All Paper is Edible
The eternal question: How do you deliver something when you don't know where it's supposed to go?
Previously: The sisters are given a rush courier job. If they don’t deliver the goods in time, well, sounds like lights out for them both? They yell at each other for a while but then get down to brass tacks.
The elevator opens into a storage room, freezing cold, packed high with chilled crabs, some still slowly clawing at dead air. The sisters shimmy through a curtain of thick vertical plastic strips and into a small restaurant. A dozen tables and a counter and a grill and a chalkboard with tomorrow’s specials. The place is deserted except for an old geezer there at the grill, dismembering blue crabs with a cleaver, tossing the shrapnel into a hissing wok.
The only light comes from the refrigerated display case and the dark red flame under the wok, but after a second Batya recognizes the joint. “Oh right!” she says, her mood instantly buoyed. “Sal’s Crab House!”
The chef—maybe sixty but Bat assumes he’s about a hundred—looks up and gives them a salute. “Welcome! It’s me, Sal!”
“It’s me, Batya!”
“You Mina’s sister? I saw you dragged through here a couple hours ago but you were fast asleep.”
Bat peers over the counter, eagerly spying on his cooking. “Yeah, she had me knocked out and kidnapped. What’s going on back there?”
Sal raises a finger to his lips. “New secret recipe, very convoluted.”
“C’mon Sal, lemme try it.”
He says, “You know, you look like your sister!” And she says, “You take that back!” And they laugh.
Mina angrily cuts in. “There a job waiting for us?”
He furrows his brows, which are luxuriant. “Is there?”
“There,” she says, pointing at something and snapping her fingers in a way that reminds Bat, unkindly, of their mother. “That.”
He turns and checks the row of pneumatic tubes next to the dangling pots, pulls out a cylindrical capsule. “I’ll be,” he says, popping it open and taking out a standard #10 envelope, goldenrod in color, the Hawthorne Grain wheat logo stamped along its flap.
Mina snatches it. “Where’s the sheet?”
He burrows into the capsule and finds another scrap of Hawthorne stationery and hands it to her. Bat tries to get a peek but can only make out a form with a rudimentary set of questions. (Who? What? Where? When? and Anything Else?? with two frantic question marks for some reason.)
“You get your jobs in writing?” Bat shakes her head, disappointed. “You and me never had paper trails.”
“Margaret’s not you and me,” Mina says. “But this is special edible paper, in case you need to dispose of the evidence.”
“All paper is edible.”
Mina’s not listening, she’s scanning the handwritten responses to the questions. “The job is delivering this envelope to a striking gentleman with a moth orchid on his lapel by midnight tonight not one second later or else no deal.”
“Kay,” Bat says. “Where’s the drop?”
“Funny thing about that.” Mina shows her the form. Next to Where? is just a symbol: a black circle between two squiggly horizontal lines bisecting an oval.
“Hell’s that?” Bat asks.
Mina turns back to the chef. “Yeah, Sal. The hell is that?”
He lowers his head to see over his fogged-up bifocals. “The destination, I imagine.”
“No address? No phone number?”
“You know how this works, Wilhelmina,” he says. “The sheet is the sheet.”
Mina has another little hissy though it’s not as funny as the last one. It passes too quickly and is replaced by a troubling look of inspiration on her face.
“I have an idea,” she says to Bat. “I want you to think of nothing.”
“Way ahead of you.”
Mina holds up the form, points a finger at the symbol. “Don’t think, just tell me what this means.”
(This technique sometimes works with Bat: bypassing her conscious mind, stripping away the accumulated gunk of memory and bias, poking at her lizard brain and seeing what it comes up with.)
“It’s, uh,” Bat says, not thinking. “Oyster.”
Mina takes another look at the paper. “Oyster,” she mutters. “Oyster. I don’t know. I do not know.”
“Sorry, that’s what popped into my head. Maybe because I’m starving.”
“It has to mean something specific.” Mina nestles her head on Bat’s shoulder. “Latitude, hobo code, something.”
“How about Dad’s old client, what’s her—Atlas Annie? I bet she’s got that tattooed somewhere on her. She’d help us out, she’s such a sweetheart.”
“Longish story but Atlas Annie is no longer friendly to us.”
“So sick of Atlas Annie. Oh hey that reminds me, what about that cursed book? The uh…the Bucatini?”
“The Bahuvrihi.” Mina looks hopeful for a second but no. “That’d take too long. An hour just to get to it, another hour to get it open. Plus the curse.”
“Oh yeah. Well, what do we know and not know?”
“Right, yes,” Mina says, pacing, clearly inspired by the old family motto. “We do not know what this symbol means. We do know we don’t have time to go out and find the answer. We need the answer to come to us. We need it to volunteer itself. Someone in town has to know, they just don’t know they need to tell us. We need to put the word out to everyone, all at once, right now.”
She stops pacing. She’s got it.
“You got it,” Bat says, and there’s now a warm throb of excitement in her gut, a sensation she’s desperately been missing, the one that goes: Mina’s gonna get us through this with some bad idea.
“Fabulous Don,” Mina says. “He’s still on the air. We’ll strong-arm him into broadcasting a description of this symbol. We can be at the radio station in ten minutes. Ten or twenty minutes.”
Bat hollers a celebratory holler, leaps in the air, kicks an imaginary assailant, then stops cold. “Wait.”
Mina’s putting up her hair, winding a scarf around her neck. “No waiting.”
“The station’s out at the lighthouse, right?”
“That neck of the woods is…not my favorite.”
“I know but it’s—”
“Mina it is haunted as shit out there. What say I just hold down the fort with Sal here while you go handle this.”
“I’d sure love the company,” Sal says, stir-frying something. (Crab, probably.)
Mina’s never at a loss for words but seems almost at a loss for words. “Bat, you…you just said you were here for me.”
“Yeah I’ll be here for you,” Bat says, pointing at the floor.
It’s like Mina teleports across the room. One instant she’s over there and the next she’s right in Bat’s face, grabbing her lapels. “I swear to god do you not get what’s happening here? Do you not understand that this is my last chance? This has to be you and me or I am under.”
Bat’s gut ices up again. She says nothing, gives Mina a good look at the eye that got bloodied by Margaret’s pen. She doesn’t really appreciate getting yelled at after everything her sister’s pulled today, and a year ago, and all the years before that. She has half a mind to storm out—better yet, saunter out—and let Mina dangle. That doxy deserves it.
But then what? Where would she saunter to? Her squalid room at the coin-op motel? Killing hours by listening to the radio, doing pushups, taking naps, reading the pervy letters in last month’s issue of Personal Valet, waiting for the phone to ring with another wet job in some alleyway that doesn’t pay nearly enough to keep the kneecappers away?
Back to being alone? Without the only person in this town who truly knows her?
Bat says, “Yeah I get it. But first, say you need me and you’re useless without me.”
“Fine,” Mina says.
“I do! And I am!”
Bat frowns. “That wasn’t as fun as I thought. Say you’ll buy me a crab dinner plus a second crab dinner that I can enjoy at a later time. Say it!”
Mina puts on her fake smile, smooths out Bat’s shirt, murmurs, “I mean, we run this place, we eat here for free, but, sure, yes, you have a deal. And now we need to go and not stop until the item is delivered. OK?”
“You’re the boss, boss. How much time we got?”
This has been Chapter 6 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: A Clean Stench