I needed a drink.
Golden-hued, wrapping it’s legs around a couple of ice cubes to calm the storm inside the glass. I needed a warm fire. A blanket to hunker under. A tufted leather chair to sink into. A jazz record to calm my nerves and someone to freshen the drink when the jazz wasn’t doing the trick. I needed a nap. A greasy breakfast when I woke up, and an entire day to piss away watching 80’s movies on AMC.
What I had was a six foot Frenchman blocking my exit, a five foot master of ceremonies pointing a Napoleon complex and a .45, a sopping wet tuxedo, and a sandwich bag that held a few inches of water and a betta fish named Pantone.
“Fish. Now.” The little fella stretched out his other hand, the one that wasn’t holding the heater.
It was the fish that had gotten me into this pickle. The fish was gonna get me out.
It all started a few days earlier when I was pissing the day away watching 80’s movies on AMC.
I heard a hard knock at the door of my apartment, just as Adventures in Babysitting was getting particularly adventurous. At first I thought it might be the cops. I’d been illegally jaywalking all over the city, somebody somewhere had to have taken notice. Plus only a week before I was wrapped up in a conspiracy that involved a plot to assassinate the turkey that had received the Presidential pardon on Thanksgiving. So there was that too.
“Bailey? Are you in there?” It was a woman’s voice.
“In a hot second!” I muted Elizabeth Shue and hopped off the futon, spilling the tub of arugula that was resting on my chest all over the cold wood floor. I like to recline in a luxurious fashion and shovel copious amounts of the peppery roughage into my gaping maw by the fistful. I kicked off my slippers like a Rockette, Charlestoned out of my mesh shorts emblazoned with the Michigan State University logo, twisted out of the hooded sweatshirt, river-danced out of my drawers, showered, shaved, threw on a three-piece suit then removed the jacket and rolled up the shirt sleeves to look more casual before opening the door.
“Oh, ‘Stine, it’s just you.” It was just Kristine. She’s my pal. She’s not like, a femme fatale or anything.
“What the hell, Bailey?! I’ve been standing out here for like a half hour!”
“I had to primp! Just in case you were the usual femme fatale who needs my help with some sort of mystery that I totally solve and then blog about. How was I supposed to know it was you?”
“Wow. Where do I begin. I texted you last night around six to tell you I was dropping by this morning. I called you as I was leaving my apartment to walk over here. I buzzed your apartment number on the call box. You said ‘Who is it?’ I said very clearly ‘It’s Kristine.’ And then you buzzed me in, and made me wait a half hour outside your door after walking up the six flights of stairs in your elevator-less ass-building. And here we are.”
“You’re a sharp dame, ‘Stine. Come on in.”
“Oh, there’s arugula all over the floor. That’s a surprise.”
“Please keep in mind that I have an honorary PhD in the science of deduction from the University of Don’t Take That Sarcastic Tone With Me Young Lady State. It’s part of the Liberal Arts program.”
“I hate tomatoes.”
“What can I do for you ‘Stine?”
She brushed a few leafy greens off the futon and plopped her self down, sticking her hands, red from the cold, back in her coat pockets.
“Mr. Pantone.” She said looking down, all melancholy. “He’s missing.”
Mr. Pantone is Kristine’s fish. She loves that fish more than anything. More than German soccer. More than boat shoes. More than the Weather Channel. More than hating tomatoes.
“Gone? Gone, as in resting with the… never mind.”
“No. Gone, as in missing. But I appreciate you resisting the pun.”
“Jesus. I’m sorry, kid. Really, I am. You did the right thing coming to me though.”
“Well, yeah. It’s your fault he’s missing.”
It felt like someone had yanked a cellist’s arm, dragging the bow haphazardly across the strings.
“Wha? Me?! How is this my fault?”
“Wow. Where do I begin. I asked you to feed him when I went home for Thanksgiving. You guaranteed me that you would forget to do it unless I reminded you constantly. You said to my face that it’d be easier to just feed him to a cat. So now, I’m back, and he’s gone.”
“You know I was just joking about that cat thing.” I said, pouring us both a glass of bourbon. “Why would I provide a cat with a tasty treat like Pantone? I’m against cats. I don’t approve of them at all.” I handed her the glass of bourbon.
“Well, all evidence points to you. I’m not drinking that. It’s 10am.”
“You’ve hooked the wrong fish here, ‘Stine.” I said, downing my glass.” I’m a red herring I tell ya.”
“Okay, I thought we weren’t doing puns here.”
“You can’t deny that there’s something fishy going on here.” I finished the glass I had handed to her. “It stinks like a fish market on a balmy summer afternoon. And I’m gonna swim upstream until I’ve found the sharktopuss that’s finned this fishnapping on me. Trout.”
“Whatever. Just get my fish back.” She lifted herself off the futon and started moving back towards the door.
“See what I did there? The word ‘finned.’ I changed ‘pinned’ to ‘finned.’ Somebody finned it in on me. Yeah. You get it.”
“I just sit in my room, staring at that empty bowl, watching as the bubble nest he always makes in the corner get gradually smaller. Eventually it’ll be gone. Just like him. I’m lost without him.”
She handed me a picture of Pantone.
“He was so happy when I took that.”
“I’m gonna get your fish back ‘Stine. I promise.” Then she just sort of stood there by the door, staring at a memory. I didn’t want to shoo her out the door while she was having such an emotionally compromising moment. Instead, I decided to Shue her out. I un-muted Adventures in Babysitting and started eating arugula off the floor.
The next day I took a six hour lunch to poke around Kristine’s apartment while she was at work. I let myself in with the set of keys she had given me to get in to feed Pantone while she was home for Thanksgiving.
“Ennnnhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” The door whined open with the sound of a disappointed nerd after his favorite B-list character was left out of a comic book film adaptation.
I opened the fridge and grabbed the gallon of Tuscan Milk. I didn’t know where she kept her glasses, so I took a few sips straight from the jug. I made my way into her bedroom. I took a good hard look at Pantone’s bowl while I took a good hard drag of Tuscan Milk. It was exactly the way I had left it after feeding him last, except, no Pantone. The multi-colored rocks were still distributed evenly at the bottom of the bowl, and his lounging leaf was still suctioned in the same spot on the bowl wall. No sign of a struggle.
Then I noticed the bubble nest. It had gotten smaller. But not too much smaller. I took out a pad and paper to do some simple arithmetic to determine when Pantone had dissapeared, based on the radioactive half-life of a betta fish’s bubble nest, the barometric pressure in the room, the room’s average temperature, and the change in square milimeters between the time I last fed him and now, represented by the Greek letter Delta in the equation which I thence calculated.
Based on my calculations, Pantone had dissapeared the previous night around nine o’clock. Kristine said she’d texted me at six.
She wasn’t telling me the whole truth.
I grabbed the little tube thingy full of Pantone food. It was definitely lighter than when I had handled it last, by half a miligram, at least. When I turned it over, I found a label on the bottom with a bar code. Stinky’s Fish Pond.
I’d said it right from the beginning. This thing stinked.
Seriously, it like, really stinked.
Using the internet, I tracked down Stinky’s Fish Pond. It was a stinky hole of an aquatic pet store in a stinky little part of town just south of the Meat Packing District, called the Fish Packing District, which was just north of the smaller Vegetable Packing District, and just west of the even smaller Tofu and Various Soy Products Packing District. It was the same part of town where the Sticky Bandits arrived on a truck full of fish on ice after they flew the coop in Home Alone 2.
It took me like three hours to get there. I had to transfer a few times from numbered trains to lettered trains, to a train I swear had Prince’s symbol on the locomotive. At a certain point I wound up in Queens, which just… sucked.
Finally I made my way to the Fish Packing District. I walked up the stairs from the subway station and drew a big breath of ice cold air in through my crusty nostrils. That smell in the air wasn’t freedom. It was fish.
I spotted the wooden sign for Stinky’s Fish Pond down a damp alley, hanging by a couple chains from a fire escape. I stepped lightly around some puddles gathered in cracks between the uneven cobble stones. I half expected an alligator to jump out of one of them at any given moment. I stepped in front of the foggy glass door that was the entrance to Stinky’s, and a fat drip of water from the fire escape hit the top of my head, sending a cold, shitty chill down my my spine. I yanked at the door handle a few times before noticing the giant sign next to it instructing me to PUSH. The door opened with a jingle.
Stinky’s was not an inviting place. It was a narrow space to begin with, divided into narrower columns by long, rickety shelves that looked like they’d been assembled out of rusty erector set pieces. The shelves were so close together I had to walk sideways between them. Stacked on the shelves were hundreds of mason jars, filled with barely enough murky water to hold God knows how many different kinds of ugly tropical fish.
At the very back of the store was a funny looking guy sitting behind a warped wood counter. He looked like Steve Buscemi, just picture him. A cigarette dangled out of the corner of his mouth. A tube of ash that was half the size of the cigarette dangled from the glowing tip. He was peering through the thick lenses of his glasses at a paperback with browned pages, the odd side folded around so the back touched the cover. He ignored me as I approached. I hovered my hand over the courtesy bell on the counter, then moved my hand over to the nearly-full plastic ashtray directly next to the bell. I picked the thing up and held it under the cigarette, tapping the ash loose with the plastic edge. He finally looked up when I set it back down on the counter.
His eyes rolled downward, and he sniffed.
“Well, I bathe regularly, but whaddya want pal, I sit in a gyaddam room full a fish all day.”
“What? No. I meant is your name Stinky. Is this your place.”
“Stinky’s dead. I’m ‘is brudder, Sump.”
“Sump. Like the pump?”
“Nah, like sumpin else. What kin I do for ya.”
“I’m looking for a fish.”
“Them we got in spades.”
“I can see that. But I’m looking for one that’s gone missing. Recognize this little fella?” I slid the picture of Pantone across the counter.
“Never seen him before,” he said, barely glancing at the photo.
“Why don’t you take another look.”
“Look pal, I never seen the fish before. Why you hastlin me anyways?”
I set the cylinder of fish food down on the counter next to the snapshot of Mr. P.
“You can find that brand in any pet store in Manhattan.”
I flipped the cylinder over, revealing the Stinky’s bar code.
“That don’t mean nothin.” I picked it back up to put it back in my coat pocket, and a few pieces of the food fell out from the still-open holes in the top.
“What the hell?” He said looking at the pieces. “Hold it. Gimme that back.” He popped open the top and sprinkled a few pieces into his hand and held them up to the lens of his spectacles.
“Slap a dolphin,” he said, slowly looking back up at me.
“This ain’t fish food.”
“Well what is it?”
“They’re crustacean steroids.”
“Yeah. We sell this crap to fancy seafood restaurants so they can bulk up their lobsters before chuckin um in the pot.”
My hand shot towards his lapels like a striking Cobra Commander and I jerked his body over the counter and got in real close to his face so he felt like really uncomfortable.
“Why the shit would you put crustacean steroids into a bottle meant for a sweet and innocent little betta fish named Pantone?!”
“Easy buddy! It wasn’t me that switched the food. Look, that stuff ain’t legal, if the FDA found out I was hawking Croids out of my shop they’d sink me for good.”
“Croids? What is that, a portmanteau of crustacean and steroids?”
“The hells a- whad you say?”
“Portmanteau. It’s two words mashed together.”
“I guess?” I let go of his collar.
“Well if it wasn’t you that switched the grub than who the hell was it?”
“Ah, shhhhhhhit,” said Sump, slumping back down onto the stool behind the counter. “Spilk.”
“He’s just a kid. He works for me. He delivers the Croids to the restaurants for me on his Razor scooter.”
“I hate Razor scooters. Where can I find young Spilk so I can ask him a few questions?”
Just then I heard the bell above the door jingle.
“Yeah, I know I’m late. What about it?” said Spilk, turning his body to the side to make his way through the narrow columns of fish jars.
“Shut up, Spilk. This young man here wants to ask you a few questions about some fish food you sold, the answers of which I am admittedly a bit curious about myself.”
“What, he dudn’t like how it tastes?” He snickered to himself. What a little shit this kid was. He looked like the long lost fourth Jonas brother, the ugly one they locked in the attic, but with a Justin Bieber haircut. He made his way to the counter, dumping his backpack on top of it as he looked back at me. He pointed at the tube of fish food that stood on the counter right next to where I was resting my hand.
“You know pal, the label says ‘Fish Food’ not ‘Douche Food.’”
I extended my index finger, knocking over the tube. A few pieces of the Croids spilled out onto the counter. He looked down at them, then back at me, then he made a dash for the door. He didn’t turn to the side, just tried to run straight through. His shoulders started knocking jars off the shelves.
He was right in the middle of the column of shelves. I was about to go in after him, but decided to just give the shelf to his right a good yank. It tumbled over, knocking into the others like dominoes, fish jars raining down.
“Are you fuckin’ serious?!” I heard Sump scream behind me, girlishly. “You’re gonna pay for all that!”
“No I’m not.”
“I’m callin the cops.”
“Sure, call um. Before you know it this place’ll be crawling with FDA agents who’ll be quite interested in your little Croid operation, don’t you think?”
That shut him up. I walked over to the angled-over shelves. They didn’t fall all the way over, the place was too narrow, but Spilk was pinned tight between two of them. I walked slowly and menacingly towards him. He was trapped real good, looking up at me through the shelves like prison bars.
“Not so Raven now, are ya Kid Bopz? Now, what was that you were saying about ‘Douche Food?’”
“The hell are you, a cop or something?”
“I’m a private investigative journalist.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m lookin for a fish. Name’s Mr. Pantone.” I held up the picture of Pantone.
“Never heard of him.”
I saw a particularly ugly piranha flapping in a puddle next to my foot. I grabbed it and held it up to his neck.
“Hey, easy with that thing man,” said Sump. “Those little bastards are vicious.”
“Hear that, Spilk?,” I growled in my best Christian Bale as Batman voice. “Vicious.”
“You don’t have the guts!”
“No?” I held the fish to his eye. It snapped its little jaws, catching hold of a couple of Spilk’s eyelashes.
“Awrightawright I’ll talk!”
“Spill it, Bieber. And don’t leave anything out!”
“Okay. Some big fella wit a thick French accent come in a few weeks ago and paid me to swap the blond chick’s fish grub with the Croids.”
“You’re telling me he paid you to specifically spike my friends fish food?”
“I ain’t sayin nuttin else.”
“What’s that flesh eating river demon?” I said holding the snapping piranha up to my ear. “You say Jonas Bieber’s nose looks particularly succulent?” Then I pointed it back at his flared nostrils.
“Awright! He told me he had plans for the betta. Big plans. And then he said if I was ever interested in making a little extra cash off some fish-on-fish action, to go to a certain address. He gave me a password for the door.”
“Fish-on-Fish action? Why, you sick little armpit!”
“What? No, not like, fish… doing it. Ew. I’m talkin bout high-stakes underground fish fighting. You ain’t got no idea how deep this thing goes, man.”
“Yeah, that always seems to be the case. Now gimme an address.”
“Lick my ass!”
I let the piranha nip at his earlobe.
“Awrightawrightawright! Three blocks south, two east. End of the alley behind La Coquille, the seafood restaurant.”
“I’m not sayin another word to you.”
“Dude, do you just keep forgetting that I’ve got a deadly river fish pointed right at your haircut? Now give me that password, or I let this scaly little hell spawn eat your Nickelodeon-music-video-watchin eyes right out of your baby-baby-baby face.”
The puddle of water from the broken fish jars turned even yellower.
“Password?” said a pair of mean-looking eyes through a rectangular peep hole set into a rusted steal door.
“Bruce sent me.”
The eyes went away as a piece of metal slid back into place over the peep hole. I heard a rough couple of clangs before the huge door began to slide open.
“Bienvenue, monsieur.” Biggest Frenchman I’ve ever seen. “Zis way pleez.”
He led me down a long brick corridor. We rounded a corner and I stepped onto the landing at the top of a metal grate stairway. I looked down into a huge room. About 30 or so white cloth table tops orbited like electrons around the gigantic fish-tank nucleus in the center of the room, with extremely well-dressed patrons orbiting each table, a cocktail in each of their hands, sort of like orbiting their mouths, in a way, I guess. In the back of the room opposite me was a stage holding up a six-piece jazz band, and dammit, they were all wearing nearly the exact same tux as me, with white double-breasted dinner jackets. My bow tie had a paisley print, but still, dammit. I thought about going home and changing, but then I caught the eye of the exquisite chanteuse in the sparkly white dress, elbow-length gloves and impossible curls. She gripped the back of the microphone like she was about to try and make out with it, and closed her eyes as she began singing Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine.
Classy place. My kind of place. Too bad I had to tear it to smithereens.
I walked down the stairs slowly, stylishly, with the fingers of my left hand tucked lightly into the pocket of my dinner jacket, firing an eyebrow at any of the patrons who happened to look my way. Along with the waiters, there were plenty of big fellas with lumps under there shoulders patrolling the floor. The maitre d’ showed me to a small table against the wall. I sat down and looked around. Two tables ahead of me sat Elliot Spitzer, six hookers, and Kathleen Parker. Over my shoulder I distinctly heard the voice of Alec Baldwin singing happy birthday to his daughter, who when I looked back was blowing out the candles on a honey glazed ham. At the table next to me was A-Rod and Madonna. They both ordered double-steroid cocktails from the waitress, who then made her way over to me. She handed me a menu which I handed right back.
“Old Fashioned. Bulleit Bourbon. ‘F ya got it.”
“Aren’t you a little young for an old fashioned?” she said writing it down.
“Well, I’m a little old for a Shirley Temple,” I lied. She giggled though, so it worked.
“Seriously though, I’m going to need to see your ID.”
“You take bets on illegal fish-fighting, but you wont serve underage.”
“Want your drink or not?”
I removed my awesome Star Trek wallet from the inside pocket of my dinner jacket and presented my ID. She winked when she handed it back, and waltzed like a pro on four inch stilettos over to the bar. I snapped back to reality after watching her walk away. I needed to come up with a plan of action, even though I had no idea where Pantone was or how I’d get my hands on him or how I could sneak him out of here. I really hadn’t thought any of this through at all. I just got really excited about the prospect of wearing my tux and spent like five hours in front of my disguise station making my self look like Indiana Jones in the first scene of Temple of Doom. That was fun.
The waitress returned with my cocktail, and put it directly into my hand.
“Any dinner specials tonight?” I asked her after downing half my drink.
“Do it again,” I said setting the empty glass back on her tray. “Depends on what.”
“On who loses. Eyes on the water, flounder.” I was about to try and start a conversation about how great a movie The Little Mermaid is, but she walked back to the bar with my empty glass. The singer of the band stopped singing and began to speak.
“Ladies and gentleman, your master of ceremonies, Le Pousse!”
Two big fellas attached a plank to the giant water tank, and lifted up a tiny man wearing a coat tail tux with a dark red cummerbund. His face was painted white, with red circles on his cheeks. Atop his head was a sparkly fez. He looked like a portrait of Jonbenet Ramsey whithering away in an attic. He wore an expression of tortured enthusiasm.
“Ladeez and jentlemen, madames et monsieurs, damen und heren. Welcome… to Poisson de Guerre!”
A cacophony of golf claps, buttery laughter, haughty hoots and murmurs of “Here here” ensued.
“Such an extravagant bit of entertainment we have in store for you tonight. Tonight, we welcome back to our waters a very old friend, but we also welcome a newcomer. A bit of fresh blood in the water, so to speak, eh?”
Shit, was he talking about me?
“In the red bowl.”
Oh right, the fish. He gestured at a waiter, who was pushing a cart that held something large, hidden under a red velvet shroud. “Mekking his 23rd consecutive appearance at Poisson de Guerre, the undefeated fanged fan favorite, the Savage of the Sargasso, the Luda’ ‘Cuda himself, Benoit!”
The waiter removed the red velvet shroud. Luckily people started clapping and wooting, so they weren’t able to hear me yelp when I looked at this fish. It’s teeth looked like shards of a broken mirror. One of it’s eyes looked like a spiral, which I could have sworn was spinning, and there was a crab’s claw sticking out of the other eye socket, and the claw was actually snapping! This fish had a fucking tattoo.
“And in the blue bowl.” Another waiter rolled over with another cart. Even under the shroud I could tell this bowl was a lot smaller than the one that held Benoit. “Mekking his debut zis evening.” He lowered his voice and slowed his cadence. “Be not fooled by his modest stature or mild demeanor. For beneath zis velvety blue shroud swims salty death incarnate. Ladies and jentlemen. I give you. Panzerfisch!”
The waiter removed the blue shroud. Inside the bowl was a tiny little fish. It was a betta. I was like holy shit that looks a lot like Pantone. And then I was like holy shit that is Pantone! I yelped again, but once again it was muffled by all the laughing and pointing directed at poor little Mr. P.
“Place your bets, ladies and jentlemen, place your bets, for the battle is about to begin! And depending on the outcome of the fight, tonight’s entrees will be fire-grilled rosemary Barracuda, or a Bouille-Betta-Baisse.”
The cocktail waitresses started going around to all tables. Taking bets. I started to panic. I threw a glass of water in my face. Then I got cotton mouth, but I didn’t have anything to drink because I had just thrown my water in my face. The waiters on either side of the water tank picked up the fishbowls to put them into the water tank. I had to think fast. But the only thing I could think about was that I had to think fast. It was like someone says to you, hey, tell me a joke, but then you can’t think of any jokes, even though you know tons of hilarious jokes. So then I started trying to think of jokes, but I couldn’t think of any jokes or any plans to save Pantone. Then before I knew it-
Le Pousse pointed dramatically at the water tank, and the waiters dumped the two fish into it.
I can’t describe what happened next. Partly because it’s too traumatizing to relive. Partly because I don’t want to scare away the few readers I have by going into the savage, horrifying details of what I witnessed. Suffice to say that what I saw in that water tank will haunt me for the rest of my life. I’ll conclude this lament with a simple, euphemistic understatement.
The room was silent. The water was red. A-Rod vomited on Madonna. Le Pousse wiped the look of terror off his face and nodded at the piano player on stage, who began playing a somber rendition of Night and Day. The waiter’s hand shook as he scooped up Pantone with one of those little nets before placing him back in the round little fish bowl. He picked it up, his arms stretched as far away from him as possible, and carried it into the kitchen. The MC turned towards the patrons, still with a look of shock and confusion.
“Tonight’s entree… will be barracuda.” He bowed, then turned and headed back into the kitchen. Everyone just sort of looked down at their drinks, stirring their cocktail straws nervously.
I stood up and made a B-line for the kitchen. I pushed open the swinging door. The kitchen staff was freakin’ out. Pots, pans, ingredients flying every which way, here and there and to and fro. I nearly knocked over a waiter who was bringing out some sort of appetizer.
“Watch it, buddy!”
A sous chef holding a cleaver caught site of me.
“Hey, who the hell are you? Why are you all wet?”
“Who me? I’m in the band. One of the cocktail waitresses threw a glass of water in my face when I called her a floozy.” He nodded, as if he understood my pain.
“Was it Linda?”
“Was it Shelly?”
“Was it Cassandra.”
“Was it… Gertrude?”
“Sure.” He lifted his cleaver to my throat with a crazed look in his eye. “You know what? It was totally Shelly come to think of it.”
“Laundry room’s around the corner, you can towel off back there.” He gave me a dubious look before turning away and shouting “Hey anyone seen Gertrude?!”
I went around the corner into a long hallway. I could see a room full of linens at one end, and an open wooden door at the other end. I went in. It was a huge office, dark. The brick walls were covered in taxidermed fish, except for a giant wooden coat cabinet against one of the wall next to the desk. Sitting right in the middle of the huge oak desk was Pantone’s bowl, with him in it. I started looking through the drawers to find something to put him in. Just as I found a ziplock bag, I heard voices coming towards the door. I jumped inside of the coat cabinet which was conveniently me sized, leaving the door open just a crack, so I could still see the chair behind the desk.
“Look I don’t give a shit if they’ve already started makin the gyadam bouillabaisse.” said a Brooklyn accented voice coming into the room.“Tell them to take dem barracudas off the ice and start thawin um.”
“They’ve been frozen for almost a month, they’re like bricks.”
“So microwave um if ya have to. Just get those plates on the floor as fast as you can.”
“I’m sorry, boss. We just… We didn’t think Benoit was ever gonna lose.”
“You and everybody else out there. I doubt any uh the guests can afford to pay for their meals now. Cept two people. Guillaume. And some random dame. Made a killing.” Through the cracked open door, I saw the owner of the voice sit down in the chair behind the desk. It was Le Pousse. He was wiping the makeup off his face which began to look strangely familiar. “Gyadammit. Doin that French accent night after night’s giving me a click in my jaw. Oughtta get a tetnus shot or sumpin.”
Then I realized why this guy looked familiar. He reminded me of someone. My old friend Sump. Wait a minute. Le Pousse. Stinky. Back from the depths of Davey Jones Locker apparently.
“Send somebody to replace Guillaume at the front entrance, and tell him to git his ass in here right quick. I wanna know where exactly he got this fish, because he sure as hell didn’t giddit from Sump.”
“You got it boss.”
“Speakin uh Sump, he told me some private investigative journalist, whatever the hell that means, came pokin round the shop askin bout a betta fish. Said he made the kid spill the milk on our location, so tell the boys to keep their eyes open for anyone suspicious lookin.”
“Maybe Guilluame knows somethin bout that too.”
“I intend tuh ask him. Hard.”
Just then I heard the door swing open.
“Boss you better get out here,” said a voice that sounded out of breath. “That cocktail waitress Gertrude just threw hot bouillabaisse in some sous chef’s face.”
“Christ. Alright take me too it.” He got up from the chair. “You. Find Guillaume. Meet me back here with him in ten minutes.” Finally I heard the door shut behind me. I hopped out of the coat cabinet. I hunched over the desk and looked into the bowl. Pantone seemed to be okay. Just hanging out.
“Hey there pal. Sit tight, I’ma gitchoo outta here.”
A tiny little bubble emerged from his mouth and he flapped his fins. Message recieved. I dipped the ziplock in the bowl sideways, allowing it to fill with a bit of water. He swam right in. Good boy.
“Alright dude,” I said holding the bag up to my face. “I hate to do this to, but I’m gonna have to put you in my pocket, just until we’re clear of this place.” He made another bubble. I slipped the bag in my coat pocket. I walked out of the office and quietly shut the door behind me. I weaved my way back through the kitchen. Stinky was hunched over the sous chef I had spoken to earlier, who’s face now looked like a casserole. Gertrude was shouting obscenities at him as a couple bus boys held her back. Just as I was about to push through the door and make it back into the dining room, I heard a gargled shout.
“There’s that fella!” said the sous chef. “It was him who’s been callin the gals floozies.”
“Who the hell are you?” asked Stinky looking up at me.
“I’m in the band.”
“No you’re not.”
“Well… I came to audition. I’m a crooner.”
“Crooner, huh?” He stood up. “Why don’t ya come back to my office and we’ll make you sing in there.”
I got the feeling that he wasn’t talking about an actual audition. By “sing,” I think he really meant “talk.” You know, like they say in cop shows and stuff. I pushed through the door and started making my way to the staircase that led to the entrance. Guillaume, the big Frenchman, and the fella who Stinky was talking to in his office were coming down the stairs. Stinky came out of the kitchen. Guillaume caught his eye, and started coming down the stairs after me. The crowd suddenly broke into a mild applause as the band finished playing another extremely somber jazz number. I looked up at the stage and noticed an exit sign above a pair of double doors behind the band. I realized I was going to have to croon my way out of this pickle. I rushed between the tables and jumped up onto the stage.
“Who’er you, then?” asked the Chanteuse.
“I’m the new crooner. Stinky just hired me. We gotta kick this sober tone and make this joint swing again. Take a breather doll, I got this one.”
“Thank God. I feel like euthanasia, and my voice is the syringe.”
“Wow. Okay. You there, Sam.” I pointed at the piano player. “You know the whole Cole Porter song book?”
“You know not everyone named Sam is a piano player. And yes.”
“Good. Anything Goes. Double time it. Let’s burn this place down.”
He led us in with some light tip-toeing at the high end of the keyboard. Then with a nod at the drummer, the band detonated. These cats could wail. Probly just releasing the pent-up tension of a really weird night. Looking out into the crowd I saw Stinky looking around at his goons with just the most flabbergasted look on his face. People were getting out of their chairs. Kathleen Parker and one of the hookers started swing dancing on their table. A giant musical number is really lost in the medium of print, but believe me, the band was really cooking as we came to the crescendo at the end of the song. I dipped the microphone and blasted a long note until the high hat on the drum set told me that was all.
Still dipping the mic, I looked out into the crowd and saw every goon pull a heater out from under his arm. I stood up, gripping the mic stand tight.
“Thank you very much folks, I’ll be here all week, be sure to tip your douchebag. Whoa, check out Le Pousse with his makeup off!”
I pointed at Stinky. As everyone looked over in confusion, I yanked the mic out of the clip, hoisted the stand like a javelin and launched it at the water tank. It slammed into the glass, dead on. The crack began to spread like a spider-web, until it burst. Thousands of gallons of water spilled out all over the room. A title wave smashed against the stage dousing the whole band.
I took the opportunity to slip out of the double doors and ran down a corridor and up a flight of stairs. But just before I reached the doors that led outside, they opened. It was Guillaume, the big Frenchman from the front entrance. I stepped back as he came in, shutting the door behind him. When I turned around I looked down and saw Stinky there holding a .45.
“Really?” I said. “You went with the .45? Bit cumbersome for a man of your stature. I would have thought you’d go with a Walther PPK or a Deranger.”
“Short people jokes. Wow, dats… dats good. Very clever from a guy who sings a five minute song giving the people he’s trying to run away from plenty of time to cut off all his exits. Now where’s my fish.”
“‘S not your fish. Belongs to a friend of mine. I intend to bring him home.”
“Jest shoot eem, Steenky. Wot are you wetting for?”
“Where’d the big fella tell you he got this fish, huh Stinky?” I said, taking the bag that held Pantone out of my pocket.” Flappin ‘is little fins in a puddle somewhere? Tell you he’d just be an easy pushover that that freak barracuda could take apart, no problem? How much did you lose on bets tonight because of this fish, huh Stinky?”
“Go on, Stinky. Ask’im. Where’d he get the fish?”
The muzzle flashed. I yelped again. Really girlishly this time. I heard Guillaume slump to the floor behind me, dead. I opened my left eye a smidgen. Stinky looked at me and shrugged.
“I ask hard.”
“Holy shit, dude!” I said looking back at Guillaume. “You just shot your own dude!”
“Eh. Whatever. He’s been skimming off the top for months. And now this. Plus I don’t like my goons to be too tall.”
“Because of your Napoleon Complex?”
“No. Because my business is underground and all of the doorways down here are small.”
“So, Mr. crooning private investigative journalist, whatever the hell that means, I’m going to make you an offer. I’ll hire you to be the lead singer in our house band, cut you a slice of what the house makes off the bets, and you can have all the seafood you can eat. All you have to do, is hand over that fish. I’ll even get you another betta to give back to your friend.”
“What if I say no.”
“I shoot you.”
“Thought you’d say that. Why make the offer then?”
“Y’got moxie, kid. Hard to come by these days.”
“Thanks. And it is a sweet offer, but my answer is still no.”
“Shame. I hate shootin moxie.”
“I’m warning you man, I’m a master of the Weirding Way.”
“It’s a fictional martial art from the sci-fi novel Dune by Frank Hebert.”
“Never read it. But I did see the David Lynch movie.” He pointed the gun at my face. “And it sucked.”
All of a sudden, something came to me.
“Hey, wanna hear a joke?”
“Well, it’s just that, like, before? I was trying to think of a joke, and I couldn’t because I was trying to think of one, and just now a good one popped into my head. Wanna hear it?”
He rolled his eyes. “Sure.”
“Okay. So, two fish are in a tank. One of um looks at the other and says…”
Stinky stared blankly. He twisted his wrist, rolling the barrel of the gun in a “get on with it” sort of way.
“Do you know how to drive this thing?”
After a second, he closed his eyes. A snort came through his nose. He leaned over into a silent belly laugh. Then came the audible ones. His eyes started tearing up. I half expected steam to come out his ears. He started gasping for air. Then I yelled “Weirding Way!” and kicked the gun out of his hand. He was still laughing when he tackled me. For a little guy, he really knew how to fight. He held me down, pummeling me for a minute or two with his cute little fists, then picked up the gun. He put a knee on my chest and loomed over me, the gun to my head. I looked to my left on the ground and came face to face with Pantone. During the scuffle his ziplock must have burst. He was just sitting there in a little puddle, his gills expanding, gasping for air.
“That’s it kid,” said Stinky. “You’re fish food now.”
“Nuh-uh,’ I said grabbing Pantone. “You are.”
“Then I shoved Pantone right in his ear. I’ll spare you the gory details, but basically, Pantone proceeded to eat Stinky’s brain from the inside out. It was really messed up. Then I walked out the door and came straight here.”
“That’s quite a story, Bailey,” said Kristine as she flipped through the latest copy of Jersey Shore Weekly. “Quite a… long, long, really long story. But, you know what? I’m just glad you brought him back. So thank you.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Not in the least. But seriously. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Tell me though, why the hell are you going to a place like Stinky’s to get your fish food?”
“Guys at corporate pet stores are a-holes. They’re always giving you condescending litte ‘tips’ on how you can better care for your ‘animal.’ At Stinky’s I just go in, get what I need and that’s it.”
“Alright, I’ll take it.” I shrugged jovially and started moving towards the door. “Well, I’m going to go home and take off my sopping wet tuxedo and nurse the wounds I got in my totally made-up fictional story.” I said it like really sarcastically.
“You know that it’s full of holes, right? Like why Stinky was for some reason pretending to be dead, or why Sump didn’t just tell him exactly what happened in the store after witnessing everything.”
“Yeah well… I can’t explain that.”
“Or why the big French guy decided to kidnap my fish specifically, or why you know the lyrics to Anything Goes in Mandarin Chinese.”
I stopped, halfway out the door and turned back. “It’s because I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom well over 100 times. But I never told you that I sang the song in Mandarin.”
She looked up from her magazine.
“Stinky said that someone else had made a killing off of betting on Pantone. Some dame, he said.” She stared at me, the grimace on her face and the cold look in her eye confirming my suspicion. “It was you. All along. You paid that big Frenchman to get Jonas Bieber to swap your fish food with the Croids, without Sump or Stinky finding out about it.”
She threw the magazine aside. Underneath it, she was holding a Luger.
“Oh sweet, you have a Luger? That makes sense actually.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snapped.
“Nothing, never mind, forget about it.”
“Yes Bailey. It was me. All along. I put my pet fish on crustacean steroids. Trained him to be a vicious beast. Entered him into an illegal fish fighting ring. Bet on him. Won many dollars. And then sent you in after him on the false pretense that he had been kidnapped. I guess the only thing left for you to do, is ask yourself, do you really care?”
I thought back on everything that had happened. Trashing the pet shop. Seeing the horrors of Pantone do his thing, both to that other fish, and Stinky. Seeing A-Rod and Madonna kiss each other. Getting beaten up by a half-midget. Solving the mystery and living to blog about it. Not a half-bad way to spend a weekend.
“Nah, I don’t really give a shit.”
“I didn’t think you would. So, are we cool?”
“Yeah for sure. Hey are you hungry? I’ve been craving sea food ever since this whole thing started.”
“I know a place that has really good lobster club sandwiches. Wanna just order in? On me?”
“Now you’re talkin.”
We hi-fived and plopped down on the couch as Kristine dialed the number to the delivery place. My old pal ‘Stine. Turned out to be a femme fatale after all.
I sat back with my feet up on the TV stand and flipped on AMC. Rocky IV was on. Nice. ‘Stine grabbed my a blanket. I was about to ask her to pour me a drink and put on some jazz and light something on fire, but I figured I better not push my luck. I figured it would just be nice to take a break from mystery, intrigue and danger. Little did I know that only a few weeks later I’d get myself into an even more mysterious, intriguing and dangerous adventure, that would test my mettle in ways I could never have prepared myself for.
Did I say little did I know? I meant totally did I know.