Due to reasons the next installment of “Hornets” will be a week out. This week for Fiction Friday I will instead be posting the opening to the first version of a Fantasy-Noir story I have written called Foxtail. This is actually very different than what the story eventually became. I am considering reworking the plot of this for something else.
Foxtail (Original Version)
by Desmond Manny
BECAUSE it clearly pained her to be in my shabby office on shabby business, I gave her points for determination. After she opened her mouth I took them back.
Though it was Friday there had been no business for the last five days, so I was still in my office. I read a little and tried to show the two pigeons outside my office window that there was not a care to be had. I had just finished up a lucrative job two weeks previously for the son of a man who liked a glass or two in the seedier places a little too much. The son had made good and worried about his reputation. So good he was on track to becoming a senator and he didn’t want to be seen in the kind of places he knew his father frequented and feared the old man would hurt his chances with scandal. The son was grown and out of the house but he had two younger siblings including an unmarried sister, with no mother. I found dad, and the irate bookies he owed money to, and steered him home and he’d cried the whole way about how great his son was and how he’d get himself straight. Who was I to say it wouldn’t stick. The net result was that the son’s gratitude meant there were one or two fewer wolves scratching at my door. I’d even given in to the extravagance of a new hat. Two weeks on though and the wallet I kept on my left hip was feeling a little light so there I was in my office a little later than is usual for a Friday.
The lady had opened my door while I was just getting ready to read today’s front page for the fifth time and stood on the threshold with the door held open on the tip of her index finger which was covered in something suede that matched the coat, hat, and bag. She looked right at me then let her eyes drift around the place. Door still open, one foot pointed over the threshold, the other turned so she could pivot away nice and easy if she decided to scarper. No commitment.
I immediately got an unpleasant vibe from her bearing. It took only a second to place it. Once I had worked a blackmail case for a man and in the course of it discovered he was worse than any blackmailer, which is saying something. The woman at the door looked nothing like him, but damned if she didn’t remind me of him without even saying a word.
Her clothes were very new but she wasn’t. Pursing her lips while she disapprovingly took in my business digs didn’t help her any. Everything about her seemed compressed, like she’d lived a lifetime or two keeping it all in and the result had left her pinched and puckered and severe. She was dressed in suede as far as gloves, boots and coat went, all beige. A hat the same color looked screwed onto the iron gray hairs on the top of her head. She had probably been a blonde at some point. Thankfully she wore a long skirt and at her throat was a scarf knotted into a shape vaguely flower like that I also mentally thanked her for. The overall impression was of a well-heeled witch. Given the vigor that the moneyed set had taken to magick after the events of the war it was entirely possible she was just that. Meanness came off her in waves like heat off pavement.
After they’d made a circuit her eyes, watery and gray but with a sharp intelligence in them, came back to me. I said to her, raising my voice a little, “You have to catch it in the morning light. Maybe you’re in the wrong place? There’s a man who repairs shoes one floor up.”
It got me glower but I didn’t care. Some people’s money just isn’t worth the effort of manners. Besides, if I ended up working for her it would maybe be the only shot I got in.
“My name is Eunice Carstairs. You come on recommendation.”
They were her first words to me and they made me grit my teeth. Her voice had a rasp in it like sawing through bone, her tone was of the superiority of the noblesse. I did not like this woman. My wallet could crumble to dust, I did not want to work for her.
And she still hadn’t stepped into my office. I didn’t respond. If she couldn’t commit then I didn’t have to either. I was positive her legs would give out first.
When she realized that I wasn’t going to respond I was sure she would turn on her heels and go at my impertinence. Instead it seemed to light something in her and on later reflection I couldn’t escape the feeling that she had made up her mind to hire me at that moment, just because she was shrewd enough to realized I did not want to work for her. Recognizing her for what she was made me the man for the job.
She came on in.
In front of my desk are a pair of red upholstered chairs, none too comfortable. She got herself installed in one and placed her purse on the floor and put both hands in her lap. I got her eyes full force now and though age had dulled their color there was a lot of steel left in them. Steel, maliciousness, and a sense of privilege.
“You come on recommendation as I said. The offices of a Mr. Sapiro suggested that you would be better suited to my situation.”
Mr. Dudley Sapiro, who I insisted on calling Dud as a matter of course, was a private eye with a big office on 1st Avenue, a staff of four bright and energetic operatives, and a secretary named Liz Shaw who will from time to time send work my way that isn’t a good fit for Sapiro’s agency. Liz does this on her own authority and Sapiro knows that which is either a testament to the traction the cool redhead has due to her beauty, or his trust in her judgement. What that means is that usually if there is a hint of the magickal about a case Sapiro either downright rejects it, or if it doesn’t get as far as his veto Liz shunts it off to me. It’s been a good lookout in the past, it’s also been a rotten way to treat someone Liz claims is a friend.
“That’s a big agency. You must have thought you needed the cushion. I can recommend a couple of larger agencies myself.” It was just short of asking her to scram but had more cream on it.
“I’m looking for skill. What I need is someone who can handle themselves and doesn’t let themselves get cowed by a touch of the fantastic. The woman at Sapiros assured me you had a lot of experience with the fantastic. You look old enough to have been in the war. You were in the war?”
“I was. Paris, when the bad came down. And later Germany.”
She nodded and it was the first thing she had approved of since she came into my office.
“Not the Pacific then? No, I suppose not. But you’ve seen things, you were there when the Veil parted? My son was also in the war, in the Pacific.”
I gave her nothing. My stomach was starting to hurt. She wasn’t leaving.
“My son came back a different man.” she saw my look and waved one bony hand at me. “Yes, I know you all came back different men. I’m not a fool, I know what war has done to many of you young men. But it isn’t like that with Patrick. He is not one of those gimlet-eyed husks who find they can not shake the weight of what they saw and did on the battlefield. Instead he has that look you have. The look of a man searching for meaning.”