Lonely Hearts and Serious Side Effects
A Lance Sidesaddle Saga
A warmish September afternoon on Courthouse Plaza lingers on towards sundown. But while work is ending for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace is just beginning. Yah, you know me –
Without warning, the desk telephone rings in my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking Whiskey Row. On a hunch, I pick it up. Could be something big.
“Lance Sidesaddle, private detective,” I quip.
The feminine voice on the other end is faint, dusky, mysterious, breathy, silky, alluring, wraithlike. And so on.
She has me there. Honesty is the best policy. I have no choice. “Yes.”
“You should get some air, go outside. See the parade.”
I begin to formulate a quizzical reply but the receiver clicks and the line goes dead. As dead as a doornail. Following the example of countless old private eye flicks, I twiddle the cradle a few times, shouting, “Hello, Operator, I’ve been cut off!” It doesn’t work this time either. But I do get this weird cold shiver up my neck.
But no matter. Parade. The secretive dusky alluring and so forth feminine voice had mentioned a parade. Outside. Hmmm. Could mean in the street. On a hunch, I amble downstairs and out onto Preskitt’s fabled Whiskey Row.
The late afternoon sidewalk crowds are thick, lining both sides of Montezuma Street. I jostle my way through the happy throng to a good spot. A brass band is strutting by, in full uniforms with high plumed hats, bass drum deeply hinting at the beat of a Sousa march. The band is followed by a phalanx of cowpokes on high-stepping horses under a broad banner: Ghost Riders in the Sky. Following them, an authentic 1800s stagecoach, eight massive Clydesdales driven by a hard-bitten leathery cowpoke. On the seat beside him sits a gorgeous blonde in a white bonnet, drop curls and blue gingham, just folding up a tiny cell phone. She looks at me, all smiles, then goes on waving to the crowd. Maybe it’s the packed bodies and the heat, but as the coach turns a corner, I can swear I see daylight under the big spoked wheels.
I shake it off. I’ve missed most of the parade – all that remains is a line of classic 1920s cars leaning on their oooh-gah horns, a few dispirited Boy Scouts following up with pooper-scoopers, and it’s over. The happy crowd begins to disperse, milling about, heading back into the shops, restaurants, and refined drinking establishments.
That mysterious ghostly alluring voice. Why had someone wanted me to see the parade? Obvious, really. My 80-hour workweeks as defender of the populace are legendary. Likely it was a civic-minded Preskitt citizen, concerned for my social cultivation. With a warm fuzzy glow all over, I head back inside and up the stairs.
I know something is wrong the moment I approach my office in the silent corridor – smells like a hot brandin’ iron. Vague rustlings from behind the door, through the clouded glass abstract shapes move. In the distance, a horse neighs nervously. I get an instant vision of three beefy men about to pound me senseless.
But this time I am ready. I reach into my mental lock-box of self-defense strategies and come out with a doozy?a surprise shoestring tackle as I burst through the door, which will put these louts finally at my mercy.
Crouching silently, I slowly twist the doorknob until I feel the latch pull clear, then shove the door open with all my might and launch myself forward, low to the floor. Surprise is on my side.
It’s a midget. His decidedly un-midget-like fist is waiting, and I remain obligingly committed to my trajectory until my nose greets his fist with a polite howdy-do.
When I regain consciousness, I find myself lying in the strewn debris of my useful crime-solving trivia. Why would someone toss my office? Rubbing my tenderized and flattened schnozz, I wonder aloud how a midget can have a fist as hard as an anvil.
“How?” echo the walls.
That burning odor – smells like Ol’ Paint’s clutch on my fave shortcut over Granite Mountain. It wasn’t anything like the sage and rare cedar barks I sometimes burn during my incantations. But looking at my topsy-turvy digs, a strange cold chill slithers up my spine.
When I finally set my desk and chair upright, I dig my answering machine from a haphazard pile of vintage Mad magazines. The alert light beckons balefully. The single message is brief, to the point, and ominous. I recognize the voice at once, one of my clients for telephone dating advice.
“Lance, I won’t be able to continue our sessions, enjoyable as they have been. No, I’ve decided to end it all. I did meet a wonderful lady, thanks to you, but she’s moving on. It’s just not worth the struggle to start again. Goodbye, you bonehead. By the time you hear this I’ll be extinct. But I’ll be in a better place, wearing a toe tag.”
The message fades away into spooky silence.
I sit and stew awhile. Mighty Mike, owner of that very voice, is one of my Lonely Hearts telephone clients. Yah, it’s a sideline, but over the years I’ve helped a few folks find a little romance in this crazy world. A little hoss sense, a few Indian spells, some burning herbs and hard-to-find rare barks. Like my other lovelorn clients, I’ve never met Mighty Mike, it’s all confidential. But he followed my advice, seemed to be getting results, and always sent his check. He had been upbeat the last few times we’d talked?but now this. And it’s up to me to stop him from doing something foolish!
What to do? Mighty Mike’s morbid message meant moribund mortality. But there are some clues. Toe tag! In a better place wearing a toe tag. What can that mean? Then I notice the crisp white card stapled to my leather vest.
You Stab ‘em, We Slab ‘em.
Curious. Piquant. Then the realization creeps up on me like rosy-fingered dawn over Thumb Butte?maybe I should check out the City Morgue. Before leaving, I look around for anything hot, but nothing can explain the burnt smell that still lingers in the heavy air.
Dark has fallen when my boots hit the stained but fabled sidewalk of Whiskey Row. The air is fresh with evening. Gone are the parade crowds, the languid shoppers from hither and yon. The few folks still about walk purposefully, quickly, like they’re going somewhere in a hurry.
I duck through the alley to Preskitt’s fab new parking structure on McCormick and fire up Ol’ Paint. Soon I’m ghosting through the darkened streets as quietly as the rusted-out mufflers will allow. The morgue is housed in a shadowy old stone edifice on a dead-end street. Ha! The macabre jocularity of these city planners! I’ve been here before, on the Halloween tour, but I’d never broken in. It’s easy enough. Who the heck wants to get into a morgue?
The place is deserted, quiet, dark, foreboding, with a frisson of spooky as hell. I move through the shadowy corridors by instinct, without a sound, until I find myself in a silent, dimly-lit room. That dimly-lit room. Sheet-shrouded shadowy shapes slumber silently. I walk among the quiet tables, viewing the plain white identification tags attached to protruding toes, inwardly paying my respects to the dear departed.
Hmmm. This guy. I’d heard of him. There’ll be many a dry eye now he’s gone. Oh, and this one donated his body to science. I’m sure his brain alone was worth every last penny. This one! Holy smoke, I’d of cried at his funeral – he owes me twenty bucks. Or was it owed? Then I come to something out of the ordinary, a horse of another color, something else again.
DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG.
My finger brushes the toe. Curious – it feels a lot like wood. In fact, so does the foot. Not only that, the ankle looks and feels like a broomstick. On a hunch, I look at the other one. Another broomstick. I step to the head of the covered form and gingerly raise the shroud.
It’s the midget.
His eyes are open, looking straight at me in the dimness. When he speaks, the voice is instantly familiar.
“Took you long enough. Howdy, Lance, I’m Mike DuPre.”
Mighty Mike, my Lonely Hearts client. We shake hands solemnly. I need a moment to think. I’d been giving telephone dating advice to a midget. Inwardly, I vowed to treat my client and this situation with utmost dignity.
“You sounded bigger on the phone. But what are you doing here?”
“The girl on the stagecoach, you saw her, right?”
“Blue gingham. Blonde. Sure.”
“That’s Evelyn, my girlfriend. Sort of. She’ll be here in a minute.”
“Why sort of? And why did you beat me up?”
“Beat you up? You mashed your face into my fist. Still smarts.”
Now I’m getting angry. “There is no gol-durn difference. And you shouldn’t have been rooting around in my private office.”
“When I want your opinion on manners I’ll beat it out of you. I was trying to erase my message. Wanted to talk to you before we came here. Was digging through the rubble to find your machine. You got there too soon. Then you were out cold, so the City Morgue card was simpler.”
“Rubble! Now wait a minute. My office is neat as a pin. Usually. Once in a while.”
“Not when I got there. Thought that was how you liked it. What was that burning smell?”
I shake my head. “But Evelyn, does she work here?”
“No! That’s just it. Ever since you set us up, this is the only place she’ll see me.”
I try to keep an open mind?this could be the latest thing in trendy night spots. “You mean you’ve been dating at the morgue?”
“You worked that spell, remember? While I was on the phone last time. That very night I got a call. From her. We talked and talked. It seemed like we’d known each other forever. So I met her that night. Here. We’ve been seeing each other ever since. But something is weird. She’s saying she has to go away now.”
Mighty Mike’s narrative is cut off by the sound of approaching bootheels in the empty corridor outside.
“Hsst! She’s here.”
“I’ll just leave you two lovebirds to your – ”
“No, you dolt, you gotta stay! You gotta keep her from leaving.”
“Sorry, loverboy. That part’s up to you. See ya.”
“You’re a good guy, Lance, but if you were any dumber, I’d have to water you twice a week. There was something wrong with your spell! You have to fix it.”
But we’ve used up our allotted time arguing. The sound of bootheels is louder now, right in the room with us. But the door hasn’t opened! Mike’s head is up, tracking the sound. So am I. But there’s one problem. Although the ladylike clump-clump of boots moves closer among the dear departed, there is nothing to see. A cold breeze catches my cheek, raising gooseflesh and a sudden sense of anxiety. The footsteps stop, the echoes die away.
Just when I’m thinking the hairs on the back of my neck can’t go any higher, up they go another notch. A swirling of mist in the dimness, vague at first, then slowly gaining clarity, until –
Blond and radiant, wearing the same white bonnet and blue gingham farm dress she’d worn for the parade, Mike Dupre’s girlfriend Evelyn stands on the other side of the gurney, smiling at both of us.
“Mr. Sidesaddle, I’m Evelyn Clark.”
She extends an elegant hand. My eyes go way wide. My own hand, numb like a sleepwalker, reaches out. I expect to touch no more than a cool puff of air, but the hand I hold is real, solid. It’s also warm and ladylike.
“Lance Sidesaddle,” I manage to get out. “Private detective.”
Mikey-boy, sitting up on the gurney, is looking from one of us to the other with an incredulous expression.
“You mean you can see her?”
“Of course he can see me, sweets.” She gives Mikey’s cheek a soulful smooch.
I begin to regain a modicum of composure. “Now somebody start talking. From the beginning.”
Mikey-boy starts to say something, but Evelyn takes his hand, smiling dreamily at him.
“Please, Michael. Allow me.”
Mighty Mike, gazing into her eyes, only nods dumbly. His expression is dopey-dreamy too. They’re obviously stuck on each other. Evelyn continues.
“Mr. Sidesaddle, when Michael came to you about his dating emergency, as he called it – ”
“I wanted to meet someone – someone very nice,” Mikey-boy gets in.
“Precisely, sweetheart. Anyway, when you began helping Michael, you used a variety of techniques – confidence-building exercises, verbal approaches, you call them pick-up lines, I believe. You also used a number of ancient chants. One in particular, am I right?”
I have to think about that. True, I do draw from an extensive bag-o-tricks when talking to my Lonely Hearts clients. And she’s right – I have one old book of Indian spells. They’re mostly about the weather, good harvests, et cetera. But there is one, one in particular –
“Alright. There is one incantation. I prefer to call it a suggestion. To the spirits. It’s used when a mother is looking for her child, when a woman wants to have a baby, when lovers want to be together. Using it to help Mike here find his soul mate – that seemed to be a fair application of the, er, suggestion.”
Her intelligent eyes dance with the idea. “I see. So might you have taken this spell?”
“This suggestion – beyond its own limits?” Unlike Mighty Mike, Evelyn is too refined to say I’d screwed it up royally.
I look at Mikey-boy, feeling a little blank. “I dunno. Coulda. Can’t be sure.”
“Mr. Sidesaddle, there is much you don’t know. Michael here almost understands it, though I’ve told him very little. Here’s what I think happened. Back in the days when Prescott was a bustling mining town and the territorial capital, Whiskey Row was mostly saloons. Many of the saloons had rooms up above, some used for – ahem – nefarious purposes.”
She looks down at her tightly clasped hands, then goes on.
“One of the rooms above Whiskey Row was occupied by a fortune teller, a card reader. She was my auntie June. Although the fire of 1900 consumed that building and most of Whiskey Row, the building standing there today is quite similar in layout. Her room was in precisely the same location as your office, Mr. Sidesaddle.”
Evelyn pauses to let this sink in. My head is reeling. Mikey-boy is getting better at his dumbfounded look. My sidekick powers awake from their slumbers, perform a few rapid hexadecimal calculations, and toss me a doozy.
“So you’re from – ” I begin.
“The past, Mr. Sidesaddle?” Her smile is angelic. “That’s not quite the concept, but it will suffice. My family occupied a house on Mt. Vernon street in 1905. The year I died.”
“Died!” yelps Mighty Mike. “In 1905?” He’s clearly distraught. Here he’d found a lovely, intelligent woman, the love of his life, but she had died many years before he was born.
Thanks to me, Yours Truly, the Village Idiot.
Evelyn takes Mikey-boy’s hands in both of hers. Gazing at him tenderly, she says, “I don’t belong here, Michael. Meeting you has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. But I have to go back.”
There’s more like that. I try to make myself invisible while she and Mikey-boy talk, grappling with the inevitable. The facts are incontrovertable. In fact, the day I worked my gol-durn incantation was 100 years to the hour after Evelyn died. Mike’s in love with an angel, in more ways than one. Many fervent hugs and tender smooches later, they turn to me. Their faces share a look of worn resignation. And heavy disappointment. They’re a perfect match, a century apart.
“Can you – ” Evelyn begins.
“Fix it, you plantbrain?” Mikey finishes for her. She shushes him but they both eyeball me piercingly.
I look from one to the other with a heart of lead. Theoretically it’s possible to reverse any spell, any suggestion. But that’s assuming I’d performed the steps correctly in the first place. Masking any inner self-doubt, I say to them, “I have to do this at my office. You have until sunup.”
As the silent edifice fades away in Ol’ Paint’s mirrors, I get it. It was while performing the original incantation that I’d done something wrong. I know what it is, and I feel like a fool. A shortcut. A stupid substitution because I’d been missing a certain hard-to-find bark. I’d thought that intention alone would impress the spirits, but now, I can almost see their laughing faces swirling about the truck. Parked now on the dark and deserted Whiskey Row, I reach under Ol Paint’s seat for the carefully-wrapped package, and make my way upstairs.
With all that’s happened this night, I don’t fully register that my office is now, amazingly, neat as a pin. I unwrap the old book with its cracked leather cover, and open it to the page. I begin reading the old dialect aloud, hoping I have the pronunciations close to right. In a large brass ashtray I build a small blaze of sage and heather, then at the last throw in a few shavings of rare cedar bark, shouting out the final words of the chant with a gusto I hope is convincing. The flame leaps brightly, then dies away to black ash and a thin trail of gray smoke.
Now there is nothing to do except wait. But I feel deep down that it worked. Mighty Mike will be back, alone, to express his dissatisfaction, and I’ll just have to put up with it. I know now what I’d done wrong. This time, I’d done the spell correctly, but before – I’d been taking a chants on love.
As my bootheels fade into the swirling mist of Courthouse Plaza, I make a promise to myself. If I ever, ever perform another spell, I sure won’t be using any plastic wood.
Lance Sidesaddle is my new hero. I think he fell out of the ‘Stupid’ tree and hit every branch on the way down. But hey, nobody’s perfect. Can’t wait to read the next installment.