One chapter from a novel in Punk City




​Something hard in my pillow. Hard and heavy against my head. Less than half awake, my mind grumbled, irked at the mystery. I shifted position, but the pressure didn’t change. It was sharp against my temple. Then a quiet voice, almost a whisper.
“Traylor. Wake up.”
I rolled, tried to sit up, felt sudden pain in my arms just above the elbows, and a thin line of fire across my belly and back. When I opened my mouth to protest, a fistlike ball of fabric rushed between my teeth, flattening my tongue. I was wide awake and helpless.
The bedside lamp switched on. The room was filled by a huge, ugly handgun. Holding on to it was a blocky man in a gray suit. He had the kind of face you can never quite remember when you’re not looking at it. At the supermarket it would be packaged in a plain white wrapper labeled ‘generic.’ He was a fed all right.
The handgun dipped in my direction. “I’ll shoot if yell,” the fed told me matter-of-factly. “The silencer’s very good. Like me. Do we understand one another? Nod once for yes.”
I nodded. The rope around my chest was so tight that every breath hurt. He hadn’t bothered to tie my feet. I was obviously someone he felt able to handle.

He plucked the wadded up handkerchief from my mouth.
“Come on out to the living room,” he said. He and the gun stood aside and let me pass. I felt relieved that I had, for once, decided to sleep in my boxer shorts, just in case. Following directions, I perched on the edge of my sofa. My visitor and his gun sat down comfortably on my one easy chair.
According to the kitchen clock, it was four-thirty in the morning. The window behind the blinds was still black with night.
“What did Frelinger tell you?” he asked.
To lie or not to lie. That was the question. The interior debate had nothing to do with principle. It had to do with survival. If I told him everything, it might meet his definition of ‘too much to know and live.’ If I held out on him or clammed up, he’d almost certainly hurt me and maybe kill me anyway. Not to mention Janet. I sure hoped Jimmy was on duty.
“What did Frelinger tell you?” The repetition was exact, as if he had a recording of the question in his mouth. It sent a chill through me, communicating whole paragraphs of information. He was a pro. He was going to get answers. He knew what to do if I played any games.
I took as deep a breath as the rope around my gut would permit. “Enough,” I said. My mind was searching desperately for a lie that would meet the definition of ‘too much to know and die prematurely.’
He made a sound like a chuckle, except without the humor. “Nice try,” he said, “but I doubt it. What did Frelinger tell you?”
“He hired me to run down a lead,” I told him. “That’s why I wasn’t there when you and your buddy pissed off my dog. Where is your partner by the way? The cops have something of his if he wants it back.”
I saw him take a step but I didn’t see his hand move. The back of it crashed into my cheekbone, toppling me sideways on the sofa. I tasted blood inside my mouth. My ear was singing like a tropical storm.
“What was the lead?” he asked, using exactly the same flat tone of voice he had before.
“A lucky shot,” I said. My tongue dabbed at the cut in my mouth. “It told me more than Frelinger thought it would.”
His eyes processed me through the fed computer. “Such as?”
“An important clue to the whereabouts of the missing treasure of Punk City.”
There was a silence. My heart was beating so hard that it echoed in my pummeled ear, my bruised cheekbone, the puncture in my mouth. If I’d picked the right lie, I had a chance. If I hadn’t, I was going to have a very short career.
“You don’t know shit,” he said.
Hope surged. He hadn’t hit me again or shot me. That was a very good sign. “Wrong,” I said. “I know about Alice Hate. I know about feds who got involved in certain affairs of Punk City a few years back.” I looked straight at him. His eyes had widened almost imperceptibly. “And,” I said, “I know about the Shuteye Train.”
I had him. His voice sounded hoarse when he spoke again. “Go on. Keep talking. What about the Shuteye Train?” He stumbled on the name, as if he were afraid of being overheard saying it.
So far so good, but now I had come to the trickiest part of all. Staying alive. I spread my hands in a placating gesture that further tightened the rope around my chest. “You’ve got to understand something,” I told him. “I’m not a brave man, and I’m not a cowboy. But I’m smart enough to realize that if I tell you everything I know, you’ll kill me right here. Yours is not a memorable face, but I am a private investigator. I can describe you in detail, doing things feds don’t do unless they’re freelancing illegally. You aren’t worried about me recognizing you again. Which tells me that my only chance is to make a deal. We have to arrange it so that you get the information you want after I’’ safe from the threat of extermination.”
“There’s always torture,” he said, as if we were discussing where to order takeout pizza.
“No,” I replied. “There isn’t. If you torture me, I give you my word I’ll change the truth just enough to steer you hopelessly wrong. You see, I know something you really do want to know. And that’s how I know it’s important enough that you’ll need to keep me alive. So you’ll be able to make sure you got it right.”
“Sodium pentethol,” he announced.
“Okay,” I agreed. “That’ll work. Haul it out and let’s get the show on the road.”
He was rattled. Of course he hadn’t brought the stuff with him. The plan had been for me to spill my guts at the sight of his gun. I ventured a grin, willing to risk another shot to the head if it would bolster my bluff.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“What’s what?” I cocked my head. My apartment was on the second floor, and the walkway consisted of a cheap grating material so slippery when wet that every tenant had to sign a paper barring legal action in the event of a fall. Now the grating was resonating faintly with a kind of steady clicking sound that grew louder as it approached.
The fed’s gray face blanched. “Do you have a dog?”
Paws thumped high against the front door, scrabbled harshly against the metal like fingernails on slate.
“That would be Rover,” I said. “He usually likes to come home about now. He enjoys a pretty active nightlife. Would you let him in for me?”
The fed uttered a curseword and fired three quick shots through the door. They sounded like blows in a heavyweight pillow fight. We listened. The scrabbling stopped, then resumed at a higher pitch on the plate glass of the front window. But the blinds were still drawn and the fed had to guess where to aim his next shots. He fired twice more through the door, then twice through the window next to the doorframe. It was only when he broke into a gallop that I realized he’d been trying to buy some running room. His foot crashed the door open and he bounded through it and over the railing of the walkway. Moments later I heard an automobile engine and the squeal of tires.
I ran to the door, anxious to meet Rover. But there was no trace of him. I was so disappointed that I leaned over the railing and threw up.

I was on my fourth cup of coffee and my third donut when Al arrived at the station.
“Your tie is looped over your collar,” he told me affably.

“Thanks everybody,” I muttered to the other officers who hadn’t bothered to inform me. They smirked and giggled as I fixed my neckwear.
Al steered me into a vacant office and closed the door. “Bad news,” he said. “The lab had a break-in last night. The evidence has been removed without a trace.”
“Great. So we’ve got nothing.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Al told me.
“Does that mean you’ve been holding out on me?”
The cop in him laughed. “You going to bring me up on charges? Frelinger’s car was a Hertz rental. According to them, the contract was signed by one Herbert Lorz, possessor of a valid California driver’s license. So, either your client was lying to you, or he’s involved in something that makes him think it’s a good idea to create phony alternate identities.”
“I see. But you should be able to check out Herbert Lorz.”

“Yes. Just like I can run the fingerprints from the hand through the fed computer. If I decide it’s a smart thing to do.”
“I take it you have some doubts.”
Al grunted. “Janet okay?”
“Yeah,” I told him. I called her at six-thirty. Her mom said everything was fine. I said I’d pick her up later and run her to work myself.”
“Which brings us to why you’re here so bright and early with a brand new mouse on your cheek.”
“I had a visitor early this morning.”
“But you survived to tell the tale. That’s good. Let’s have it.”
He listened quietly to the short version, then led me step by step through the long version. He lifted a brow when I got to the part about Rover but stifled whatever it was he’d been about to say. I held nothing back, not even my stomach spasm at the railing.
“Come on,” he said when I had finished. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll go pick up Janet.”
But Al didn’t drive directly to Janet’s house. Instead he made a few quick turns and parked on a side street a half dozen blocks from the station. It was a bright blue morning that made Bellerton look like the kind of place where nothing ever happens.
“We’ve got some decisions to make,” Al said, staring straight ahead through the windshield. Two small boys were kicking a ball in the street. Ordinarily, he would have warned them to stay on the sidewalk. But I’m not sure he saw them at all.
“You’re not anxious to pursue this officially,” I suggested.
Al snorted. “Are you?”
“You’re just jealous because you don’t have a dog,” I said.
“I heard a story once,” he said, still staring forward. “This happened about fifteen years ago. One of the things cops tell each other when they’ve guzzled enough booze at the bar. I heard it from a guy I went to the academy with. We were in different precincts but he had a rep as a good cop.”
Al fell silent for maybe half a minute. I knew he was reconsidering his decision to tell me.
When his fingers started tapping the steering wheel, I spoke up in the most casual voice I could muster. “I understand,” I said. “I mean if you can’t top the one about being rescued from an outlaw fed by an invisible dog, then it’s probably better to say nothing at all.”
“As I said,” Al went on, as if the pause hadn’t happened, “this was about fifteen years ago. The cop’s name was Davis. He was working in Manhattan at the time. Answered an alarm at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the guards reported seeing a guy—this was around midnight—taking in the armory exhibit all by his lonesome. He wasn’t trying to hide. When the guard challenged him, he just sauntered away in the direction of one of the Asian exhibits. By now the guard is nervous as hell, because nobody taught him how to deal with the real loons. So he draws his gun and yells ‘freeze.’ Like an idiot, he follows where he thinks the guy went. Then he hears breaking glass, which sets off the alarm and turns on all the lights, so it’s bright as day. He’s standing there, blinking in the light, when he hears a whoosh right behind him, so close he can feel a breeze at his ear. He whirls around, and there’s the intruder, holding a fourth century Ninja sword, swinging it around, kind of playing with it. The guard gets a good look at him—average height, slender build, mohawk haircut, long black coat, red bandanna—and orders him to drop the sword or get shot. The perp just laughs and flicks the sword in the guard’s direction, taking his hand off at the wrist. It bangs on the floor, still holding the gun, which is how it was when Davis arrived a few minutes later.”
“The hand motif,” I remarked.
Al said, “There’s more to it than that. The reason Davis told me about it was to find out if I was involved in any of the incidents that happened later the same night.”
“Such as?”
“Such as the murder of a pair of drug dealers in the South Bronx. Actually, it was a pretty big buy and Narcotics had whole thing staked out, ready to make the bust after money had changed hands. They had the scene buttoned up, completely surrounded and under surveillance. But they didn’t see anything amiss until a guy with a sword suddenly appears in the middle of the action, decapitates the buyer and the seller, then makes off with both the drugs and the cash.”
“Never to be heard from again?”
“Hardly. Maybe forty minutes later, someone calls in a gang fight at a subway station four miles deeper into the South Bronx. Says about twenty of the local thugs are attacking a single trespasser on their turf.”
“A guy with a sword?”
“And a red bandanna. When the cops arrived, there were fifteen badly injured enough to require hospitalization. The leader, who kept screaming that he’d cut the bastard in the eye, had had both his legs taken off in retaliation. But once again, the guy with the sword got away.”
“Pretty tough hombre. Just out for a night of kicks?”
“Apparently what started it was, the gang members came across him in the station painting over their sacred graffiti with his own. Davis was curious enough to go see what he’d painted. Not long before I left the force, I went to take a look myself, not really expecting it to be there, but curious anyway. It was there. Intact. This was years later, but nobody had dared to paint over it. It was a single symbol, plus a name. The symbol was a circle with a vertical line through it.”
“Like the one in the painting.”
“And the name?”
Al finally turned to look me in the face and said, “The Shuteye Train.”

We were both getting nervous about Janet, so Al pulled away from the curb, made a U-turn, and headed toward her house.
“I take it they never caught the guy,” I said.
“So that’s it then. A mysterious fragment of cop mythology to add to the other incomprehensible craziness.”
Al coughed. “Actually, there is a little more.”
“Yeah. I’ll tell you later. After we pick up your girl and figure out where to stash her for a while.”
“She’s not my girl,” I protested. We parked alongside the curb in front of her parents’ house. She and Jimmy were waiting for us in the front yard.
“No?” returned Al with a smile. “Then why does she always look so damn glad to see you?”
“Hi,” said Janet, clambering into the squad car behind Jimmy. “Are we under arrest or what?”
She was a little more dressed up and a little more made up than she usually was. I hadn’t seen the gray flannel slacks before, and the sweater was a silky cardigan she’d worn the time I took her to a photography trade show in Philadelphia. It was a shade of green that went well with her redhead complexion, which looked perfectly normal except that her freckles were barely detectable.
“Your hair looks nice like that,” Al said, squinting at her in the rear view mirror. “You look good with it up.”
Janet smiled like an ingenue and turned her head so that Al could see her coiffeur in profile. “It’s a French twist,” she said. “Fun, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful,” Al told her.
“Where are we going?” Janet asked. “Out hunting?”
“You’re going to the library, right next to the police station,” I told her. “I have some research for you to do while Al and I are in the Big Apple.”
“You’re going to New York, and you’re not taking me along?” She was outraged, her upper lip set in a hard, cute line.
“That’s right,” I said.
“What are you looking for there?”
“A nightmare somebody had once,” Al told her.
“You don’t have to talk in code,” Janet complained. “I was just asking.”
“And I was just telling you,” Al said. “It’s my nightmare. I’ve had it every so often for years. And now it’s back. Time to go see.”
“Please be careful, guys,” Janet said. “Please.”
We left her and Jimmy at the library, both looking brave and nonchalant. I wished I had that knack. But, like Al said, it was time to go see, even if I wasn’t feeling very brave or nonchalant about it. So that’s what we did. And it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. It was worse.



Your email address will not be published.