Charlie Ben Studdard & the Case of the Sorry Sucker
by Pierce Nahigyan
Charlie pulled himself into the passenger seat with a hearty woof. He sank into the seat cushions and closed his eyes, letting the car idle at the curb while he made up his mind whether he should go west to Santa Monica or north to Silver Lake. He rubbed his face, and the oil from his dried sweat coated his fingers like the resin from a much taller, more productive and heroic tree. He started to pat his pockets for his pipe.
The djinn was talking to him. He ignored it and continued to pat his pockets, wondering why Mr. Grim had run and who, exactly, was living in his house. Where, exactly, was that house? Silver Lake? Santa Monica?
The djinn’s sonorous voice blew at him from the speakers, rattling the dashboard and the change in the door handles. He pretended not to hear it. The Plymouth’s engine revved twice in neutral; Charlie squinted, but he pulled his matches out of his pocket before he dignified the machine with a response. “Don’t-” he started.
The car alarm went off, the headlights flashing, the whine and the screech echoing on the sparsely peopled street and growing in intensity. Charlie pulled himself over the central arm rest and into the driver’s seat. He grabbed at the key and attempted to twist it off but it steadfastly refused to budge. He kicked at the car, at the horn and finally, in frustration, flipped wildly at the door lock. But of course the djinn had child-locked the doors.
“What is it?” he said. Even after his defeated nap his voice retained the guttural growl of the post marathon runner.
The car alarm ceased at once. “Good evening, Master Detective!” the djinn boomed. “I am most fortunate to have found you so far from your abode. Long have I wandered the avenues of Long Beach in search of the policeman as ticketed me between the hours of four and eight AM on fourth street this past Tuesday. I was sleeping, and he pulled up my wipers with a most aggressive action, and woke me from a dream of warm sands and twinkling stars. The devil!”
Charlie rubbed at his forehead. Once, when he was young and content, he’d owned a beat up Dodge that seemed to break down before every holiday vacation. He had gutted it and repaired it a dozen times and it was his first true love. But it, like some Shakespearean damsel, seemed fated to die.
The hood of the Plymouth snapped open like the maw of some metal crocodile. “Thus I pursued him to Broadway, and then Ocean Boulevard, but I lost him within the parking garage of the ICB. He is somewhere, hiding downtown.”
“How did you find me?” said Charlie.
“Charlie Sahib, I could find you flying backward through a sandstorm of self-loathing. You are my Master!”
Charlie ignored the ticking in the engine that sounded like a repressed snicker. “Right. I need to go to Santa Monica.”
The car juddered as if its fuel injectors had suddenly sneezed. “Is that your wish?”
Charlie slapped his cheek. “No,” he grunted. “No, no, no.”
“Only wish to avoid the harried traffic of the 101, the 405 and the 10 and I shall transport you to the exact address in the perfect parking place in an instant. What do you say to that, Master Detective?”
“No,” said Charlie. “Listen-”
“Very well! For only this moment, and I beg you heed me, Charlie Sahib, as you’ve never heeded another, I shall throw in the buxom cafe waitress you doted on last week, transported here from her very boudoir and in such a state of arousal even your sebaceous cheeks will fail to forestall her amorousness.”
“No,” said Charlie.
“She shall appear nude and waxed in the seat beside you, Charlie Sahib, at the very address you specify.”
“No,” said Charlie.
Both trunk and hood of the Plymouth suddenly slammed down, sounding in effect much like a wily car salesman patting the arms of his chair. There was a noxious poof and a mist of shower vapor filled the car. In the passenger seat, wrapped in nothing but a terry bathrobe, a carrot-haired woman in her late twenties coughed and clutched at her moist chest. She batted the vapor and the purple smoke from her face and turned to the driver’s seat. She gasped at Charlie.
“Hi, Rhonda,” said Charlie.
Rhonda wrinkled her nose.
She disappeared in another noxious puff and Charlie coughed and reeled the window down. The car billowed with the gases of various chemicals. “Not quite as advertised,” he said.
“You dare!” the djinn boomed. The headlights flashed and the turn signals clicked, first left, then right, then left, then in tandem with the emergency lights. “Why I could have that girl oiled and barking like a dog on all fours, should you but wish it! A harem of nubile Rhondas for you!”
“Listen-” said Charlie.
“Did you not consider that this paltry demonstration was merely to verse you in the very meanest of my power? Am I not powerful, Charlie Sahib? Are you not awed? Look! Look at this!”
Another noxious puff, and Charlie wheeled the window all the way down to cough out the angry black smoke that swirled in the passenger seat. He pulled his head as far aside as it would go to make room for the sudden flock of emerald parrots that screamed out of it.
Feathers clinging to his jacket, Charlie shook himself when the mass of the creatures had escaped. Two remained perched on the headrests of the Plymouth, heads cocked in curiosity. Charlie reached out to scare the nearest one off, and it bit him with its terrible beak. Charlie pulled his finger back with a moan.
The car shuddered and the bird became a cooked parrot sandwich. The parrot sitting in the back watched this and let out a frightened squawk.
“I am terribly sorry about that, Charlie Sahib.” For once the djinn’s regal voice crept down to a timid basso profundo. “I brought them here from the Los Angeles zoo. They’re very rare, but quite ill behaved. I had not intended-”
Charlie sucked at his finger. “What’s in the sandwich?”
“Mayonnaise, honey mustard and pieces of cucumber.”
Charlie grabbed the plate off the headrest and devoured half of it in one chomp. In the backseat of the car, the remaining parrot hunched its green shoulders and bobbed silently out of sight.
The djinn seemed content to wait for Charlie to finish eating the sandwich, as contentedly as it managed to do anything, and only once Charlie was sucking on his fingertips did it again broach the subject of wishes. “Charlie Sahib, if you wish now, I vow that such will be your pleasures no man on Earth shall dare not call you friend.”
Charlie stomped on the accelerator and clutched the steering wheel. “I’m gonna drive now.”
“Wait!” cried the djinn. “If you wish now, I will also include Rhonda and the woman in the yoga pants that jogs past your apartment in the morning, for no additional wishes!”
Charlie jiggled the accelerator with his foot and shifted gears. Despite the djinn’s purported omnipotence, the creature was unable to stop the Plymouth from jerking forward. He and Charlie fought for control of the brake pedal, with Charlie wedging his foot underneath it to keep it from depressing. The djinn was forced to stop just short of severing his toes and, haltingly, they swerved away from the garage.
It was a small relief that the djinn was unable to harm or, by its actions, allow harm to befall its master before granting his wish. Charlie had bought himself a little leeway by getting pecked by the parrot, enough to wrestle the helm of the vehicle from the creature’s grasp – though even that minor injury was enough to make him doubt the essence of the creature’s prime directive. Charlie glanced at his finger and frowned, hoping the djinn would not have the final ironic laugh by granting Charlie a cure for avian flu. He glanced at the remaining parrot in the rearview mirror and the little thing sulked back at him. It did not seem rabid, nor did it seem eager to fly out the window with Charlie and his mustard-smeared lips so near.
The djinn spoke up just before they arrived at the onramp to the 110 freeway. “Master, might I interest you in this one-time wish which I have never granted to so lowly a yeoman before?”
Charlie flipped off the djinn’s voice by switching the radio to a country station. The djinn countered by birthing a little black rain cloud over Charlie’s head. The downpour was instantaneous. Charlie waited at the stop light, watching the water bead down the brim of his hat, staring straight ahead, neither to the left nor the right, and waited for the signal to allow him onto the freeway. Buffeted by the lingering heat in the hot car, the freezing water slapped Charlie’s cheek with a barometric gust. Gradually his shirt melted to the back of his soggy jacket, his jacket to the moistening fabric of his car seat.
From the backseat the wet bird squawked and fluttered to Charlie’s shoulder. It daintily clawed its way to Charlie’s neck and underneath the brim of his hat, where it nuzzled up to his ear and began to peck at his earlobe. Its rubbery tongue dug into his ear canal as it stupidly chewed at its sole shelter from the storm. The parrot shrieked and flapped the water off its feathers, spraying his face.
Charlie sniffed and grunted, his wet arms outstretched, hands locked on the wheel. He refused to let go in case the djinn decided it knew a better route to Santa Monica. He drove in the sizzling heat of the early California evening, his boots gradually filling with water, the parrot gnawing on his ear, the rain splashing in his eyes and his shirt sticking to his chest. Absently, he flicked on the windshield wipers, realizing after the first few wipes that he had no method for clearing the inside of the window.
Charlie said a word in Arabic. It was a word that had no equivalent in English, and it was the only word in Arabic Charlie knew for certain. It was a word that conveyed the emotion that overcomes a bedouin when he is crossing the hot desert to a purported oasis, when he is saddle sore and wearing an itchy turban, when he is short of water and his tongue is too dry to sing, when the horizon stretches and the sun rolls no lower, and when his camel looks back at him and laughs. The word was for that singular emotion that compels a bedouin to run his camel into the nearest tree.
Bracing himself, Charlie pulled one hand off the wheel, dug into his pocket for his pipe, clamped it securely between his teeth, and lit a match on the single dry patch of stubble on his chin. The parrot squawked and ceased biting. It bobbed its head along with the country music as smoke billowed under the brim of Charlie’s wet hat. And together, Charlie, parrot, raincloud and monster drove northwest to Santa Monica.
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