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Piper

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We all get by with a little help from our friends, and ol' Jack's probably my best. He's a great listener, really bottles up his emotions. I was just about to start a conversation with my latest bottle- a real late night soul searching that would've taken me through the night and with any luck blissfully unaware through the next day- when there was a knock on the door of my tiny office. And by knock, I mean the twelve inch boot of a muscle-bound goon stuffed so tight into a three piece suit I could hear the fibers straining kicking through the old wood.

"You Piper," he asked in a voice that sounded like he had a whole cigarette factory down his throat.

"Well, that's what the door you knocked half off the hinges would've told you if you'd cared to exercise your eyes as much as your foot." I pulled a draw from my bottle and put it down to pick up a smoke and my lighter, hoping that the stare I fixed him with was exactly the right kind of intimidating to find out what this was all about. I'd love to say this was the first time I'd had such a dramatic entrance, but it sort of comes with the territory. Pietro "Piper" Hamilton is what I'd had them scratch into my poorly windowed door. Private Eye and Odd Jobs isn't exactly glamorous, but it keeps me in hooch and keeps the landlady at bay.

By now the goon had turned into the hallway, and was muttering something to a man just out of sight. Something along the lines of me being the guy, etc, etc. I'd honestly tuned it all out until Mr. Mystery decided it was time to make his appearance. The guy was decked out real incognito. Long duster to his knees, wide brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, almost covering the obviously very expensive suit he was wearing underneath. If he'd been anybody but the town mayor of the last 23 years, the whole getup might've been worth the effort.

"So what the hell brings his high and mighty-ness, mayor of this ville, into my own little shits-burg?

"Clam up Piper! You still doin' odd jobs, or are you too busy feeling sorry for yourself?" Obviously, the mayor wasn't going to banter with me and I'd be lying if I said I didn't need the money. Besides, it never pays to piss off the local government. Trust me. From experience.

"All right then mayor, sing. What's the job so terrible you had to come to my little dive to get it done?"

"I'll make this quick, we've got a security leak in city hall. Ever since the feds started running those posters about `Keeping an eye on your neighbor', you know all that commie bullcrap they're running, this town's been full of rats. Everyone's just looking to sell their information to the highest bidder. It's impossible to get anything done any more because everyone knows what's happening before you do it."

"So you want me to screen your city hall job applicants? Sorry, I've already got a crappy job and I'd just as soon keep the one with the boss I only sort-of hate."

"So you're gonna just keep up this small time crap forever, Piper? I'm offering you a chance to help out your city. You'd be a hero! Nobody likes the way things are going now, neighbor against neighbor. But they're all too afraid of being ratted out to go against it. Look, we hear you're pretty good at odd jobs. This is a simple round up job. You get all the snitches in one place and we send in the cops and arrest `em on some trumped up charge. Gets the troublemakers off the streets, shows the rest of the town that it's okay to... keep your mouth shut, if you know what I mean."

"All well and good, mayor, but you may have missed one small detail. If you'll look at the slightly askew door your goon will be paying me back for, you'll notice that at no point does it mention the Piper Hamilton Charity Organization. How much do I make on this city-man? And keep in mind, I've never been very civically minded."

"Fine, you'll get your money, you just make sure that you hold up your end of the bargain. Not a cent until those rats are locked up though, you hear me? City Hall doesn't pay for failures."

"Then how do you explain yourself?" I waved off the glowering and infuriated rebuttal he was trying to form, "Fine, I'll do it. I think I've even got an idea of how to do it. It's gonna require a little leg work though. You ever hear of a little dive called the Swallow's Nest?" I'd be surprised if he had. The Swallow's nest was one of the nastiest dives in town. Served real cheap scotch though, and if you knew who to hassle provided some of the lowest dirt this filthy city had to offer.

"I... I think so. I can find it anyway."

"Good enough. Meet me there in two hours, wear that getup but lose the goons."

"You expect me to hit that part of town without any protection?" For a second I almost thought I heard his voice crack.

"Don't worry Tinkerbell, if something happens I'll just clap real hard. You'll be fine."

I know I said it doesn't pay to piss off city hall, but sometimes it's just too damn easy. The mayor got up in a huff and stalked out of the office. I would've slammed the door after him, but to be fair I could barely get the thing to close, let alone slam.

I spent the next hour or so making sure my friend Jack hadn't missed me during our brief interlude. When I judged his mayor-ness to be in position, I put on my own long coat and hat. It was time to go set out some cheese. The night was chilly but nothing another warm belt and a tiny breathable fire couldn't fix. I'm sure a doctor would've told me to quit if I'd ever go to one.

The Swallow's Nest really is in the worst part of town, which is probably why they know me so well there. I slipped around the back and handed the bouncer a quick fin to let him know I was okay. It only took me a few moments to find the awkward mayor sitting in a dark booth on his own in a corner. I took a quick look around the room, gauging the crowd. If I'd judged right, then the little play I was about to put on would be exactly what the customer had ordered. I struck up the music and let the tune start to play.

"You SON of BITCH!" I yelled from across the room at the mayor who looked at me startled and then began looking around the room like a field mouse that suddenly realized he was sitting in cat bar. A cat bar for the mean drunk cats, no less. "I've set up your deal, damn you. Damn you to hell!" I sounded half drunk, which was only half as drunk as I was, and yelled loud enough for everyone to hear. As I neared the mayor's table though, I lowered my voice to a stage whisper and crooned a little longer for my willing audience. "The deal goes down at the Pier Seven dock warehouse tomorrow at 7 PM, if anybody were to find out the kind of.... Ugh... that you deal in..." I said this last in an even deeper whisper, sure that by then I'd already snagged every waiting ear in the room. No need to play the music louder for the folks, they'd tune in for themselves. "You go, make sure the goods are ready, you hear me?" At that I flung myself into the booth on the opposite side of the mayor and drank the rest of whatever he'd had left in his glass. Bourbon it turned out.

The mayor was obviously thicker than he looked. He leaned across the table and hissed at me, "What the hell do you think you're...."

"Didn't I say to get out of here? If you're not ready to go this deal can't happen. So go make it happen." I fixed him with the first clear stare I'd given since I got into the room, "I'll be back at my place soon enough, call me when you've got your end taken care of." I suppose the old fart still had a few brain cells to rub together since he looked at me and suddenly nodded and walked out of the bar looking like he had a fire under his ass. I just hoped that fire wouldn't burn me.

I allowed myself a little grin hidden underneath the lip of a flask and sat in the bar a little while longer gauging the reaction my little act had just garnered. From the pointed way nobody was looking at me I guessed that I'd done it just about right. I got up and left the bar knowing I'd done what I was getting paid for. By tomorrow night every stoolie, squealer, pigeon, and rat in a ten mile radius would be at that warehouse looking to get in on the secret so big the mayor was in on it. Back at my place I huddled into my desk and waited for the phone to ring. I didn't have long to wait.

"What the hell was that display Piper? You couldn't have let me in on the plan maybe?"

"What, and miss the reaction on your face? No I think that worked out exactly like it should have. You looked scared and like you knew something no one else needed to. And that's what I wanted. Have your men at that warehouse tomorrow at 7:30 and you'll have cleared up your little rat problem."

"This better work Piper or you're not getting paid, remember that. You're going to be in the warehouse, I presume? To help close the trap?"

"Someone's gotta be there to play the music they're coming for. I'll be there."

"Good. Then I'll see you at 8, Piper."

After the mayor hung up I pondered the trap I'd just set. It wasn't a bad bit of work, but it seemed like a bit more elaborate than really needed. Why couldn't the mayor just send out his trusted police force to bust some heads? It was about then that Jack started to tell me I was probably over-thinking it. I spent a few more hours telling ol' Jack my problems before he finally just convinced me to call it a night.

Now there're some things you should know about private eyes. First is that they tend to keep their own hours. When nobody's the boss but you, the office policy tends to get a little lax. Second, skullduggery happens after dark. Thus, private eyes are usually night owls. Staying up all night is a virtue in this line of work. Knowing all of this, and knowing that Jack makes a lousy alarm clock, it should come as no surprise that when I woke up it was to two revelations. One- that my head was apparently made out of broken glass, as every movement sent slicing pain into my brain, and two- that I had five minutes to make the twenty minute trip to the dock where my trap was about to be sprung. Now I'm no speed demon under the best of circumstances and with a hangover that threatened to chew my head up and spit it out... the fact that I made the trip in thirteen minutes is a damned miracle and I'll pound the man that says otherwise.

I parked my car about two blocks away and skulked my way over to the warehouse in question. This time of year it was already dark so I searched the pools light under the street lamps, looking everywhere for the sneaks and squealers that had certainly already showed up in hopes of catching the deal in progress. It was only about a quarter after the hour, and no rat worth his squealing lips would've left a secret this juicy lying around for someone else to sell. They'd still be there, there was still time for me to sneak in and make sure I collected my check for a job well done.

The street lamps showed the streets to be amazingly clear; which meant that either everyone was inside or nobody had showed. Either way, I took my chances and started running for the building. I'd like to imagine that if I hadn't been in that kind of hurry I would've noticed the boxes, I never would've tripped like a moron. Turning around to stare at the offending crate I bit back a curse that probably would've kept me out of heaven, if I weren't already damned. The crate was half hidden under a tarp, but what I'd uncovered when I tripped said Danger: Explosives. I ripped off the tarp and looked into the box to be sure. Suddenly a hangover seemed like the least of my problems. A crate of dynamite straight out of a bank robber's wet dream sat right next to one of the pylons keeping the Warehouse 7 on the docks. I grabbed one of the sticks from the box, don't ask me how I know authentic dynamite, but this was definitely the real thing. It didn't take me long to check the other pylons, it didn't take me long to put the pieces together.

I had to warn the people inside. Yeah, they were all stoolies and squealers but that didn't mean they deserved to die like the rats they were. I may have whacked a few guys when the situation demanded it, but I'm no cold blooded murderer. Maybe if I was I wouldn't have felt so bad about looking at my watch before I went in to warn them. 7:30, on the button, the mayor sent his "men" in. All 5 tons or so of them exploded onto the scene with a fire and fury. The explosion knocked me across the street into a lamppost. I sat there stunned watching what was left of the warehouse burn and sink into the water. I don't know which was worse, the screams of the burning or the screams of the drowning. It was a tortured dirge straight out of purgatory, called up from the depths of hell. Worst of all, the din seemed to be asking why I hadn't added my voice to the choir. Why did I deserve to be spared?

I certainly couldn't answer that question, but I knew someone who could answer some other questions. And the way I saw it, the mayor owed some answers to a lot of people who couldn't ask the questions any more. I puffed on a cigarette, hardening my heart while I waited for the bastard to make his appearance. I didn't have very long to wait. Apparently it's important to be punctual when you're a murdering, corrupt city official. The only satisfaction I got that night was the mayor's surprised face to see me sitting, apparently very casually, looking out at the last flames of the nearly sunken warehouse.

I've never stood up so deliberately in my life. "Awful nice firework show you put on there mayor. Almost makes me wish I had a hotdog and a little flag to go with it."

"Ah, Piper. You had to go and complicate things, didn't you? You really did have a pretty good plan. Just needed a few tweaks, you see. Just to make sure there were no loose ends. And now here you are. A loose end."

"Well, I never did learn how to sew properly. What makes you think you can get away with just blowing up a portion of the town's dock? With murdering thirty or more people in there?"

"Me? Why, Piper, I never would! I'm the good mayor, simply looking out for his citizens. Now a lowlife private eye on the other hand... Did you know that you recently made a very large purchase of dynamite from several local suppliers?" The mayor wore a smug grin like most people wear hats and he'd tipped this one right my way.

"You think you can pin this on me, mayor? You think I'll sit back and be your patsy?"

The mayor's grin disappeared and the animal rictus I'd come to associate with so many of his criminally corrupt ilk came over him. "That's -exactly- what I think you'll do Piper. When I found you, you were so deep in the bottle you'd need a spelunking team and a map just to crawl out. Who do you think would believe you if you even tried to speak a word of this? I haven't been to this warehouse all night, only you've been skulking around. Any evidence or witnesses you had are at the bottom of the river now. So yeah, I think you're gonna make a great fall guy, Pietro. You were supposed to have been in the explosion, Piper. How'd you know?"

"Mayor, I know when someone's singing a pretty tune, and I know when a note's gone flat. You were singing off key from the moment you first came into my office." I sighed and looked up at the sky, taking a long drag on my cig. "Fine, ya got me. Look, whatever you want to do with your rat problem is your business. Just pay me my money and I'll crawl back into my office. And my bottle." Yeah, I know, questions answered and all that. But revenge costs money, damn it.

The mayor had the good grace to at least laugh at me to my face. "I think if you'll look to your left, Braun has your payment ready"

If you ever find yourself in my line of work make sure to mention you take cash only. Otherwise people try to pay with all kinds of crazy things. Things like fists to your face. Maybe if I wasn't half blown to hell I could've taken it, but the meaty right hand of the goon hit me like an all night trucker late for a delivery. I went down hard and fast and the only thing that kept me from crying out was the blackness that swept over me.

******

I woke up in a small supply closet, tossed on the floor like the mop bucket my head was laying on. They hadn't even bothered tying me up, that's how much trash I was to them. I went to the door to try it, but they'd at least had the good sense to lock me in.

"Oh, you awake in there Piper? I thought maybe Braun had finished the job earlier. I'll have to dock his pay. Well, we can fix that shortly. Business first, don't you know. Just sit tight for a little while. You've no idea how amused I was that your fake deal happened to be for the same night as a very real merchandise deal." I could hear the mayor laughing as he walked away with another set of hoof beats following.

There's something about amateur criminals that still brings a smile to my old jaded heart. It's that child-like evil that just doesn't really think through what's going on. Now you show me a gumshoe who can't pick a lock, and I'll show you where his gravestone reads "killed by villain". A little work with a pick set and I was out of the closet with everything intact except my dignity. The escape was nothing, it's what I escaped -into- that took my breath away.

I'd been wondering why my cigarette craving was worse than ever. Down on the floor below me was a packed warehouse, filled with children and tobacco. The kids were barely covered. Saying they were dressed in rags would've been an insult to rags. They all seemed to be rolling cigarettes. A few of them were packing the rolled cigarettes into containers and putting the containers on a palette.

Now I'm no saint, hell if I ever met one I'd probably catch on fire, but I know right from wrong and I knew those kids weren't here by choice. I hurried down the stairs to the floor and looked located one of the kids. "What are you kids still doing here? Can't you escape?" I asked, frantically wondering how much longer we had until the mayor came back with his goons to put an end to this whole waltz. The kid pointed to a long manacled chain holding him and all the other kids in place. Then he pointed to the wall next to the door out and I immediately saw the keys he was pointing out. I ran over to the door to grab the keys and had barely grabbed them when I heard the mayor through the door.

"Don't worry; we've got a great setup going here. Take the trash tobacco and re-roll it into resalable cigarettes. Nobody really knows the difference and we get the tobacco from dirt cheap from farmers that would otherwise just throw it away. The kids are a great source of labor. So much energy when they're that young."

"It better be solid, we're looking to invest a lot of money in your operation." I didn't recognize the second voice, but I didn't need to use my detection skills to figure out he wasn't going to come in on my side of things. I left the mayor to assuring the client of how safe his operation was while I went back to make sure it was anything but. The kids were all unlocked in a few moments and I gathered them quickly to me by the door and only exit.

"Now kids, I'm going to kick out the door, when I do, you all make a run for it. Capisce?" I didn't have to ask them twice. Sweet lady liberty was singing a jitterbug, and these kids were ready to dance. I signaled for quiet just as the mayor was saying "Enough of this though, let me show you around." I waited until I saw the knob start to twist and then slammed my foot into the door with all my might. The door went flying out knocking the mayor over and sending him rolling back a few feet. If he hadn't gone rolling he probably would have lost an eye to the tramping feet of a pack of wild 10 year olds. I was the last to step outside, holding a stick of dynamite so conveniently not confiscated when the mayor's goon had cold-cocked me. Taking the freshly rolled cigarette out of my mouth I said, "I gotta tell you mayor, my friend, these cigarettes taste like shit."

"You wouldn't, you little puissant nobody!"

"I don't like your tune mayor, so I've got a little song of my own. Should have paid me when you had the chance, champ, now you'll never see those kids again." I think I see why everyone loves dynamite so much, really easy to light. I gave the stick a chuck over my shoulder with a grin that could kill. "Fetch, fido!"

By the way, nobody strolls casually away from a lit stick of dynamite. I don't care how cool you're playing it. The lot of us ran from the warehouse with nothing but thoughts of our own skin to save. Worthless as mine was I still had it and I intended to keep it another day. All of the stoolies in town might have been gone, but with a hundred children out in the streets the story would spread. The mayor would be finished before the day was over.

Me though? Well, I told Jack I wasn't mad at him for making me miss my appointment anymore.