The Body in Question by Charles Bush

Jun 16 2013 Published by under The WiFiles

It was easy, finding the body; it only took me three days. It all happened at the dockyards. There was this old organ grinder there that saw everything, so he filled me in on what happened. According to him, a couple of toughs stabbed the guy, robbed him, and left him for dead. He staggered around a bit in the alley and then collapsed over in the garbage heap. That was four days ago. Since then, he hadn’t been up to much, mostly just decomposing.

I gave the organ grinder a nice big bottle of rum for his help. He smacked his lips and moved off in search of some customers. I took a look at the corpse. Four days in a garbage heap hadn’t added to its charm. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it. I couldn’t possibly come up with a reason why anyone would want it. But I had a little rule: I never insisted on asking clients for a reason why.

When people ask me why I got into the business of finding things, I tell them that it was to meet women. That’s just a joke, of course. The truth is that I’m just really good at it. I guess I’ve always gotten a certain thrill out of acquiring and collecting odd stuff. After a while I just knew where to get pretty much anything around here.

So now, when you desperately need something on this rotten island, you come to me. Usually it’s semi-ordinary things that people are looking for: an old book, for example, or a glass eye. Nothing you can buy from the local merchants, but nothing all that extraordinary. Occasionally I would deal with some illegal stuff, drugs mostly, but there were a lot of thugs out there to remind me that that kind of thing was their business and not mine, so I usually just stuck to the legitimate stuff. Arranging trades and deals like this is a decent living and keeps me busy. And, every now and then I’d get myself into something interesting.

#

She’d showed up at my place four days ago. She was a real beauty. She came in with a sad, rather rehearsed story about her poor husband Harry, and how he’d arrived on the island a couple days ago after some trip but hadn’t turned up yet. She was afraid to go to the police, understandably, and would I be able to find her husband for her? All in all, she was lying through her teeth, but that didn’t matter. Like I said before, I never insist on clients giving me a reason. It’s not my business and I have no interest what they do with the stuff I get for them.

So I accepted her diamond ring as down payment, and I took the photograph of her husband, or whoever he was, and I took down her phone number and address so I could report on my progress, and I took the next day off to celebrate, and then two days later I was matching the face in the photograph to the ugly mug that stared at me from under a pile of coffee grinds and broken syringes. It was Harry, alright. There was no mistaking those eyes.

It seemed that all was well. I’d done my part, located the guy for her and all. She was probably expecting me to bring him back alive, but there was nothing I could do about that. My deal with her didn’t involve delivery of the body, only location. So, I wrote down where I was and how I got there, and I went home, visions of giant paychecks floating in my head.

#

It’s here where the story gets a little more interesting. I’d tried calling her a couple of times to let her know what I found, but nobody was home. The next day I tried again. That night she still hadn’t called back so I went down to her place to give her the report. I wanted my money, believe me.
She lived in a rather sleazy part of the city, “Tastytown,” as it is called affectionately by its regular visitors. The hookers were out in force that night. Across the street from my destination, I met a sweet old lady covered in snake tattoos who offered to spend the night with me. She was mostly retired now, she said, but every now and then she liked to go back on the streets for old time’s sake. I gave her a cigarette, and moved on. Finally I found the place I was looking for. The door was unlocked, so I let myself in.

For a second I thought that she was sleeping. Sleeping on her living room floor, with her neck broken. It was a gruesome scene, and one that I didn’t want any part of. I knew enough to get out of there fast, because this kind of thing was better left for the police. I took a quick look around the place, noting the vials and blades and assortments of needles.

She was a junkie, no doubt about it. Probably some deal went bad. Nothing that I should get involved with, that’s for sure. I cleaned off the door and anything else I may have touched and I left quickly. I started walking away, blowing a kiss to the tattooed lady, who hadn’t moved from her spot across the street. Business is tough these days, I guess.

I headed home, that broken body fresh on my mind. In all my years here, I’ve never had a client die on me, but at least I’d gotten a down payment. The body I figured I could leave to rot in the garbage. All in all, I was up one grand, down one bottle of rum. I figured I was coming out ahead. Ahead, that is, until I got back to my place.

He was waiting for me there, the bastard. I unlocked my door, stepped inside and there he was: a giant brick in a little suit. He kind of smiled and motioned for me to sit in a chair. He didn’t seem to be the kind of person that you refuse, so I did exactly what he said. He spoke first.

“Okay pal. Where is it? This can go easy or hard…” He cracked his knuckles, and I noticed that he was missing a pinky on his right hand. Amputation was all the rage here these days, part of the continuing trend in self-mutilation. It was ridiculous to me, but some people took it very seriously. I wondered if it hurt him when he punched people.
“Okay,” I said. “What exactly are you looking for? I deal in a lot of stuff.”

“The body, chief. We’re after the body. Someone very important wants to know where it is.” He gave me a punch in the chest, with his left hand, to show me he wasn’t kidding. It hurt like a real son of a bitch. After a minute of wheezing I was able to speak again.

“The body, huh? About five foot nine, baby blue eyes? Yeah, I’ve seen him. He hangs out near the wharf. His favorite haunt is this rotting pile of garbage. Ask any bum down there, you can’t miss him.” The body didn’t mean anything to me now anyways, and I could see this was what the guy wanted to hear. He smiled for the third time.

“You see? It’s so much easier when you cooperate.” He finally let me stand up. I grunted and went to fix myself a drink of vodka. I was about halfway through pouring when he turned to face me.

“What now?” I said. “I’m not getting you a drink, too.”

“Sorry, pal. You got mixed up in some bad business. I hate to do this, but…”’ He gave me an indifferent shrug, and I saw a flash of metal from his pocket. A knife, or a pistol, most likely.

I looked at him. He was deadly serious. I was still holding the bottle of vodka, so I whipped it at his face, lightning quick. It hit him square in the jaw and he yelped in pain. It felt good to know that you can hurt a monster like that. What happened after that I don’t know, because I was out of the door and in seconds I slipped away into the night.

#

At this point I really didn’t have much to go on. There was a dead woman who had wanted the body. There was someone else out there who still did. This new player most likely had the woman killed and sent the goon to get me. I don’t know why they were after me, but it was pretty safe to assume they’d try again. Someone really wanted that body, enough to kill for it. So I went back to the scene where it all began, back at the dockyards.

Harry hadn’t gone anywhere while I was away. He looked a little worse now, but was still recognizable. The organ grinder was there again, playing a waltz for a group of tourists. With the money I had on me I bribed him into helping me load the corpse into a burlap bag we found. Then we marched through the night, just two guys and a bulging sack. It must have been at least fifteen minutes. He was a real heavy bastard to be carrying around in a sack, too. Finally we came upon the place: a seedy little club with a burnt-out neon sign: “Blues ‘til dawn.”

Blind Lou was one of the original Delta bluesmen. I don’t know how he came to be living here, but he always told me that he spent his life following the blues, and one day they led him here. He was a raging opium addict, but that was his business, not mine. I’d hooked him up with some of that stuff in the past, and we’d kind of become friends since then. He told some great stories.

Whenever the blues didn’t pay the bills he ran a little séance racket, talking to spirits and that kind of thing. I figured I ought to bring the body over to his place because he knew more about death and suffering than anyone else I’d met on this island, and I was fast becoming acquainted with both.

He’d always been a decent human being, a rare thing in this city. He told me that he’d help me out, and that it would be no problem for him to summon up the corpse’s spirit. I spent the day at his place, just resting up and watching him do his show. I sat in the back.

About midnight, Lou left the stage, and told me it was time for the real show. We went backstage to the ‘meat locker.’ This was what he called the room where he conducted his séances. Lou was all dressed up for the occasion, in blue suit and fedora. Before we began, he explained to me a little bit about the process of spirit summoning. Ancient phrases, as old as life itself, had to be spoken in the right sequence and rhythm. If spoken correctly, in the presence of the body, the chant would allow the spirit to be summoned up for a short period of time. That’s what he told me, anyway. You could never be sure with this guy.

Then the séance began, and let me tell you, Lou was a real showman about it. He’d speak out some line, and then he’d give a little blow on this rusty harmonica of his. You always get a good show with Lou. After a few minutes passed, Lou sat up with a smile, wiped off his harmonica, and I had my first heart to heart talk with a ghost.

Talking to a spirit is hard to describe if you haven’t done it. There was no actual physical aspect to him in the room, only me and Lou and Harry’s corpse. But there was an indescribable presence there. I found it easiest to address questions to the corpse and pretend that the disembodied voice was coming from it. Harry spoke first.

“So you’re Marcel? Lou’s told me about you. I understand you have a couple questions for me.”

“Yeah. First off let me say I’m sorry that you were killed. By a bunch of punks, no less. It doesn’t seem fair.”

“Don’t worry about them. They’ll get theirs in the end, I’ll see to that. Now what kind of things do you need to know? We don’t have all that much time.” This was fascinating stuff and I wished I could ask more about it, but it was business first.

“Alright then. I guess the big question is, why are you so damn popular?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Okay. Let me explain. Some lady hired me to find you. By the time I did you were already a stiff. The lady who hired me has been killed. Someone tried to kill me last night, just to get your body. Are you starting to understand?”

“Hmm. Yeah, I understand. I guess it concerns what I did for a living. I’m a mule, you see.”

“A mule?”

“Yeah. I cross borders and get through customs for powerful people. You know, I swallow stuff.” I’d heard of this kind of thing, something for people down on their luck. It was easy work, if you could stand the nauseating conditions. Real low down on the criminal pyramid, though.

“I understand. You’re a drug runner.”

“That’s right. Not just drugs though, all kinds of things. Basically anything you’d want to sneak through customs that can fit in my stomach.”

“So you were on the job when you came in. Who hired
you?”

“Well, actually a couple of people. The first was this girl. Real sweet, hardened junkie, though. There’s a couple bags of heroin in there for her.”

“Ok. All that stuff is still in there? In your body, I mean.”

“Yeah. I got jumped by those guys before I could get my stuff out.” I looked at the corpse, noticing for the first time a little bulge in that stomach. No wonder he was so heavy.

“OK. I think she’s the one that hired me to find you. She’s pretty much out of the picture, now. So its drugs they’re after.”

“Slow down. I was also doing a little side work for this other guy. He was a little more ambitious. Do you know much about talismans, power symbols and all that?” “Nope.”

“Well if you did, there’s a set of talismans in my gut that would make you drool. This stuff is worth more than gold to the right people.”

“And you have to sneak that stuff through customs?”

“Man, you don’t know the kind of power in that stuff. They’d recognize it and seize it instantly. This is the real deal we’re talking about.”

“Interesting. What exactly do they do?”

“I’m not all that sure. Something to do with ritual magic. Hexes, curses, all that stuff. They protect you from the dark forces, you know?”

“Hmm… One final question. Can you describe the guy that hired you?” This made him laugh, and let me tell you, a disembodied laugh is a real spooky thing to have to listen to.

“Yeah, I can describe him. I’ll bet you’ll even know where he lives. Have you heard of Mr. Avery?” I nodded my head. Angelo Avery was the local numbers king. He was as crooked as they come, a total scumbag. Apparently he was trying to move on up in life and get into the dark arts racket. “Is there anything else you need to know?”

“I think I got it all. You’ve been a real help, Harry. I wish I could repay you somehow.”

“Don’t worry about it. Where I am now, a friendly face and conversation is about the best thing you can get. Hey, maybe I’ll be seeing you in a bit.” That was a little too ominous for my liking.

“Sure thing. Take it easy, pal.” In an instant the presence was gone, and it was just me and Lou in the room. I bummed a cigarette off of Lou, and while we smoked I considered my situation.

Ritual magic was not something I wanted to get mixed up into. For one thing, it was pretty dangerous. I had a buddy who was once into that stuff, a long time ago. One day he stumbled onto some dark secret, and somehow it engulfed his mind. Now he lives in a rubber room, and can’t even recognize his own name.

Moreover, that stuff is evil. I know a lot about the power of greed, and magic like that is ten times as corrupting. It’s definitely something to stay away from. I didn’t like the idea of Mr. Avery dabbling with it. For one thing, if he still wanted me dead, I was probably a goner. I might be able to run from his goons, but there was no escaping a properly cast death curse. So, I could just deliver the body to him or his thugs, but I didn’t like the thought. I’d probably end up dead.

That meant dealing with Avery personally. You really can’t kill a magician, not with ordinary methods, anyway. There are all kinds of weird forces about them and repercussions involved. The only other option, then, was to make some kind of deal with him.

We were sitting around the corpse, still in the back room of Lou’s club. I finished my cigarette and spoke.

“I’m sorry to have to make this mess and all, Lou. But something has to be done about this guy. He’s out gunning for me, and I’m worried he may be onto you too, now. He knows how to find people.”

“That’s alright, kid. That cat doesn’t scare me. I’ve been around a lot longer than he has.”

“Well, he sure as hell scares me. And the way I see it, there’s only one way I’m gonna be able to get him off my back.”

“What’s that?”

“I give him what he wants,” I said, pointing towards the corpse. “You got a knife handy?” Lou gave a weary sigh and went to the kitchen.

It was a disgusting process, so I’ll spare you the details here. Sufficed to say, Harry wasn’t lying. There were four bags in all. Three of them were filled with heroin. They were worth a fortune, but I was more interested in what was in the other bag.

All in all, the talismans turned out to be pretty disappointing. There were two of them, as ordinary as could be. In fact, they looked just like a couple of medals that a retired French Legionnaire had traded to me a few years ago. Hard to believe this was the kind of stuff worth killing over. But, still, there was something sinister about them. I didn’t like them at all.

Lou said that he could take care of the body. I told him I’d try to score him some opium for old time’s sake. As I was leaving the club, he called out to me.

“So you know what you’re going to do then? Are you sure you don’t want to hang around a little longer? It’s dangerous out there.”

“Yeah. I have to take care of this wannabe magician before he takes care of me.”

“How are you gonna do that?”

“I’m not sure yet. First and foremost though, I’m going to find a real big friend who owes me a favor.”

#

“Steamroller” Willy was an ex-boxer. He used to be a real contender, years ago. But Willy liked to drink too much. Alcohol ended up costing him his career and his titles, and it looked like it would cost him his life, as well. Desperate and poor, he came to me, and I was able to find him a healthy liver. Some addict traded it to me in return for a little dose of junk. Where he got the liver from, I don’t want to know. But it worked like a charm for Willy.

Willy was retired now and spent a lot of his time gardening, but that didn’t mean that he’d forgotten how to throw a punch. I’ve met guys that tangled with him since he quit the business, laughing at the disgraced champion, that kind of thing. They’d end up going home with their faces rearranged. He was still tough, and he had a heart of gold. Right now I couldn’t think of a better person to have on my side.

Sure enough, he was watering the flowers when I arrived at his place.

“Marcel!” he said affectionately. “The man who can find anything! How you doing?” He gave me a big bear hug. He wasn’t getting any younger, but I could see that his old form was still there.

“Hey Willy. What’s happening, old man?”

“Not much, buddy.” He slapped his chest. “Still kicking, as you can see.” He looked me over. “You look a little different. Thinner, maybe. Is something wrong?”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that. Tell me something. You think you still got a little of the old steamroller left in you? There’s this big fight coming up, and I could use you.”

“Sure enough. Where’s this fight going to be held?”

“I’m not really sure, yet.”

“Okay. Who’s the other guy?”

“Actually, it’s a whole lot of guys. Pretty much anyone that gets in our way.” I saw a flash in Willy’s eyes. He loved this stuff. It was pretty reassuring for me, too, to know that I had a set of fists on my side.

#

All things considered, it was perfect weather for a showdown. The sun was just setting as Willy and I made our way through the half-darkness and twisting streets. We went first to my place. I had a few things to take care of there. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever see the place again. Thankfully, it was free of thugs, and nobody showed up while we were there. We had a few drinks, for the nerves. Then I locked up, and we made our way back to the streets.

There was some kind of festival going on, but we tried to avoid it. I could make out some flamenco music, as well as drunken cheering. We kept walking. We finally arrived at the place, a building I’d walked by many times but never set foot inside. There was a big marquis on the outside that said “Avery Carpets Incorporated.” Mr. Avery’s official business was a carpet importer. Willy flexed his fingers a few times. We joked a little bit, and then we stepped up to the door and gave it a knock. As fate would have it, I knew the guy who opened it. There were a couple of scars on his face where he had accidentally connected with a vodka bottle. He recognized me, too, giving a kind of surprised look before Willy knocked him flat on the ground. Out of spite I kicked in a few of his teeth.

Getting up to see Mr. Avery was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be. I let Willy do all the work. Avery threw a lot of goons our way, but Willy made short work of them. I watched with morbid fascination as he ducked and weaved his way through them all, breaking bones and ripping through bodies like paper. Anyone who said that the champ had lost his form should have seen him that night. It was a greater comeback than any promoter could arrange.

We worked our way deeper and deeper into the building, until finally we came to Avery’s office. His name was on the door, so we kicked it open and burst in.

Mr. Avery was sitting at his desk when we came in, a short, swarthy man in a panama hat. He was a little surprised to see us. He was real quick, though. There was a cane leaning against the desk, and he snatched this up and had it pointed our way only seconds after we entered the room. He snarled at us.

“Don’t you two come any closer,” he said. “I can kill you with this thing.” I don’t know what kind of power he had charged up in that cane, but he was completely serious. We stopped. I noticed he was shaking a little, which was good.

“I believe you. Look, I’m here on business.” Willy stood next to me menacingly.

“Business, eh… What do you have for me?” His cane never wavered.

“I’ve got the body.” I could see his eyes lit up as I said this.

“So, you’re the scrounger. You don’t have long left to live, you know. Why exactly are you so interested in that body?”

“Harry was a pal of mine. He was doing me a favor, bringing me and my girl some dope. That’s all I want. You can have the other stuff.”

“So you’ve already opened him up. You found my medallions?” He was real interested here.

“Yup. Let me tell you, that’s a lot of trouble to go through for a couple medallions.”

“Let me worry about that.”

“Sure thing. That’s why I’m here. I want you to call everything off. Forget about me. In return, you get what you want.”

“My talismans?”

“Yep. We’re holding on to the heroin. But you can have all those pretty trinkets.” I nodded to Willy, who had been pretty silent the whole time. He had a little paper bag in his pocket, which he pulled out. Avery’s eyes just glittered.

“Well, well, well…” He scooped the bag out of Willy’s hands. “Well then. You’ve got a deal. I want you two to get the hell out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again. In return, you’ve got your life back.” He held out his hand.

I do this kind of thing all the time, making deals and trades. I know how to read a person, and I could see in his eyes that he was lying. He had no intention of letting us live with the knowledge we had. That’s the way it is with these sorcerers. They’re so afraid of losing their power that it overtakes them, makes them paranoid. At any rate, I knew that Avery still had it in for me. He wasn’t going to try anything with Willy right there, but sooner or later he’d catch up to me. I guess that makes it easier for me to justify what I did to him. At any rate, I shook his hand and we got the hell out of there. He was right about one thing, though. He’d never be seeing us again, or anyone for that matter.

Like I said before, ritual magic is really dangerous. You have to be really careful not to screw anything up when you’re performing it, or the dark forces will consume you. Hopefully, that’s what would happen to Avery as soon as he tried to use those medallions. The two magic talismans, fresh from Harry’s stomach, were hanging on the wall at my place. Avery, in his haste, had received two very ordinary French medals from us. They were perfectly good medals, to be sure, but definitely not the kind of thing that you want to have protecting you when you’re messing with the dark arts.

I’m not sure what Avery was planning on doing with those things, but as far as we know, he never got through. He simply disappeared one day, leaving the Avery Empire in shambles. Let me tell you, he won’t be missed.

Things are back to normal now, pretty much. Willy says that he’s hung up his gloves for good; I think he’s finally earned his peace. We still meet every now and then to play a little gin. Harry’s doing all right on the other side, or wherever it is that spirits live. Lou and I figured we ought to let him know how everything turned out, and we call him up sometimes to chat. We never did figure out what happened to Mr. Avery, though. In fact, one night after a few drinks, we tried to summon up Avery’s spirit, just for a laugh. We got him all right, but all he did was howl at us from beyond the grave. It was really chilling, and we decided to let him rest from then on.

As for me, I took a little break from the scrounging business. The collection is still going strong. My two prize talismans are still hanging on the wall. Ever since Avery disappeared, I’ve been afraid to touch them. But things are always interesting around here. You never know. I’ve been planning on pulling them down, maybe taking a look at them. Someday, I’ll figure out their secret. Someday, I guarantee.

Bio: Charles Bush is a college fundraiser. His favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Roger Zelazny, and J.K. Rowling. His fiction has appeared in Anotherealm, Flashes in the Dark, and Flashshot. He lives with his wife and son in upstate New York.

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