by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Morning’s just not my time. What can you say about a time of day that makes you feel like a pair of old dirty socks rinsed and hung out over the shower rod in a cheap motel room?
Her voice startles me out of my third or fourth cup of coffee. I look up and she’s just there, the way women appear in office doorways in books, not there one minute, there the next. I can’t believe I didn’t sense her coming. Not someone like her.
She’s blond, the kind of blond that pours like honey, the kind of blond you just want to run your hands through. And she’s not leaning against the office door, she’s standing there kind of quivering, fear or something, but I like the effect. She’s one of those girls got side orders of everything that counts and those legs . . .
She startles me again, says the name that used to be my father’s and now belongs to me. I stiffen right up, stand and say, “Yes, ma’am,” when she says, “Mr. Early?”
I know all the jokes. Yeah, Early. The Late Mr. Early. Early Times. Okay, okay. But I don’t tell her to call me Mike, because nobody does. It’s always just Early.
She’s waiting for me to get my shit together like she’s used to it. Probably is. Doesn’t help when she licks her lips with just the tip of a pink triangular tongue, but then I notice something else – the lip she’s licking is split. And when I look closer, she’s not just showing signs of nerves or a couple anxious nights – one of her eyes is definitely ringed with something other than smudged mascara. And I start to get angry before I know anything else but I shove it down where it can’t do any harm and ask her into my “office”: Early’s Engine Repair & Auto Body, Est. 1902. Bring it in, get it on the rack, we’ll fix it. Somewhere along the line I got known as a fixer. Sometimes I am.
So I ask her in. If I could do it all over again, hindsight, and all that . . .
. . . I’d probably ask her in anyway.
She sits down across the desk from me and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be giving her an estimate on the cost to fix her tranny. She looks everywhere but at me and I’m just about to ask what her name is when I hear my own voice saying, “Husband trouble?”
I hate it when I do that.
Her lips move, beautiful lips, some kind of pink gloss and I don’t think there’s a man alive who’d care what they’re saying as long as he could watch them move, but I catch up to hear she’s answering my question.
And not answering it.
Because I hear her voice: Please, Mr. Early, you’ve got to help me . . .
And I hear her voice: No, he would never, he slipped, it was an accident . . .
. . . and everything I’m hearing is tonal and wrong, a grating sound that makes my teeth ache.
Ordinarily this is when I’d say, “Have a seat,” but she’s already sitting and I’m off balance. Ever since she walked in I’ve felt dizzy, like the back of my head’s draining out between my shoulder blades and spinning away down a sink. My ears are ringing like they do at the tail end of a good drunk. I’m not that shy around beautiful women, so I make another attempt to ask her name and manage to bark out “Name!” and she widens her eyes a little but doesn’t flinch. Somehow, that bothers me.
Bothers me even more when she says “Melissa” and I hear “Mine, she’s mine, she’s mine,” but Melissa doesn’t blink so maybe I can put that one down to imagination.
“You want some coffee?” I’m already on my feet. I need to move. I need more coffee. I need—”
“I need your help, Mr. Early,” she says and looks up at me with those killer blue eyes. Christ, almost like a child’s eyes they’re so big and blue and clear and she can’t be more than 28–
–90, she’s 90, old and fat and broken–
and whatever is going on in my head, I’ve got to shut the door on it, shove it down where it can’t hurt anything. Before she goes running out of here more afraid of me than whatever drove her to me in the first place. Because she is afraid.
Somehow, knowing that, understanding that, puts me back together. All at once I’m back in my body, back on my feet. I can think again, don’t feel like I’ve cornered the market on tequila.
“What kind of car is it?” I ask. I know damn well it isn’t, but it might give her a chance to start.
It does. She gives herself a little shake, which does all kinds of nice things for her generous portions and causes me to sit back down behind the desk in a hurry.
“It’s not about my car, Mr. Early,” she says, giving me an earnest look as if she doesn’t think I’m going to get it.
“I didn’t think it was,” I tell her and sit back in my chair with my fingers laced behind my head. I’d like to put my feet on the desk but that might be going too far. I want to look confident and non-threatening, and the only way to not lean toward that body is to lean away from it.
Then she’s up, ranging through the office of Early’s Engine Repair and Auto Body which surely could use a woman’s touch but that’s not what she’s got in mind. She just needs to get clear of me for a couple minutes.
Not much to see. Pin up calendar. NASCAR and some women from somewhere. Seals of approval, business license, more calendars, clocks, because for some reason Early’s always has multiples of those. Dirty counter, coffee pot, mints in a box with a suggested donation from some civic organization and that whole thing probably dates back to when the earlier Mr. Early was here but fortunately nobody ever wants a mint.
She settles for standing by the glass door, looking out across the parking lot and the cars parked there, waiting for service.
“It’s my husband,” she says, and I think, “Well, duh. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Mr. Overconfident. When I blink she’s sitting across the desk from me again like she never got up.
“Look,” she says. “It’s not really very interesting. I don’t even know why I came here. Could we just forget . . .”
. . . that she looks like she’s 28 and that voice – hers, the one outside of hers, mine, the one I can’t identify, the one that says she’s 90 and–
“Tell me.” She’s half risen from the seat when I say this and she looks at me, suddenly afraid, then sinks back down.
And she’s right. It’s not really an interesting story. It’s not unique. It should be, damn it. Nobody has that right. But her story’s a small one – great romance, feet sweeping off of, golden carriages and glass slippers and a little girl done good, get thee to a mansion Ophelia and . . .
. . . and then he changed. (Only he didn’t, he just showed himself, beauty and the beast, all rolled up into one.)
And then he changed s’more. (Yeah, he probably did, and now you can call him Mr. Overconfident, because he thought she’d just lie there and take it and take it and take it, and instead she came to me.)
Started with the usual. A slap here, or there, shocking on its own, but it progressed to Things that Don’t Show, and sometimes that scared her because internal bleeding doesn’t show. And now . . . now he’s not afraid of marking his property. Knows what’s his her husband does.
“I can’t leave him,” she says simply, about the time I open my mouth to ask. Okay, he has more money than God, I was about to say, but it won’t do you any good if you’re dead, followed by the hype about shelters and counseling and–
“He pays all my sister’s medical bills.” She looks down at her hands. “We can’t live without him. And he’s told me if I leave him . . .”
He’ll kill you, I think.
“He’ll kill my sister.” She looks at me to make sure I understand. “And leave me alive.”
“Shit,” I say, almost impressed, and she nods as if in agreement. “What do you want me to do?” My hands are flat on the desk in front of me, my gaze level with hers as she sits back down across from me. She’s still insanely beautiful but now I’m working, and I’m on even keel. Now things are different.
“What do you want me to do?” I ask again. She looks so miserable I feel like a heel, but I never make suggestions. They’ve got to tell me what they want.
“I want you to fix it,” she says finally, when she sees I’m not going to jump in, and she mentions a name I know and trust, which also happens to be the motto of my hometown news, a place I never want to see my pretty face.
So I ask again, a little more gently. “What do you want me to do?”
A little defiance then. She looks me in the eye and says, “What do you usually do, Mr. Early?”
“Usually I fix cars, lady,” I tell her and stand up like the meeting is over. That makes her eyes go wide and she reaches out toward me.
“I want you to make him stop.”
I don’t sit back down. “I don’t kill people,” I tell her. Actually, I do, sometimes. But “fixing” gets me out of trouble long before “killing” would.
She gives me a look I can’t read, this side of denial but as if it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Or maybe as if I’ve lost my mind.
Or maybe it is a perish the thought! look. Because she gets up and goes out of the office without another word. Morning sun catches the glass door and the words “We’ll Fix It!” stand against absolutely nothing for an instant as sunlight occludes everything else. I sigh, because if that’s not some kind of sign, what is?
For all the sun, it’s freezing outside. I take her coat and purse and we stand in the parking lot and she looks everywhere but at me. Her lip gloss is just as shiny and pink and I wonder how it would taste, but the split in her lip is even more evident out here, and the darkness around one eye before she puts on her sunglasses. She moves stiff and I’m angry again and I say before I can stop myself, “I need his name and some particulars. I’ll look into it. Talk to him. Really talk to him, if I have to. Okay?”
She nods, still looking east, away from me. She’s holding the coat and the purse and shivering, like she’s forgotten everything. But she says, “His name’s Dan Marino.”
Least that’s what I hear. I just look at her.
She sighs. “Not that one. Merino.” And she spells it, and says, “He’s in business,” as if it means something, but it doesn’t. Better than if he were a cop or something.
“I’m not cheap,” I tell her.
She nods again and opens the purse, digs through it and hands me a fat wad of cash, bills all squashed together like discarded tissue. It’s way too much money.
“I’m not that expensive.” Yeah, I’d like it. But it’s enough for that thing I tell people I don’t do.
She looks at me directly then. “It’s his money,” she spits, and then she’s gone. Flat white glare of morning sun and the sound of an expensive engine that definitely doesn’t need me to fix it and I’m standing there cold and holding a bunch of money.
Dan Merino is dead. First guy I go to, Ray, finds things. I fix things, he finds things. I hand over a generous portion of the lady’s largesse and Ray does some magic on the keyboard, stuff I don’t even vaguely understand, and comes back and tells me, “Dead on delivery, dude.”
I think about Melissa’s split lip and shake my head. “No way. He’s still hitting people.”
Ray glances at the printout in his hand. “Not officially. Officially he’s daisies, dude.”
Sometimes if you give Ray more money he changes his mind. Didn’t look like it this time. “Heart attack?” Maybe he got so angry at Melissa he keeled over and . . .
. . . and what? It happened this morning while I was on my way to Ray’s?
Ray looks at the pages in his hand. “That’s weird. No cause of death listed. No date, either. I’ll look s’more.” I take my leave of him.
County offices are overheated, the way I think they’re required by law to be. Lady behind the counter doesn’t seem to care what information I request as long as I take a number and wait to be called before I do so. We’re the only two people in the place, so I get called pretty fast, and the whole thing seems pretty stupid but in keeping with the one-buttoned cardigan and the wispy bun and the glasses.
“I need to know about Dan Merino,” I tell her and she gives me a look that says, “I get all the nuts.” “Not that one,” and I spell it. She gives me another look anyway and produces the file and points at a table across from the desk.
And he turns up dead. Doornail, daises and other things that start with D. And that doesn’t make any sense. Because according to her files, he’s been dead for at least seven months, since April, and the I look at the date again, but the year is smudged, looks like 35 and that’s crazy, must be 05, not that that’s particularly sane what with Melissa and her split lip, but I can’t think about it because every time I try to look at the DOD, or even the DC, I’m hit with nausea. Vertigo. Roaring in my ears. A drowning sensation like I’m going down, one too many times. So sick I can’t walk right but I get the file back to Ms. Spinster and stumble outside.
Outside is a swirl of blue sky and bright pain. Guy’s out of nowhere, grabs me by the arm and slams me into the brick wall of the county complex. Everywhere else in the world there’d be cameras, but our municipality decided to respect everyone’s right to privacy. So it’s a private thump this guy gives my head against the stone.
“Mr. Merino said he’s not interested and recommends you aren’t either,” the thug says. His breath is worse than being battered.
“The football player?” This earns me another good thunk.
“Just step down, asshole.” Thunk.
“Mr. Merino is dead,” I say experimentally.
“So just stop,” the guy says and thunks my head against the wall and then he’s gone in a blaze of glory and stars while I try to figure out what happened. And what’s happening.
“Your husband’s dead,” I tell Melissa the next morning when she appears as if we had a standing appointment I’ve forgotten. “You forgot to mention that.”
“Does this look like the work of a man who’s dead?” she asks. When she takes off her sunglasses, both eyes are black.
No. It looks like the work of a man who had his goon thunk my head into a wall. She gives me more money and I take it, because this morning when I woke up, everything she’d given me before was gone. I told myself the goon took it.
Merino ran a dry cleaning empire. That’s where he got the money she’s being so free with. He cleaned up, one could say, though one wouldn’t have to.
I try telling her I don’t think I can help her. I don’t want to end up dead like her husband seems to be. But she’s left the glasses off and she looks up at me with those hurt blue eyes and moves her hands uncertainly and I know I’m supposed to take her in my arms and comfort her.
There’s no comfort in this embrace. Her breasts press against my chest so soft and round and without any of that underwire and corseting nonsense between us, just female flesh and the thin material of her blouse. I can imagine the way her hips would fit round under my hands. She looks up at me from the circle of my arms, licks still slick pink and I think if Merino is going to kill me, it might as well be for a good reason, and I lean down and taste them, soft, yielding. Dizzy. Sick. For a minute the woman in my arms is thick and solid, blond hair coarsened, a smell stale, and not of perfume.
Then she’s gone again and I’m at my desk, feeling my heart racing in places it shouldn’t. I can still smell the lipstick but my hands remember a broad, doughy body.
After the techs come in and Sally shows up – late, always late, she stopped making excuses after the first month she worked for me but she’s the only one who can figure out everything she’s done to the office systems so she’s safe as a civil servant – I head to the county again. Different woman, same request. Same results. DC. DOD. 1935. Obviously a typo. Probably DOB. So he was older. Sweet guy.
I’m running out of things to check out. I’m not a PI, I just fix things. Sometimes. And I don’t know how to fix this.
I head back over to Ray’s with the calm assumption that he’ll be home because he’s always home. He’s either a hacker or has a trust fund, though his Mountain Dew habit sometimes makes me wonder.
“Dan Merino,” I say when he lets me in.
“Everything says he’s dead.” Not that I’ve checked that many other places.
“Dude, I said he was dead.” He looks hurt so I hand over the 6-pack of Dew I brought and another handful of Melissa’s money. He takes them both like a god accepting tributes and stands waiting for me to tell him what I want.
I don’t know what I want. My head still hurts from being thunked. “Could you just see what you can find?” I wave one hand toward his kitchen table where there’s something like six computers and parts of others.
Ray looks at me speculatively. “What’re you checking out?”
Fair enough. “Domestic situation. His wife–”
“Wife.” He comes down hard on the last word but it’s still a question.
Confused, I nod.
“What about her?”
“He’s knocking her around. Or . . . he was. He . . . look, she asked me–”
Ray’s eyebrows threaten his hairline. “She asked you? She’s still alive?”
Now being confused is getting old. “What are you talking about?”
Ray looks at me like I’m an idiot. “She’d be about, what, a hundred?”
This time I just look at him so Ray goes to one of the computers and does something magic on the keyboard and pops up pretty much the same document I was looking at under the scrutiny of Ms. Spinster yesterday. “Did you see the date of death, man?”
Briefly the nausea hits again, hard enough for me to swallow several times and to hold onto my stomach like pressing the outside will keep the inside in. Because when he says that I’m hit all over again with nausea and vertigo and that swimming, underwater feeling. I can’t even hear him when he starts talking so I push him aside and look at the DC myself and there it is: Date of Death.
Ray’s moved over to another computer while I’m standing there gawping and he motions me over. “Look,” and there in a newspaper online morgue is a short obit, Dan Merino, 35 in 1935, and he left behind a 27-year-old widow and yeah, she really would be pushing a hundred, pushing hard at it, but this is all impossible.
I head back to the garage and no one stops to thunk me along the way. On the drive it occurs to me that maybe the dead Merino is the father of the other Merino and I laugh out loud because that makes so much sense. I call Ray when I get there and ask him to check it out but he only comes up with one Dan Merino, married to Melissa, same SSN she gave me, same everything. But dead. A long time ago.
“Man, I would get untangled from this if I were you,” Ray says. “Merino was one seriously mean dude, and the money you gave me’s disappeared again.”
There’s no “again” for me because he didn’t tell me the first money disappeared but I know what he’s talking about.
Donna comes over that night like she sometimes does. Donna’s no Melissa but she looks nice in the long dress she cocktails in and better out of it. Standing in my bedroom in that pale peach slip of hers, breasts threatening to spill out of it and all her dips and hollows outlined in silk, she makes me catch my breath. But when I put my arms around her and her breasts press against my naked chest, suddenly I’m seeing Melissa again, then feeling Melissa in my arms, older, thicker, wrinkled Melissa. I start violently and try to let go of her but Donna pushes her face up to mine to be kissed and suddenly the only thing I can identify are those bright blue eyes because everything else is wrinkles and age and a smell I can’t identify that’s got to be age and dusty despair and decay.
Donna leaves early that night, flushed, but not glowing.
I make an early night of it (some people would find that uproarious) and get a full seven hours of sleep deprivation, of half-dreams my heart pounds through and a feeling there’s something I’m supposed to be doing.
Morning’s a relief until I go outside and Merino’s message man slams me into the side of the house. Siding doesn’t feel any better than brick did.
“Mr. Merino. Wants. You. To. Stop,” Goon Breath says, driving in each word with a poke of his index finger into my chest.
“Merino’s dead, isn’t he?” I ask and if his hired hand would stop bouncing my head I could see if he’s really wearing spats like I think he is.
“That’s for him to know and you—” thud “to find—” thud “out.”
“No thanks.” Knee to groin because I’m really sick of this and then because I just don’t want to see Melissa again, I call Roberto and tell him to hold down the fort at the garage and I take a jaunt to the library and get the woman there who looks like the twin sister of the spinster at the county to show me the microfiche ropes and I look up everything I can on Dan and Melissa Merino.
And it’s there. Some of it. Damned cold in the library and I’m chilled to the bone as I read about Dan Merino’s short life and his dry cleaning empire and his gangland connections, his petty crime and sudden death and the questionable heart attack that sounds more like he was executed in a hail of Tommy Gun fire.
And his wife. Melissa Merino. Who at 27 survived her husband and went on to do good works with his money and who everyone always suspected had been badly abused by the man, to the point of near death, but who had survived into the 21st century and still, apparently, did.
The microfiche rolls and there’s a photo of a woman in her 90s and I shudder at the mouth I almost kissed last night, the mouth I kissed at the garage, the soft pink lips on that ancient haggard face.
I jump about three feet when the librarian sneaks up behind me and lays one hand on my shoulder and she apologizes in that way some women have of making it seem like it was all your fault anyway and all your fault they had to apologize and then she tells me she’s got one more batch of film: my other request, cross referencing Merino, Melissa and me.
And there’s a picture, though I wish there wasn’t. It shows me, at the garage, standing beside Dan Merino, with Melissa just to the side, staring off away from the camera, and a couple people in the background, working, or pretending to, and the caption “From better times: Michael Early, right, has agreed to testify against former friend and gangland kingpin Dan Merino in exchange for immunity. It is rumored Merino’s wife, Melissa, pictured far right, will also testify and that she is suing for divorce.”
And one more file. And I don’t want to look. But curiosity, or fear, gets the better of me.
No photo this time. Just as well. It’d be a morgue shot. Just the headlines. I don’t need much more. “Former Friend of Mob Boss found Dead.” And my name. And my age.
There’s probably more than one Michael Early out there.
Yeah, right, asshole.
And I think I must still be at the library. But it smells and sounds like the garage. And when the hand comes down on my shoulder I don’t jump or look around. I can smell her perfume and I know who it is. The hand on my shoulder is young and white and unblemished.
I look again at the microfiche picture. Michael Early, found dead. 1935. My heart pounds strong in my chest. I turn off the viewer, return the spools to the librarian and drive back to the garage. There’s work I can do there while I wait.
The Late Mr. Early, shot down by his one-time friend before he could testify. Was it because of her? I can’t remember, I think, but I can. The peach-colored slip, the bountiful breasts straining against the lace cups. The way she watched me with those blue, blue eyes. That mouth and the pink lipstick.
But I’m still 33. I’m still young and strong. I’m still alive, I can effect what’s around me. If I can effect it, I can change it. I’m a fixer. That’s what I do. Sometimes. I fix things.
Sooner or later Melissa will come. Or Merino’s thug, or Merino himself. They have to come, before I can really figure out what’s going on.
And fix it.
I settle back to wait.
BIO: Jennifer Rachel Baumer lives, writes, runs, procrastinates and collects cats in the Northern Nevada desert where she lives with her husband, Rick. She firmly doesn’t believe in ghosts, but they keep creeping into her stories anyway. Jennifer’s writing can be found in Liquid Imagination, Aoife’s Kiss, The 5th Di and many online and print speculative magazines.