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The Laughterhouse: A Thrillerby Paul Cleave
Fifteen Years Later
It’s bad funeral weather. The early Monday morning Christchurch sun has given way to rain, a cloudless sky now nothing but gray without a hint of blue, one minute the rain thick and steady, the next nothing more than annoying drizzle that the window wipers on my car struggle to keep up with. It’s not much of a car—it’s over twenty years old, which puts it around seventy in human years, certainly retirement age. Some mornings it’ll start and others it won’t, but it was cheap and the truth is cheap is something I can barely afford.
The morning isn’t too cold, not yet. March is often kind to us that way, though each morning is certainly cooler than the previous, days marching by on their way toward July and August and a whole lot of cold. My car certainly won’t work in those conditions. Perhaps I won’t be working either, each paying job a rarity rather than the norm. The only PI work to have come my way recently has been passed on by Detective Inspector Carl Schroder, small cases not important enough to warrant the attention of the police, mainly because the police these days are too busy trying to stop the good people of Christchurch from ending up in the ground.
Only it’s not March anymore. It’s been April for the last ten hours, and April is a crueler month. One half of it I’ve spent asleep, and one half driving from motel to motel with a photograph of Lucy Saunders in my pocket, showing it to clerks behind counters. Lucy Saunders is outgoing and friendly and not yet halfway through her twenties, attractive and warm and with all the attributes perfect for a con woman. It’s those attributes that got her into trouble with the police. She skipped on bail and nobody has seen her for two weeks, and the twenty thousand dollars she stole that set her fate in motion still hasn’t been recovered. It’s not really PI work anymore, it’s being a bounty hunter, but it pays the bills. At least I hope that’s the case—Lucy Saunders is my first one.
The most sensible thing for Lucy and her boyfriend to have done would be to jump in a car and keep driving, putting as much distance between them and Christchurch as they can, but sensible things don’t come easy to people like Lucy and her boyfriend. I step out of my car and use a newspaper to keep the rain off my head and dash to the big glass doors of the Everblue Motel, the kind of motel you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in because if you are, it means the pimp wasn’t happy with how you treated one of his girls. The guy behind the counter looks like he lives for hamburgers and porn. He’s dressed in a shirt stained with food that’s unbuttoned to reveal a white mesh undershirt, hair sticking out of it like paintbrush bristles, making me thankful I haven’t eaten in twenty hours. The room smells of cigarette smoke and the ceiling is almost blotted out by fly shit.
“Room for two with a double bed is—”
He stops talking when I put the photo down on the counter. “You seen her?” I ask.
“Listen, buddy, we get a lot of cops and fathers and pimps through here, all of them looking for somebody, and I always tell them the same thing—nothing comes for free.”
“That’s mighty big of you,” I say. “A real humanitarian.”
“Being a humanitarian doesn’t pay the bills,” he says.
“Or get you a new shirt. I’m not giving you twenty bucks just to have you tell me she isn’t here.”
“And I’m not asking for twenty. I’m asking for fifty and you’re going to give it to me.”
“Yeah, because I’ve seen her,” he says, reaching under his shirt and scratching at one of his nipples in a way that would turn the gayest man straight. “Always with the same guy too. That info’s for free, like a goodwill gesture, you know? Fifty bucks will get you more.”
“If you’ve seen her that means she’s here or just been here,” I say. “I could just start kicking down doors and taking a look.”
“Good point,” he says, and he reaches down and puts his hand on a baseball bat. Somebody has written Persuader across it in marker. “But let me counter your point with this. See, if you were a cop you’d have told me already and shown me ID. A cop would have pulled up in a car worth more than the petrol in its tank, and between me and my buddy here,” he says, lifting more of the bat into view, “I’m thinking you’d get through one door at the most. So what’s it going to be?”
I look out the window into the parking lot. There are a dozen rooms all side by side forming an L shape, six rooms from north to south, six rooms east to west. Four of them have cars parked outside.
“I don’t have fifty bucks,” I tell him. “You’ve seen my car.”
“Then I don’t have any idea who the girl is.”
“Thanks for your time.”
I step outside. The fresh air is a relief after the office. It’s almost lunchtime and my stomach is overreacting, trying to convince me I’m going to die if I don’t eat soon. If I had a spare fifty bucks I’d spend it on food before handing it over to hairy nipple guy. What I have, though, is a spare five seconds on the way back to my car, and I use them to pull the fire alarm.
Curtains are drawn back from the rooms and faces press at windows, and in the second room from the end of the east-to-west wing is the face of Lucy Saunders. I pull the cell phone out of my pocket and make the call. Nobody in any of the rooms comes running out at the alarm, only the manager, who looks over at me with an angry look. He’s holding hands with the Persuader. He’s weighing up whether or not he wants to try using it on my car, deciding in the end the impact would devalue his bat more than it would my ride. Then he weighs up whether he should try using it on me. I stay in the car and stare out at him, willing him to go back inside, and thankfully he does just that.
Two minutes later a fire engine arrives, the siren loud and wailing and starting up the beginnings of a headache. It pulls into the parking lot and the sirens shut down and nothing much seems to happen then. It’s still there a few minutes later, a bunch of firemen standing out in the rain, when Schroder shows up, along with two patrol cars. I watch from behind my windshield, where only the driver’s side window wiper works, as Schroder’s team approaches the hotel room. He knocks on the door. Within a minute Lucy and her boyfriend are cuffed and on their way to the back of a patrol car, then it’s talks with the motel manager, the fire department, and then Schroder slips into the passenger seat of my car, getting water all over the seat. We both stare out at the firemen who are being spoken to by the local hookers.
“Good job,” Schroder says. “You managed to only piss off the motel clerk and the entire fire department, which, I have to say, is pretty good for you.”
“I appreciate the compliment.”
“Hell, I just appreciate you didn’t have to kill anybody.”
“Life’s a learning curve,” I tell him.
“You still coming this afternoon?”
“I said I would.”
“You don’t have to, you know. It’s not like you liked him, and he certainly didn’t have anything nice to say about you.”
“I know,” I tell him. “It’s a shitty thing,” I say, remembering the last time I saw Bill Landry. It was last year. He was accusing me of murdering two people. He was only half right. A week ago Landry followed some bad leads. He drew some wrong conclusions and the price he paid was the ultimate one. Now he’s one more cop to have died in the line of duty, one more statistic in a growing world of bad statistics.
“You okay?” he asks.
“You’re rubbing your head.”
I pull my hand away from the side of my head, where there is a small dent beneath the hair and a scar too. I hadn’t realized I was rubbing it. Six weeks ago a glass jar containing a severed thumb was smashed into the side of my skull by a man trying to kill me. Ever since then I’ve been getting some pretty rough headaches. Thankfully this one is already in the tail end of leaving.
“I’m fine,” I tell him.
“You should see a doctor.”
“How’s my application coming along?” I ask.
“It was never going to be an easy process, Tate, too many bad things in your past for that.”
“And people are jumping ship every day,” I tell him. “In a year’s time there aren’t going to be any cops left. I don’t see why I can’t just step in and take over Landry’s place.”
“Really? You don’t see how that wouldn’t work?”
“It was just an example,” I say, knowing that no cop who dies can be replaced. “But the force is short of good cops, and no matter what, Carl, I was a good cop.”
He sighs. “You were, and then you screwed things up and became a bad one. Look, I’m rooting for you, okay? I’m doing what I can. I do think the force would be better off with you on its side than against it. What’s more is I think the city will be better off, but the application takes time, and if it’s accepted there are still going to be plenty of stipulations. One of which will be a fitness test, and Jesus, Tate, you’re not exactly instilling me with any confidence there. Have you even eaten this week?”
“I need the job, Carl.”
“There are plenty of jobs.”
“No, there’s not. I need this job. There isn’t anything else I can do.”
He nods at me before stepping back into the rain, and it’s the same kind of look that we used to give junkies back in the day.
“See a doctor,” he tells me, then he shuts the door.
Lucy and her boyfriend are both staring ahead from the back of a patrol car at their futures and the fire engine is pulling away slowly, its lights off, the hookers looking dejected as they watch them go. I twist the key in the ignition and the car doesn’t start, not straightaway, not until the fifth attempt. The weather, the dying car, the funeral—it all feels like a bad omen as I drive through the wet streets back home.
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