Charlie Ben Studdard & the Case of the Sorry Sucker
by Pierce Nahigyan
Charlie Ben Studdard took one good look at his client-to-be and decided that he’d been better off asleep and hungry, as he’d been found just a minute ago. Presently, he found himself awake and hungry, and staring at a pair of false eyelashes narrowed over green eyes like the teeth of two sinister flytraps. He excused the crumbs of tobacco from his stubble and collar and tried to arrange himself on his lounge in a way that made his stained and rumpled brown trousers and matching cuffs look more like ornaments to the ragged leather instead of what they were, which was nothing much to look at.
The woman seemed to take a perverse joy in watching him squirm his way to relaxation. That he never quite made it there did little to dampen her sadistic smile. “You are Mr. Studdard?” she said. Her tone was that of a princess whose frog has morphed into a prince, reversed and played very slowly.
“Unless I fell asleep in the wrong office again,” said Charlie. He reached for his pipe, reclining on the coffee table next to a pouch of sour tobacco and several books stained with coffee rings and the yellowed tracks of the bad water that leaked from the ceiling. The books were stacked and askew, paperbacks and ancient leather hardbacks stamped and carved with runes, their spines telling tales of everything between nordic lore and 21st century Zen. He tapped out the old bowl over a copy of Cooking with Karma and began to parse through the contents of his pouch. He sprinkled the tobacco into the bowl and smiled sad and low. “In which case, ma’am, I’ll need to check the front window before I ask what exactly I can do for you.”
“You are a private investigator?” she said, with the same prince-to-frog aspersion as before.
He lit the match on his fingernail and watched it dance between the stick and the tobacco. Glowing, the tobacco smoked, and Charlie shook out the match and puffed. He smiled and clicked the pipe between his teeth. “Sometimes,” he said, “when I’m not dreaming of Babylon.”
To his anxious surprise, the woman shrugged off his leer and his levity. She reached inside her purse and dropped something on his coffee table. It hit the books with a thump. It made the tobacco pouch jump. It was a solid stack of ten dollar bills.
Charlie frowned at it. He frowned at it so deeply that his pipe slunk smoke up his nose and triggered a sneeze that blew the pipe and its hot tobacco over the table, spraying the washed out green with black flakes and a cherry ember. He batted it away, hissing, and cleared the leaves off the green. He picked up the bills, flipped them, and his frown deepened when he knew it was real cash.
“It appears that I’ve come to you with a job just when you need it most,” said the woman. “If your manner hadn’t tipped me off I’d say by the sight of you you’re hard up for a decent meal.”
Charlie allowed that his bloodshot eyes and hangdog cheeks belied a hunger commonly found in desert scavengers, but he did not relish the money in his hands, nor the predatory glimmer in the woman’s green eyes and crimson mouth.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I have my good days and my bad.”
“This is a good day for you,” she said.
“Begging your pardon,” he said, “I’ll be the final judge of that.”
“Mm,” she said, smoothing her bleached hair and pivoting a graceful step to the chair beside his desk. She sat herself in it and laid her purse over her tan knees, patiently waiting for him to pull himself out of the couch and circle her and the desk. He sat down, set the money between them, and waited for her to hum another set of matching consonants.
Instead she gave him a whole lot of bad words. “Mr. Studdard, I’m not often in Long Beach. It’s not really my scene. In fact it’s been several weeks since I’ve gone anywhere. It’s only recently that I’ve had the courage to take matters into my own hands. You see, it’s my husband, he’s been seeing another woman, down here.”
Charlie began to tentatively pack another bowl. He pointed to the cracked ceiling with a free finger. “You live up there.”
“I do,” she said. “Santa Monica. That neat stack of money is your retainer. Naturally, you will require a stipend for expenses—something I can have my people work out with you as soon as you’ve agreed to take the case.”
Charlie puffed on his pipe and eyed the peroxide blonde, and the cash, and the shadow of the plastic Venetians putting both behind bars. “You think I’m desperate, don’t you?”
The woman did not smirk or smile or grin or wink. She said, “It’s dangerous to tempt a desperate man.”
Charlie bit into his pipe and climbed the murky air to his feet. He jammed his hands into his pockets and paced to the far wall. In all he’d taken two steps to the edge of his desk but it was a pace, he hoped, that meant business. And he addressed her staring at that wall as if it were the shroud of some holy entity and he a devout appreciator. “You come in here tossing sawbucks and Shakespearean allusions and expect me to roll over and go fetch. Well I got news for you, ma’am, I’m not so desperate as I seem.”
“When was the last time you ate a fresh fruit?” she asked.
“I don’t eat fruit,” he said, still staring at the wall. “I eat what I kill.”
“When was the last time you made a killing, Mr. Studdard?”
He pulled his pipe from his mouth and jabbed at her with its stem. “Look, lady, I like my business like I like my clients—private and professional. You caught me taking a nap. Whoopdee-for-you. That doesn’t mean I’m going to take your Santa Monica money anywhere but back into that floral cowskin you got wrapped around your wrist.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Studdard,” she said. “I was under the impression that you were a working detective.”
“Well and I sure am,” he said, “but I don’t take cursed cases.”
“I was under the impression—” she began.
“Stop impressing me,” he said.
“I’ve been led to understand,” she said, “you are often involved in cases of a…particular nature.”
It was times like these (times often had in this office) that Charlie Ben Studdard knew a slow train from Union Station to anywhere else was a better opportunity to grab hold of. That his stomach had eaten itself down to a black peach pit, that his tobacco tasted like a rude combination of sawdust and wetter flavors, that his fate seemed perpetually contrary to the simplest aims of his stained and rumpled life, gave him little recourse but to turn away from his wall and squint at the woman sitting in his chair. “It’s not a habit I like to get into,” he said.
“But it does seem to be the only thing you do,” she said.
“Yeah, well, maybe I don’t take cursed cases so much as they’re foisted on me.”
“Desperate times,” she said, “call for desperate measures.”
“Yeah and maybe that’s just how curses work,” said Charlie. “I assume your husband’s got himself involved in something I’ll have to say is supernatural.”
“Indeed,” she said silkily. She unsnapped her purse once more and laid a bundle on his desk draped in a purple handkerchief. When she pulled the handkerchief away she revealed several black and white photographs. They were compromising all over. “My husband,” she said, “was under the impression that I am—how did he put it? ‘Frigid,’ ‘a cold and tight-assed shrew,’ a ‘tease’ and other, similar epithets I need not detail here because I’m sure you, Mr. Studdard, with that look in your eye and the drool still dry on your lip, have already surmised. He found something, raised it, in my image, to be…well, I wouldn’t say ‘better,’ but shall we say more flexible?”
Charlie slid one of the more acrobatic photos towards his side of the desk. The smoke slid out of his nostrils like two serpents leaving hairy holes. “Your husband conjured a succubus.”
“Yes,” she said. “And he’s quite indebted to her.”
“How much?” he said.
“A little bit of his soul and quite a bit of our money.”
“Yeah,” said Charlie. He pocketed the photo and crossed his arms. He crossed the windows, swinging his long thin shadow over her long tan neck.
“So you are on the case then?”
“These things tend to get messy,” said Charlie. “You’d be better off splitting from him and cutting your losses, keeping what you can.”
“You’re right,” she said. “But she has my face and that disturbs me.”
“It’s not really a she,” said Charlie. “It’s more of an it. But you’re not disturbed, are you, ma’am?”
“No,” she agreed. “A woman has her pride, and I’d like to at least make an effort to save the son of a bitch before I take him for everything he’s worth.”
“She’s going to fight pretty hard for the same thing, minus the saving.”
“It’s not a she,” said the woman. “And it didn’t spend ten years living with him in Santa Monica. I want what’s mine. She can keep the rest.”
“She—it—can keep your husband but you want me to save his soul?”
“Well I imagine he’ll need it to spend the rest of his life regretting everything he’s lost.”
Charlie puffed in the opposite corner, three steps from the desk, and bit down on his pipe. “Ma’am, this is a very personal affair. It wouldn’t be in good taste for me to take the case.”
“Good,” she said. “I went to the agencies that were in good taste. They sent me to you.” She produced a pale card with her name, a number, and an ink outline of a horse and set it beside the stack of ten dollar bills. “We’ll be in touch, Mr. Studdard.”
Charlie stepped to the desk and slid the card off the table and beheld the pale horse. “Promises, promises, Mrs. Grim.”
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