Toil and Trouble by Matt Cowens
It was past business hours when the dame walked into my office. She didn’t say anything at first; she just stared and frowned and weighed me with her eyes. She had dark hair and pale skin, and the dress under her coat was finely made. She was beautiful all right, but there was something cold in her eyes, something which flashed a warning sign to my tired nerves. If I hadn’t been two months behind on the rent I’d have thought it wise to hear the details of her case before taking it on. Money being the root of all evil, I knew I was hired, whatever mess she was set to drag me into.
“Take a seat, Miss…?”
“It’s Lady, actually, but you can call me Gruoch.”
“That’s an unusual name,” I replied.
“Not where I come from.”
She sat and I leaned back in my chair, looked down at the .38 revolver strapped to the bottom of my desk. The barrel was pointed square at Gruoch’s chest and the safety was off – the safety was always off. I reached down and spun the pistol to point at the wall. Clients tend not to pay their bills once there’s an extra hole in their rib cage.
“You want me to find someone?” I asked. “Your husband’s cheating on you and you need proof before you divorce him?”
I figured it wouldn’t be anything that simple but most of my cases were cheating husbands. They were easy to solve and I usually didn’t end up needing to visit the hospital.
She shook her head and I felt my muscles tighten in anticipation of the tough spot this case was almost certain to get me into.
“I want you to find three women.” She slid a folded piece of paper across the desk and I felt hope rekindle. Three women was a whole other level of cheating but it still meant the guy was thinking with his little head, and I might be able to get the jump on him.
“I’m sorry to hear your husband’s been unfaithful…”
I unfolded the paper and stopped talking. No mid-life crisis would see a man run to the arms of three bearded, haggard crones. I remembered a case I’d worked few months earlier, a dame whose husband had been lost at sea. She thought his ship had been sabotaged by a bearded woman. I hadn’t been able to prove anything, but I had a name.
“The Weird Sisters? You’re sure you want me to track them down? They ain’t exactly what I’d call friendly…”
Her hands were restless, rubbing against each other. She forced a smile and clasped them together. “My husband has been consorting with them. I need to know what he has heard. I need to know…”
She paused and I stood up, turned my back to her. Through the blinds I looked down on the street below the office. A dirty street, barely lit by greasy streetlights. There was grime out there in the city, grime and violence and corruption. But it was my city, my sewer to wade through. This dame wanted to drag me to a blacker place, an underworld where getting shot was the least of your worries.
I heard a metallic clank on the desk behind me.
“He knows something, and I have to know too. His mind was full of scorpions but now, now he is… resolved. And I…”
I turned around. She looked tired, and was rubbing her hands again. The coldness was still there but I saw past it, saw a sadness, a grief. There was an open pouch of coins on the desk, the old fashioned kind. Gold. A small fortune.
“Dead men don’t need rent money,” I muttered to myself.
Lady Gruoch started. Her hearing was good. Her knuckles went white as she gripped the arms of her chair. She straightened and all the feminine charms she wielded as weapons to disarm me seemed to drain from her. It was like a cloud of blackest night gathered in the office and I knew she could do anything, could dash my brains out, and heaven wouldn’t see a thing. I felt a chill run through me but I reached out and took the money anyway.
“Nothing. I’m on the case. I’ll find the sisters, find out what they said, and you’ll know whatever your husband does.”
“Perhaps then I will be able to rest,” she replied, standing. “Do not fail me. I would not be pleased, and you do not look much like my father.”
I didn’t understand the words but I got the message loud and clear. The coins weighed heavy in my pocket as she walked out. The case ahead of me weighed heavy on my soul. Something wasn’t right with Lady Gruoch. She didn’t need a detective; she needed a doctor, and maybe a priest. I popped the catch on the desk holster and slipped the .38 into my pocket. Wherever the case lead me, wherever the Weird Sisters were, I was leaving the safety off until the case was over. I was headed out of the city, out of the streets I knew so well, into a wide darkness. It was time to be bold and resolute, and hope that I wasn’t just teaching bloody instructions.
I feared I was, and hoped a hospital stay was the worst thing that lay ahead.