Previously: Our peek into Batya’s recent past continues as her food truck is wrecked by a rude fop, and then even more wrecked by a well-heeled dame. She pummels the fop and joins the dame for drinks to discuss the macguffin of this tale.
— 28 —
The dame takes Batya to a bar so ritzy it doesn’t even have a name. It’s this perfect glycerine bubble of tranquility, with icy lighting that makes its moneyed patrons look even more luxe and cruel. Bat is suddenly very aware of her pork-stained shirt, her bloody knuckles, her pungent fog.
The maître d’—for this establishment does indeed have one—is overjoyed to see the dame. Señora Valentina, he calls her, in pleasingly subdued tones. The señora and Bat are escorted to a secluded table, and then a concierge appears with a plump baby boy.
For a second, Bat thinks maybe this is a rich people thing? Free baby?
“Thank you, Levi,” Valentina says. “Did he eat?”
The concierge looks heartbroken. “I’m afraid the young master had no interest in our specials tonight.”
“It’s fine, I have some zwieback in my clutch.” She takes the tot into her arms and shows him to Bat. “This is Baby Mitch.”
“How do,” Bat says. Baby Mitch’s blank stare gives her the creeps.
“So,” Valentine says, bouncing the boy on her knee. “That box you’re carrying is a family heirloom. It was pilfered earlier today by a syndicate called the Fluenza. You familiar with them?”
“Yeah. Did jobs for them when I was a kid. They’re the worst.”
“Yes. Today has been quite the ordeal. Many factions trying to get their grubby hands on my property.”
“Why’s this thing so popular?” Two cocktails arrive from somewhere, looking like sleet-packed clouds.
“The scoundrels of this city recently learned that it actually exists and isn’t just some sailor’s yarn. Which is what everyone thought.”
“Why’d we all think that?” Bat takes a swig of the cocktail and, for one blissful moment, forgets who she is. Reader, this is perhaps the most exquisite substance she’s ever consumed.
“Because it does something improbable.”
Bat makes a twirling please do continue gesture with her finger as she keeps drinking. She feels like a sex ghost haunting the darkest crevasses of this world’s soul.
“It’s a kind of music box,” Valentina says, moving her glass so Baby Mitch can’t grab it with his chubby little fingies. “There’s a button inside. You press the button and it plays a song.”
“I dunno, man, seems pretty probable to me.”
“It plays the perfect song.”
“Which song is that again?”
“It’s different every time. It plays the song you need to hear right at that moment.”
“It’s got every song ever made in there?”
“You misunderstand, doll. It composes the perfect song. It crafts it. Out of the aether. Just for you.”
Bat knocks back the rest of her drink. “Well, señora, that does sound like a thick slice of baloney.”
“Doesn’t it? And yet.”
At this juncture, Valentina runs Bat through a prolonged litany of origin stories that have been concocted over the years. I’ll recap a few of them for you:
A fishing trawler caught a gorgeous merman in its net. The crew was about to carve him up for bait when he sang a haunting song, one that sounded different to each sailor but made them all burst into manly tears. The merman said he’d capture the song in a box and give it to them if they let him go. The crew said yeah sure, and so he did, and he swam away, and the entire crew was dead by nightfall, having killed each other over who got to keep the box.
Once upon a time there was a magical hellgrammite (the larva of a dobsonfly) who lived in a little box. This friendly critter could take one look at you and play the perfect ditty on his ickle wind-up phonograph. He delighted in your delight, but he was also kind of disappointed that you, like everyone else, just wanted to hear a catchy, three-and-a-half minute song with a 4/4 beat and lyrics about feeling lovesick.
A small mechanical device was crafted by a watchmaker/psychopath with the intent of transmitting a series of subsonic tones directly into your head, hypnotizing you. Then this watchmaker could have her perverted way with you, or force you to rob a liquor store, or some third thing. (She only ever had the first two ideas.) But, to her dismay, the machine ended up having a different effect: delightfully tickling your brain to create its own ideal melody.
“That one actually feels closest to the truth,” Valentina says, cradling the now-asleep Baby Mitch in her arms. “Your song is like a dream, where your unconscious mind tells itself a story, making it up as it goes.”
Bat feels like she’s been in this bar for thirty thousand years. “Uh huh. So then tell me how it ruined your life.”
“Well, it…” Valentina gently puts her hands over the boy’s ears. “It killed this one’s daddy.”
Bat is now interested. “Oh no.”
“Gregory—my husband—found the box amongst the piles of ill-gotten loot in his family’s catacomb.” She says this like it’s a normal thing everyone has. “And he…well, he’d been going through a rough patch, I’m not going to get into it, it involved a paramour, and a...flood, it’s none of your business, really, there was hair loss, and a train derailment, a second paramour, I’ll spare you the details. Point is he turned to the music box for solace. Repeatedly, obsessively. A song made just for you can be quite…alluring. You understand? He eschewed everything else—eating, bathing—and locked himself in that catacomb, listening to his song over and over until he…until he joined his ancestors in the afterlife.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Bat says. “When was this?”
“Saturday. Funeral was this morning. And word got out that he was to be buried with the box. Hence all the activity today.”
“Gosh. So now what?”
“Now? Now you give me the box.”
Bat sits back. She’s fairly sure the concierge is looking her way. And maybe the bartender and the waiter and a couple random customers, too? She’s definitely sure Baby Mitch is awake again and giving her his creepy stare.
She’s feeling menaced—whatever, happens all the time—but the shape of the menace is unclear to her. Times like these are when Mina would clock the situation and run the numbers and gab her way through it. But now Bat’s all by her lonesome.
“How much you give me for it?” It’s all she could come up with.
Valentina smiles sweetly. “I’m afraid I’m a little low on cash at the moment. Tell you what. Open that box up and press the button. The perfect song will be your payment.”
Bat’s not crazy about that answer. OK, what do we know and not know. We don’t know what this dame is about to pull. We do know she lured us into a location that’s friendly to her, and fed us a terrific cocktail. We know this box is worth something to a lot of people. We know that means money. We know we need money. And we know someone who might be interested in this thing, who we happen to owe money to.
Bat says, “The perfect song is ‘Hot Glass’ by the Lash. And I have the album so I can listen to it whenever I want.”
She flips the table over and bolts for the door, Baby Mitch’s cries vanishing behind her.
This has been Chapter 28 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: My Love Dynamo