Chapter 1: A Brush with Death

The blaring ring jarred Jacob Rhine from his daydream. Instead of the dank basement office surrounding him, he liked to imagine himself in a sleek, glass-enclosed escalator. He had almost reached his favorite part, the top, when the disturbance occurred. Damn! He contemplated tearing the phone from its socket and hurling it across the room. Then an even better idea occurred to him—answering it.


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“Morning, Jake. It’s Manny.” It was his partner’s voice alright, only Manny didn’t seem like himself. Something told Jacob that he was anxious, distressed. Jacob asked if he was o.k.

“No, Jake,” Manny answered. “I just told you, I’m anxious and distressed. It’s this headache. I’m probably going to run down to the pharmacy to pick up some aspirin. But maybe I’ll just get some rest instead. This headache is killing me.”

Who would try to kill Manny? A jealous lover? An overeager bookie? Perhaps a mad scientist, bent on revenge for Manny’s tireless work at the Academy? It didn’t fit. Manny had no lover, he wasn’t a betting man and he certainly had never set foot in any academy. Sure, everyone had enemies and Manny was no exception, but killing a man… that was a different story. What kind of person would want Manny dead? Jacob wondered aloud.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Manny inquired. “Anyway, I gotta go. I’m just calling to say I won’t be in this afternoon.”

“Fine,” Jacob responded. “And why don’t you take the rest of the day off as well. Get some rest.”

“Goodbye, Jake.”

Jacob put down the phone. Something was not right, something was nagging at him. He could still hear his partner’s voice, softly in his head: “…anxious and distressed,” “…I gotta go…” “Jake, hang up the phone. Jake, will you please hang up the phone!”

Jacob replaced the handset onto that other part of the phone, I think it’s called the base, and walked towards the door, towards trouble. Then he walked out the door, away from trouble. (The door was a lot of trouble). He could deal with the rest of his cases later. Besides, he’d accomplished enough for one week. He had already solved the Case of the Socialite’s Missing Spectacles (they were on her face) and the Mystery of the Kidnapped Great Dane (also, on her face) and he had cracked the Case of the Faberge Egg wide open, regrettably destroying the egg in the process. He had yet to locate the jewel-encrusted medallion missing from the governor’s mansion, but he felt that a solution was just around the corner.

However none of his recent successes gave him comfort when he contemplated his partner’s peril. What the hell was up with him? In all the years they had worked together Manny had never, ever missed a day of work, except a couple of times a year when he was ill.

Jacob walked into the nearby parking garage and approached his car, a well-worn ’74 Chevy Speedbump. He opened the door, pushed aside a jewel-encrusted medallion that was covering the driver’s seat and sat down. That car had lasted longer than two marriages, Jacob thought, although not his own. And unlike a woman, a car would never betray you, never break down, never go flat with age, never guzzle up his money. He loved that car. But sometimes he still missed Jill, missed her for the kinds of things that a car could never provide—her gleaming skin and her plush interior, the way she stared at him with her big, headlight eyes and the way she hummed and vibrated when he turned her on. He cleared his thoughts and swerved quickly to miss an oncoming tree. Today wasn’t about himself and it certainly wasn’t about Jill, it was about saving his partner. That is, unless he was already too late.

Chapter 2: Another Brush with Death

The police had already reached the pharmacy by the time Jacob Rhine arrived on the scene. Officer John Tucker was casing out the toiletry section while Fitzpatrick, a basket full of evidence in hand, was interrogating a young woman at the checkout counter.

“Do you accept Diners’ Club?” Fitzpatrick grilled her.

“Leave the poor lady alone.” Jake cut in. “She can’t help you. She doesn’t know a thing.”

Fitzpatrick apologized to the offended woman, then turned to Jake. “Well, if it isn’t Jacob Rhine. What brings you back to our lousy precinct?”

“Who wants to know?” asked Jake warily. He’d had enough of the police for one lifetime; seeing them took him back to his own days as a cop. Like so many other things in Jake’s life, that job ended badly. After losing one too many men for the commissioner’s taste, he was transferred out of Community Relations and given a mindless desk job and a giant one-way ticket to No Futureville. But paperwork just wasn’t Jake’s style. When he misspelled a word in his resignation letter, he was booted off the force.

“Well, no one actually. Just making conversation,” explained Fitzpatrick.

“Why don’t you and your ‘girlfriend’ Tucker stay out of my way,” sneered Jacob. Shouldn’t you be cleaning up the city?”

“We’re off duty. Anyway, nice to see you again.”

After missing a beat, Jacob shot back. “I hate you. You are stupid and… you are also ugly.”

Defeated, Fitzpatrick gathered his ‘girlfriend’ Tucker and slouched out of the store. Now that the cops were out of his hair, Jake had some questions of his own for the checkout girl.

“I’m looking for a guy, goes by the name of Manual. About seven feet tall, shoulder-length blond hair, smells terrific, probably wearing an ‘I’m with stupid’ T-shirt, with an arrow pointing upwards, towards the heavens. He would have been belting out the lyrics to ‘New York, New York’ in an annoying falsetto, possibly to the tune of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. Oh, yeah, and he has an odd number of arms.”

“One or three?”

“That’s right. Have you seen him?”

“I don’t remember seeing anyone like that, but I can’t be certain. We get a lot of customers on Wednesdays,” the checkout girl pondered. “But I did see another guy. Short, stocky, balding. I remember him specifically because he was wearing pants. We don’t get too many of those types around here.”

“That’s him, sweetie! Any idea where he was heading?”

“Yeah. He kept shouting, ‘I’m going to the diner, I’m going to the diner, I’m going to the diner’ just over and over again. When he left he started walking east down Jefferson—towards the beauty salon… or maybe the diner.”

“You’re the best, toots.” Jake said as he placed a quarter in his hand. Then he waved his clenched fist near the salesperson’s ear. He slowly opened his hand and, as if by magic, it still contained the quarter! “You really ought to clean those things more often. Never know what you’re going to find in there,” he suggested as he pocketed the coin and hurried out the door.

Chapter 3: A Brush with Death

The restaurant on the corner of Jefferson and Third was the kind of dive where all the filth in town seemed to congregate for a warm cup of jo served up with a heaping portion of no-questions-asked. There probably wasn’t an honest buck being exchanged in the whole joint. The cholesterol content of the grill food was through the goddamn roof.
Jake sat down at the counter, just in time to nip a fight in the bud.

“First I order a small burrito and you give me a soft taco!” shouted the stout, burly man in the next seat. “Then I ask for mild salsa, and you give me medium! Someone is going to die.”

“Settle down mister.” Jake interrupted, in a voice that said ‘I’m gonna punch you in the mouth.’

“You’re gonna punch me in the mouth?” laughed the troublemaker. “I’d love to see you try.”

Jake said ‘I’m gonna punch you in the mouth’ again—this time, in sign language.

“Ah, Hell,” whimpered the bruised man, “you punched me in the mouth.” It was true; Jake had punched him in the mouth.

“That’s right. Now you’ll eat your taco and you’ll like it, and you’ll apologize to this nice lady for having to look at your ugly mug.” Jake turned away in disgust.

“Thanks,” said the waitress. “What’ll you have? It’s on the house.”

“I’ll have an egg—hard boiled, like my inner monologue. And how about a cup of coffee to keep it company, gorgeous.”
“I’ve got a name and it ain’t ‘gorgeous.’ It’s O’Reily. Babydoll O’Reily. And what’s a respectable guy like you doing in this filthy stink-pit?”

“I’m not as respectable as all that, Babydoll. And I’m looking for a few answers. Think I might find them around here.” Jake drew a rough sketch of his partner on a napkin and showed it to the waitress. “You recognize him?”

“Sure thing. That’s Charlie Brown. He heads up the Peanuts gang. You’ll find him at the newsstand every Sunday.”

Now she was just toying with him. Sure, she was a looker, but underneath that pretty face was a horrifying skeleton. Jacob didn’t like skeletons, and he certainly didn’t like being insulted by one.

“Here’s my number,” said Jacob, removing his business card from the woman’s ear, “give me a call if you think of anything useful.”

Jacob had hit another dead end. This path was turning up nothing. Nothing except… free eggs! That was pretty cool, but it wasn’t going to save his partner’s life. Jake knew what his next move would have to be, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant. It was time to pay a visit to Nancy Rinaldi.

Chapter 4: A Brush Full of Death

Nancy was once married to Manny, a marriage that had the life expectancy of a hot pizza in Dom DeLuise’s kitchen. That is to say, anywhere from one to three days, depending on the appetites of Mr. DeLuise’s houseguests. On the way home from their honeymoon, Nancy started hitting the bottle hard. After that, the honeymoon was over. A week later, Nancy pawned her wedding ring for a day at the races. She never even made it to the finish line. By then it was clear that the marriage was history. Two years after the divorce Nancy was living in a plastic doghouse on the wrong side of the tracks—the inside—and had gone more than a little mad. Day and night she was tormented by ghosts, and there wasn’t a power pellet for miles around. She still kept tabs on Manny, Jake suspected, and she just might be able to answer a few of his questions… if she was sober enough to talk.

Jake got out of his Chevy and walked up to Nancy’s hovel. She was on the porch reading Hemingway’s treatise on amputation, A Farewell to Arms, and sipping homemade bourbon through a straw.
“Well, if it ain’t Jake the Jackass!” howled Nancy.

“It’s been a long time, Nancy. I’ve had my name legally changed since then. These days I go by Jacob Rhine.”
“Hasn’t been long enough,” said Nancy, as she shot him one of her go thither looks.

“I’d love to stay here and chat all day, Nancy, but I wouldn’t enjoy it very much. I’m afraid I’m here about Manny.”

At the mention of her former husband’s name, Nancy suddenly seemed to sober up. She took a long, deep breath. As she set her glass onto the cold, hard pavement, a single tear trickled down her cheek and fell to her soft white breast.

“Who’s Nanny?” she asked.

“No. Not Nanny. Manny. Your ex-husband. My partner. You know…Manny.”

“Oh, Manny! How’s the old perv’ doing these days?”

“The old perv’ might be dead or dying. That’s why I’m here.” Jake explained. “Try to think, Nancy. Do you know anyone who would want to see him dead?”

“Want to kill him? Well for one I’d like to… wait a second, what are you going to do to this killer?”

“I’ll see he gets what’s coming to him. And it ain’t gonna to be no birthday cake.”

“No cake, eh?” Nancy seemed distraught. “Nope. I can’t help you. I got nothin’. Nice to see you again though, Jackass.”

“Take care of yourself Nancy.” Jake said as he turned to go.

“Wait a second.” Nancy called back to him. “Now that I think about it, there was someone who wanted Manny dead. Down at the dock. A sailor, or a dock worker or a pirate or something.”

The news made Jake nervous. The dock was on the exact opposite end of town; it couldn’t have been farther from Nancy’s place. In heavy traffic, the trip could take hours.

“Thanks, Nancy.”

“Go. Hurry.”

Chapter 5: A Brush with Death

The Southside Docks were like a giant aquarium of murder, graft, corruption and fish. Jake arrived late in the afternoon, in no mood for trouble. But trouble was in the mood for Jake, whatever that means.

Jake needed information fast, so he headed straight to Little Mort’s. Mort had done it all, and knew it all, and he knew it, too. Name a dirty job and Mort had worked it: racketeer, raconteur, racquetball coach, rocket scientist, rock ‘n’ roller, he even did a brief stint as a robocop. A fly didn’t croak in his city without Mort knowing about it, and he knew about some other stuff, too. There was just one problem with Little Mort: people who got involved with him had a nasty little habit of dying. Actually, it wasn’t much of a habit, since they each only did it once, but still… dying!

These days Mort was a restaurateur; he owned a trendy theme restaurant near the docks. The theme was drug front. Jake walked in through the kitchen door. Mort was leaning against the meat locker, a cigarette dangling from his rubbery lips.

“Employees only,” Mort coughed. “Do you have a reservation?”

“Here’s my reservation.” Jake raised his hand in the air. A certain finger, I think you know the one I’m talking about, was extended.

Little Mort got straight to the point. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you on the spot,” he said.

“Here’s one,” said Jacob as he struck Mort in the face with the butt of his handgun.
By then, Mort had begun to slap Jake in the butt with the face of his hand.
Next, Jake butted his face against Mort’s gun hand.
Mort turned to face Jake, but handed him his gun.

“Thanks,” said Jake. He pointed the gun at his adversary. “Now, tell me where my partner is.”

“How should I know! Who are you?” asked Little Mort.

“I’m the guy who’s holding a gun at your face.” Jake snapped, “Now where is he?”

“I don’t know. Where was the last place you saw him.”

“At his place. I stopped by for a drink last night.”

“Well, maybe he’s still there. Try looking there, I guess.”

Jacob leapt into his Chevy and tore down the interstate, back towards Manny’s place, cutting and winding his way through the early evening traffic. After an exciting adventure at a rest stop and another at the Big Boy, he arrived.

Jacob sped into Manny’s driveway. He pounded on his brakes in time to avoid ramming into his partner’s vehicle. What was it doing there? Had Manny’s killers returned it? Was it a trap? Jacob Rhine’s head burned with questions.

Jake exited his car and looked up through the hazy night. From Manny’s bedroom, he noticed a small, flickering glow. Slowly the agonizing truth crept over him, crept over him like a dark, twisting vine—strangling and suffocating. Manny hadn’t returned home.

He had never left.


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