“How did you hear about me?”

This was a standard question on Bridge’s part.  He asked it of every potential client, though maybe not for the reasons one might think.  It had nothing to do with growing his little one-room business.  If anything, he wanted fewer people knocking on his door and he needed to know how the ones who did knock were finding out about his services in the first place.

“Word of mouth,” the blonde answered.

Bridge sighed to himself.  This conversation was already slipping into the old familiar pattern.  The odds he’d be able to get any useful information from her were negligible, but he continued to press her for details anyway.  “Which word?  From whose mouth?”

By way of answering, the blonde reached a hand inside her coat, digging into an interior pocket.  Because of the way her clothing fit her, Bridge was convinced there was no need to fear a firearm.  Instead, she withdrew something even deadlier—an offering of sorts that had become commonplace among his customers—, and placed the item on his desk, the label facing him as if he wouldn’t have recognized it otherwise.

“This is for you.”  She said the words in much the same way she might say them to Charon, had she just presented him with a coin, asking the ferryman to arrange her trip down the river Styx and into Hades.  The only difference was that her offering had the potential to guarantee Bridge’s damnation, not hers.

He pulled the bottle closer for inspection.  It was smaller than he was used to receiving, but it was better stuff.  Aged.  Imported.  Verboten.  His mouth watered at the thought of it, and that worried him.  With all the conviction he could muster, he said, “I don’t drink.”

The woman seemed as unconvinced as Bridge himself.  “I was told otherwise.”  The statement was made so matter-of-factly that it was almost possible to overlook the underlying message.  Whoever had sent her not only knew Bridge but his weakness as well.  Opening a second drawer on his desk, he placed this new bottle full of weakness alongside two others, all three unopened, then closed it up.

“What else did he tell you?”

“He who?” she asked, not taking the bait.  Again, just like the others.  He’d been foolish to think he could trip her up with something as simple as a pronoun.  If nothing else, it made one thing very clear to him.  The time for tricks was over.  Bridge wanted confirmation or denial of his suspicions, and he’d get what he wanted, by hook or by crook.  Unfortunately, someone else had a different idea, and he chose that moment to jump onto the desktop.

Somehow, the blonde wasn’t startled by his appearance, but then the two of them had already met in the dark, when he’d rubbed against her leg.  By candlelight, his presence was much less threatening, his green eyes glinting.

“What’s your cat’s name?” she asked, the animal stretching as if the flame had brought it back from a frozen state, its white front paws in stark contrast to the black fur that covered the remainder of its body.  He wore no collar.  In truth, he had no owner.  His comings and goings were his own.  For better or for worse.

“Spade.”  The blonde smiled, scratching the cat under its chin, and as the sound of purring increased, Bridge relinquished any hope of discovering the identity of his mysterious benefactor.  But only for the time being.  That thread of questioning was merely being tabled, not abandoned.

“As in ‘black as a’?”

“As in Sam.”  To put a finer point on it, Bridge added, “As in, he’s the detective here.  Not me.  So if you’re waiting for me to deduce what it is you need from me, then you might want to get comfortable, Miss….”

“Laura.”  Before Bridge could open his mouth again, she said, “Just Laura.”

First names only.  Like an AA meeting.  “All right.  Laura it is.”  That out of the way, it was time to get down to business.  Bridge picked up the burning candle in his right hand.  Then he placed his left arm flat on the desktop and swept everything off, including the cat.  The newspaper and the dregs of Laura’s candle fell, but when Spade reached the edge of the desk, he jumped out into darkness and disappeared.  No more distractions.  Candle back in place, Bridge said, “Tell me why you’re here, Laura.”

“…I think someone’s trying to kill me.”

It was already evidenced by the fact that she was sitting in front of Bridge and not some low-rent private dick that whatever she needed from him was nothing mundane.  Bridge’s cases—if one could even call them that—tended toward the more dramatic, and the way things were headed, this was no exception.  Even so, the devil was in the details.

“What makes you think that?”  In all likelihood, that would have been Bridge’s next question.  Or maybe “Who would want you dead?”  Even something as simple as “Why?” could have started the dialogue between them.  Unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to say any of those things, and the devil had already given him all the details he was ever going to get.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a light in the hallway.  He had no way of knowing how long it had been there, but it bobbed once before settling into final position.  In light of what Laura had told him, his response should have been faster.  Instead, a full half-second lulled between him spotting the light and him yelling to the blonde to “Move!”  He was still in the middle of standing and reaching for her when a confluence of events occurred.

Had he been responsible for determining the order of those events later, Bridge would have been at a loss.  As impossible as it might seem, everything happened simultaneously.  The glass smashed.  The candle went out.  The woman’s eyes grew three sizes.  Someone took the opportunity to punch Bridge in the gut.  A gun was fired, the sound of it reverberating in the space of his tiny office.  Two bodies hit the floor.

All of his air had escaped upon impact.  He tried to call out the blonde’s name, but there were no words left inside of him.  Rather than move forward, toward Laura, Bridge found himself sliding back across the hardwood to where it connected with the wall.  Using the two surfaces, he was able to prop himself up despite the fact that the floor around him was slick with a viscous liquid.  His mind compiled a lengthy list of what that liquid could be in a desperate attempt to deny what he already knew.  He was floundering in blood.  His blood.

Laura, he thought, and maybe even said.  There was no way of knowing.  All he could hear at that moment was the ocean, endless waves breaking against the beach as the life drained out of him.  The woman could have been standing over him in the darkness, shouting that she was fine, that medical attention was on the way, but he never would have heard her.  Not over the sound of all that water.

And something else, something that wasn’t as instantly recognizable.

thup thup thup

Fingers inside his head flipped through a mental Rolodex of known sounds, trying to determine what it was that he was hearing, but nothing was exactly right.  Was it candle wax dripping down from the desktop?  The sound of a sucking wound in his abdomen?  The blonde’s fingernails scratching final words into the floor?

The only solution was to shed some light on the proceedings.  Bridge fumbled his lighter out of his coat pocket and willed all his focus into his fingers, creating a flame.  He had to swing it in a circular path before him until he revealed the source of the unknown sound, and as soon as he saw it, he wished he’d chosen to remain in the dark, both figuratively and literally.

thup thup thup

Just past Bridge’s outstretched legs, Spade stared back at him, no remorse, his coarse, pink tongue lapping up pooling blood from the floor as if it were spilt milk.

Chapter 4 is here.


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