The Charred Tree

Flash Pulp Fan Fic: Not My Line Of Work

Giselle stamped out of the room and slammed the door. Hamm was pretty sure this was the first time he had ever seen a dame actually stamp her way from a room so effectively while wearing six-inch heels. Sure, some had tried but it’s kind of hard to take a mad woman seriously when she’s waving her arms around like a ceiling fan trying to keep her balance. But Giselle…Giselle had pulled it off. Took those gams across the room as graceful as you please, opened the door without a moment’s hesitation, and slammed it so hard the glass rattled violently in its frame and the last letter of his name nearly fell off. He’d have to fix that. It was already hard enough to get people to take him seriously with a name like Hamm Packer; he could only image the snickering people would send down their sleeves if that second m disappeared. The thought made him frown.

“Fer cryin’ out loud!” he said under his breath as he stood and began to cross the room to repair the door. He hadn’t heard the elevator groan its way down to the main floor yet so Giselle was likely still in the hallway. The last thing he needed was for her to come back—while she’s a looker, all he really wanted at this point was for her check to clear the bank—so he stopped in the middle of the room and waited quietly for the aging machinery to announce the all clear. After thirty seconds of agonizing silence Hamm heard the elevator doors screech open, crisp footsteps walking into it, and the screech in reverse as the doors closed. He felt more than heard the elevator make its way to the first floor. He went to the door and straightened the last letter of his first name on the glass door and pressed as hard as he dared. There, that’s better—Hamm Packer, Private Investigator.

The telephone rang just as he sat back at the desk. He picked up the receiver with one hand while reaching for a pencil with the other. “Packer.”

“Mr. Packer. Good. You’re still there. I need to see you as soon as possible.” Her voice was calm but painted with a layer of urgency. Just enough of an accent—he couldn’t tell exactly which one—to give it an exotic sound. Hamm looked at his watch—8:37.

“Well, I was just about to lock up and call it a night. How does tomorrow sound?” It had been a long day that started with a hairball on the bath mat and had ended with an angry client with legs up to here nearly destroying his office door. Best to just call it and start over tomorrow.

“Oh! That’s no good. I’m leaving tomorrow by the early train. Can’t you please help me? Can I at least buy you dinner while I explain my problem?” Her voice dripped anxiety and desperation.

Work hadn’t exactly been beating a path to his door the past few weeks and the bank account could always use some more dough. Worst case? Tuck away some groceries and hear a story about something he could do nothing about. It could be worse—most clients would never even consider buying him dinner.

“You know a place called Dorset’s Tavern, Miss…..?”

“Ortice. Antonia Ortice, Mr. Packer. And yes, I know where it is. Would you like me to meet you there?” Hamm could almost feel the gratitude pouring through the phone line.

“No! No, not there. That’s not a good place for us to talk business.” The few times Hamm had walked by Dorset’s, the hairs on the back of his neck had stood up on end. The place seemed to send out some kind of signal that told respectable people to stay away. “Across the street and at the other end of the block is The Stockyard Grill. I hope steak is fine with you for dinner.” Hell, when a client offers to buy you dinner, you treat yourself to something a little better than a bag of cheese doodles and a slurpee.

Two hours later Hamm Packer leaned back in the leather chair and pushed back from a large plate that held only a bone and the wreckage of what was left of a baked potato. He sipped his iced tea and looked across the table at Antonia Ortice. He was glad he had taken her up on dinner because he sure wasn’t about to take this case.

“So let me get this straight. Your father died a few days ago and now he’s haunting you but he told you before he died that some heirloom piece of jewelry could protect you?” Nope. Saying it out loud didn’t make it sound any less insane. Glad this place was getting ready to close—not as many people around to hear the crazy-talk.

“Not just him; all of them. All of my Ortice ancestors. From reading my father’s journal it will begin within a month of his death, so I have that much time to find this thing and get back to my life.” Antonia closed her eyes and leaned against the table. The fingers of her right hand pinched and caressed the ridge between her eyes and she shook her head. “I know it sounds crazy. I don’t want this to happen to me. I have a life of my own, dammit, and this isn’t part of my plans.” She slammed her fist on the table. The flatware and her untouched water jumped at the impact.

“Look, Miss Ortice, I’m gonna be straight with you. I could use the money—really, I could—and I might even be able to find this brooch or pin or whatever it is for you, although I wouldn’t make any promises on it. I couldn’t help you on the mumbo-jumbo part of it. I wouldn’t know where to begin and I’m not even sure I  believe in such things.” He folded his hands on top of the wadded napkin in front of his plate. “I can’t take your case.”

Antonia dropped her gaze to her lap. “Thank you for your honesty, Mr. Packer. I appreciate that you at least took the time to hear my situation.” A tear slid down her face as she pulled her credit card from her wallet and handed it to the waitress. “What should I do next?”

“I’m not sure. Let me think about it.” He swirled the ice and the last half-inch of tea in the glass. “I heard there’s a guy here in the city that dabbles in magic and voodoo…that kind of stuff.” Hamm pulled a pencil from his jacket and made a note on the napkin. “Might also check with some of my other contacts. If nothing else maybe they can get me a line on Mr. Bedknobs-n-Broomsticks.”

The waitress returned with Antonia’s credit card and the slip for her to sign. “Can I get you folks anything else?”

“No. No thank you. Everything was wonderful.” Antonia said it by rote while she figured the tip.

“Um…if you don’t mind my saying….” The waitress—her barely legible name tag proclaimed her name to be Vera—whispered. Packer could tell from her body language that she was nervous to say anything so he smiled to reassure her and motioned for her to continue. “I couldn’t help but overhear you say something about the guy that knows about magic. You looking for him?”

“Yes we are, Vera. Do you know what his name is and where we might find him?”

“Name’s Coffin; don’t think I ever heard anyone use his given name, not that you’d need to with a name like that. He hangs out down at Dorset’s a couple nights a week.” She waved in the general direction. “Strange place that. Seems to suit Mr. Coffin well enough. If he’s not there I bet old Dorset could point you in the right direction.”

“Thank you, Vera. You’ve been very helpful.” Hamm held out his hand to the waitress who shook his hand and left with the signed credit slip. “I hope you tipped her well, ‘cause she just answered your question of what to do next.”

“That’s just down the street, isn’t it? Can we go now?” Antonia leaned across the table as she spoke.

“Sure.” Packer drained the last of his tea before setting down the empty glass. “Let’s go.”

They stepped into Dorset’s and it was about what Hamm would have expected had he ever taken the time to consider it. Usually he would have loved a place like this—lots of wood with brass fittings, comfortable padded stools at the bar, a pool table and some dart boards to one side—but something about it made him want to leave, to get out and find some other bar. “Well,” he said under his breath, “the good news is I’m not here to drink. I’m here to find this guy and then I’m done.” He made his way to the bar and got the barman’s attention.

Hamm leaned over and spoke softly, barely loud enough for the man to hear, “I’m looking for Coffin. Someone told me I could find him here.” He slid a folded bill across the worn wood of the counter. The barkeep looked twice between the money and Hamm Packer’s face before deciding the money was good. He motioned with his head toward the back and Hamm’s eyes darted that direction. When his gaze returned to the polished wood the twenty was gone.

“He’s here, Miss Ortice.” He took Antonia by the arm and guided her deeper into the tavern where they could see the rear tables. Three booths were occupied. The two on the right were occupied by couples obviously out for a night on the town. A man in a leather jacket sat in the one on the left. That had to be Coffin.

“Is that him?” Antonia was excited.

“Only person it could be. I tell you what. This is as far as I go on this one. Frankly, this place gives me the willies and I don’t think they like me being here—can’t put my finger on it, but you learn to go with your gut on something like this. You go see if that’s him. If it is, great and good luck. If not, I’ll help you track down some other lead. Deal?” He could feel the eyes boring into the back of his head.

“Yes, that’s fine, Mr. Packer. Oh! Here.” She handed him a couple of folded bills. “For the money you gave the bartender as well as for bringing me this far. Thank you so much for your help.” Antonia walked toward the man in the booth. Hamm pocketed the money without counting it. He was certain this particular client was playing fair and honest. At least he wasn’t out the twenty he’d lost at the bar.

Hamm watched as Antonia approached the booth and addressed the man. He couldn’t hear their words but he knew she was asking if he was Coffin. He nodded and offered her the seat opposite him. Hamm hoped she found the answer to her problem. Maybe this Coffin guy could help her; Hamm sure as hell knew that he couldn’t.

Author’s Note:  This story was initially published last week at Flash Pulp (flashpulp.com) both on the site and via the Flash Pulp podcast (FPGE6, Guest-isode 6). While the story takes place in the Flash Pulp universe and features the character Will Coffin, it should not be considered canon. The Flash Pulp universe is created by JRD Skinner and I appreciate his allowing me to dabble a bit in it.

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