. Jesus.” He put his car in gear and pulled forward, barely hearing the speaker tell him to come around.
He was muttering to himself by the time he got to the window, a habit his wife hated and which was the reason they never went driving together if they could help it. He put the car in park, leaned his arm out the window and tried to set his face in an expression of cool disdain.
There was no one at the window.
Erik waited for a count of ten and honked his horn. After another ten count he slapped the car door and yelled. “Hey! There’s a customer here!”
He was just about to get out of the car when the kid appeared at the window. Nineteen, maybe twenty, good looking except that he was sweating and pale and his eyes actually seemed to be shaking in their sockets. His nametag brightly proclaimed that his name was Phil, and that he was a proud member of the Smacky Family. The bag he held was trembling, a grease stain spreading across the bottom.
“It’s about time,” Erik said. He handed the kid a ten and a five. “I’m definitely coming back to talk to your manager tomorrow.”
“Yessir,” Phil said, in a voice that was almost too quiet to hear over the car’s idling engine. He handed the bag through the window, and as the order was passed over, Phil managed to lock his gaze with Erik’s. The kid’s jaw muscles were trembling. He looked meaningfully down at the bag and then back up at Erik. Then at the bag again.
“Gimme,” Erik said, tugging at the bag. Phil held on a moment longer, his eyes wider now and darting between Erik’s face and the bag. With another pull, Erik got the order in the car. “Jesus Christ, kid, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
Phil’s shoulders sagged. He took the money, and his head turned ever so slightly to look over his left shoulder. He hit the keys on the register with slow deliberation. When the drawer shot out, he winced. He gathered up the change and held it out for Erik.
“You know,” Erik said as he dropped the coins into a cupholder, “you might want to re-think your career choices. The high-stakes world of SmackyBurger isn’t working for you.” He smirked, proud of himself, and pulled away.
He pulled into a parking space and turned on the dome light. Kid probably forgot the damn pickles, he thought. A quick sniff and a check – the pickles were there. Everything else seemed fine. He popped the straw into the cola and took a big sip as he checked the receipt. Double burger, chicken combo, cola, help he has a gun….
Erik read that again, then shook his head and crumpled up the receipt. Definitely talking to the manager. He pulled out of the parking space, turned right on the parkway and headed home.
Behind him, the bright light of the Smacky sign went dark.