Stranded on ‘the Grind’ for what seems ten eternities, private detective Rogie Bresson must go...shopping
A Little Market...in Hell
For Rogatien “Rogie” Bresson, part-time detective and full time marked man, the day always begins innocently enough.
Hold the warm coffee cup between the hands and pray.
They haven’t got me yet.
Not his clients. Not his roommate, his neighbours, his cat, landlord, miscellaneous government agencies or other as yet unknown malefactors. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe after lunch. But not yet. Not at the breakfast table. Certainly the coffee maker has tried. The microwave makes an attempt every other day. But he has outwitted...no, just outran, them all.
But he had to go to The Grind today. Run the gauntlet of disaster once again. Dear heavens, it was only a block and half down the road, but after twelve years--twelve years--it had become a very long block. There was no telling what could happen once he hit The Grind itself and did his errands--or died trying, which was always the greater likelihood. That he hadn’t so far in the...twelve years...he’d been stranded here was a virtual promise that some spectacular blow-out was being held in store for him.
Twelve years since...Vanessa. He sighed in a strangled wheeze that startled his cat, feeding in a corner. It scampered away in a blaze of Purina mix that scattered across the linoleum. The detective didn’t notice. He stood abruptly, crushing Purina flakes under his feet. He drained the last of his coffee and put the cup away on the sideboard. He probably wouldn’t see it again.
He scooped up his keys, his ancient flip-phone, and left the house. He trotted down the path and got into his rust coloured Charger. It started, which was good of it. He knew from the slow reluctant drawl of the ignition that it had been thinking of the seventies again. It missed the good times. He patted the dash. “I know, I know. They were better days.” Grimly he coasted down a couple of blocks and parked on the corner of a side street below The Grind. He could have walked from his house but it was safer to have the rolling fortress nearby.
Before getting out he surveyed the grim battleground.
The Mercantile Parkway--nicknamed ‘The Grind’ for its industrial past--did have a gritty appeal.
This old street in the city’s languishing east side had been home to the most astonishing concentration of mills and machine shops, foundries and factories in all of Vanderville. Here could be found anything and everything needed to pound, smash, remove and eradicate one kind of creation over, under and through another.
But the mills had closed long ago, and what was still needed for the modern metropolis was turned out in soulless factories that drifted farther and farther over the seas, or into the more expendable local suburbs, such as Burbury, which some say is not properly attached to the Earth.
Be that as it may, the Grind had begun as a dynamic and purposeful thoroughfare on the outskirts of town, but over the years it had exhausted itself to become a meandering and mildly busy road that now drifted, stumbled, and finally expired in the dregs of the downtown core. By accident it divided the metropolis between its bipolar personalities. To the east stood industrious Grimsby, empire of car lots, rising nobly on its rock knoll of granite like an Anti-Acropolis. Befogged to the west, invisible in its heady intellectual vapours, lay the sprawling empire of UVD--the University of Vanderville--almost, but never quite sliding off its bluff into the grey and misty seas.
As the city polarized, the Grind became the catch basin for the misfits and losers that tumbled off either side, in time piling up such a mound of human debris the word came to define not just the neighbourhood but also a whole way of life.
For some peculiar reason it specialized in artists. Every forlorn aspirant to every art and craft and nook and cranny of alternative living nosed along the edge of the Grind, teetered a bit, and fell in. They were never seen again.
Rogie Bresson, detective, told himself he lived here because it was cheap.
But they all said that.
He put one hand on the door handle, and with the other scooped up the bag of beer bottles on the car seat beside him. He tried to concentrate on two competing streams of thought: his finances, and self-preservation. Math and timing were both critical. He calculated. Thirteen bottles at ten cents each plus a buck eighty-five in his wallet equals one box of macaroni plus one apple plus three potatoes plus one can of Spam equals dinner. Unless...he looked at the sky...unless it clouded over and the liquor store closed as per Sun over Yardarm Regulation 319, in which case it was drive another mile to the empties return depot. Then it was thirteen times five cents plus a buck eighty-five minus fifty cents for parking in that part of town equals only two bucks in which case it was six potatoes and an egg. He hated getting one egg. The clerk always looked at him funny and it made him self-conscious.
He peered out the window again. The coast seemed to be clear. He was below the Grind, just behind the corner of a Russian café, where a rumpled clump of codgers sat smoking and grumbling and awaiting the usual danse macabre. The detective empathized. This street used to belong to them, the Russian community, who manned the factories and mills in days of yore, but they had made two fatal mistakes.
Serving tea to anybody and everybody.
Who never, ever, left.
The detective flexed his fingers on the door handle as he scanned the street. He ticked off an internal check-list.
No musicians, brass bands, clowns, or brass bands of clowns. Check.
No artists, actors, playwrights, critics, or miscellaneous scribblers--employable or otherwise. Check.
No poets. He paused, and craned his neck back and forth. Right, absolutely no poets. Check.
A final look. No orang-utans.
He closed his eyes and threw open the door. Instantly there was a small thunderclap, a jolt, a je ne sais qua for personal oblivion that started with his tail bone and just carried on from there. Next thing he knew, he was face down on the sidewalk, watching his bottles roll away into the street, where they were crushed under the wheels of a passing semi-trailer. Through delirious eyes, he looked for the train tracks, or buffalo droppings, or shell crater--anything to explain what hit him from behind.
A hoof came into view. And a stench.
“No!” exclaimed the detective. He rolled over and tried to sit up, but couldn’t. There was a donkey where the sky should be. It straddled him between legs that shifted restlessly, unsure what to crush first--an ankle, a wrist, a groin, a neck. It gave him the once-over with beady black eyes that had seen--and enjoyed--the splatter of goo and gristle from freshly cracked skulls. If suppuration had a name it was Eeyore. It yawned. It stank. It expelled vapours that killed the clover in the sidewalk.
Not good, thought Bresson, choking on the sizzling embers. And the thing had to be so intimate. If it ever stopped yawning in his face, it would probably rip off his nose without noticing.
The detective dragged himself back from between its legs until he hit the wall of the café. That wasn’t far, so he was still cornered by the animal as he sat up. It was then he took in there was a man astride the donkey, his face obscured in the shadow of a sombrero.
And there were three more flanking him on their own burros. Only on the Grind, Rogatien thought. In one direction, a patio of Russian seniors, pointedly ignoring him except as a target for their cigarette butts. In another, noticeable from the corner of his eye, naked hippies were converging in a park down the street, chilling out against global warming. In the distance, sirens blared as the authorities rushed with blankets to crush the rebellion. And a few feet away young layabouts staggered down the Grind, careening into walls, traffic, and each other, blindly texting and tweeting odious poetry to the world. But the piece de resistance, that coup de grace he’d been expecting since breakfast and every breakfast for twelve years since arriving in this miserable town, was directly in front of him. Here on this quiet little Vanderville side street, with its quaint old bungalows and overgrown yards and slippery leaf-bestrewn sidewalks, were The Lawless Busker Gauchos of Guadalajara.
Rogie Bresson knew exactly who they were. Hounded out of every tourist trap in North America, usually with artillery, the desperadoes never gave up their masquerade as travelling Bolivian musicians, despite the sombreros and bandoleers of mini-bar liquor bottles strapped across their chests. Now they roamed the side streets of The Grind, picking off stray pedestrians with unlicensed panpipes. Obviously, rued the detective, they had outflanked him from behind when he’d been so vigilantly scouting for trouble in front. Slomeaux! Not checking the rear-view!
The busker grinned lopsidedly. His hand drifted to his side.
“Stop! Hands off that flute,” Rogie demanded, with as much authority as someone on his butt on the sidewalk can muster.
“Why, señor,” the man replied, lifting his hand to show no harm. “It eez a...hot day. I only take a drink of water from my...canteen...to slake my thirst.”
“Nonsense! It’s Vanderville. It’s November. It’s been raining for three years. The only heat you feel is your burning conscience, chagrined at your monumental crimes!”
“Oh, señor,” the hombre protested. “We have no consciences. We are only seemple Bolivian peasants, passing our peaceful way through your beautiful country and sharing weet you our lovely folk music. Aren’t we, boys?”
“Ja, wir sind gute Bolivianer...eh...senor!”
The desperadoes inched closer to the supine detective. “You need a leetle song, to cheer you up.”
“Si, a leetle song.”
“No, stop right there! I’m a detective,” commanded the detective. This was not strictly true. Rogie Bresson had once been a patrol man with the Securite in Quebec a lifetime before, but had never become a real detective until coming to Vanderville. He was just a private investigator...um...in other words, a pretend detective. These nuances, he hoped, would be lost on both real and putative Bolivians. “Here’s my license...er...badge.” He struggled to extricate his wallet from his back pocket, then awkwardly flapped it open. Business cards and corner store receipts fluttered through the air. “Now show me your performer’s permit.”
The lead busker laughed. “We don’ need no steenkeen--wait.” He leaned over his mount. “That eez a library card.”
“Is it?” He quickly flipped it around and back again. “Oh. Well...so what. It got me enough books to show you’re a fraud! Real Bolivians just play the pipes. They don’t use them as giant peashooters to mow down their victims when the music alone won't do the job! Which is hard to imagine, I know.”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! ” The faux-Bolivian tilted back his head and roared with laughter, revealing a perfect set of gleaming white teeth. “That eez old news, gringo fat guy. We have been practicing, haven’t we, boys?” He turned to his compadres, unbuckling from his saddle-bag a wicked multi-barrelled zampona nearly four feet long. “You like maybe, Simon and Garfunkel?”
“Everybody likes Simon and Garfunkel. Here eez an old favourite. All together boys, El Condor Pasa, on tree: unos, dos, unos dos tres--”
The trilla-rilla-roos began with a vengeance. The detective winced. He knew what would follow. Pinned against the wall of the Russian café by the burro, the desperadoes would serenade him with the greatest two hits of the pan pipe canon until their sickly sweet melodies reduced him to a bloated sack of insulin. Then they’d roll him down to the nearest sewer grate, prick him with a rusty nail, and watch him drain away. After that, they would make off with whatever was left on top of the grate. Oh yes, he’d seen it all before.