Part one of the plan that The Boomer’s beer and my Machiavellian alter ego hatched was basically simple: first thing the next morning I would go to The Vulture’s and try to buy the goblet. So bright and early (9am qualifies when you’re a grad student) that Sunday morning, I was up and nattily dressed in sports coat, slacks, and a real necktie. Fortunately for our strategy, Judy Blue Eyes, who can’t imagine not replacing a significant portion of her wardrobe every year, and my mother, who can’t stand to see me in public with my knees showing through my jeans, team up to keep me presentable. Which is a damned good thing, since I hadn’t set foot in a clothing store since starting college. For some reason, though, none of the women in my life will buy men’s shoes, and I hoped The Vulture wouldn’t notice how scruffy mine were. The Boomer had even fitted me out with a false mustache to insure that The Vulture wouldn’t remember me from Erma’s.
He had also extended my credit limit by another ten bucks, and I had eleven left of my own to spend since payday was the next day. So I was confident in the bargaining power of the vast sum of seventy-odd dollars. I’d found a business card in a drawer, only slightly tattered, that identified me as Ralph Delvin, Antique Dealer. I was as ready as I could possibly be.
The front door was solid wood. Badly water-stained and more in need of a coat of paint than a wino needs a pint of Mad Dog Twenty-twenty on Sunday morning, but solid with no cute glass panels to peek in. I knocked smartly.
Nothing. Not a sound. I knocked again with the same result. But just as I turned to leave, a shrill voice with all of the allure of a fingernail on a blackboard screamed, “Who’s there?” causing me to drop the card, adding smudges to its tattered untruths.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” I shouted through the door.” My name is Ralph Delvin, a dealer in fine antiquities. I would like to talk to you about purchasing a goblet that you bought last weekend.”
I could hear the sound of fumbling, and then the door swung open about an inch and banged on its chain. I poked the card through the crack, where it was instantly snatched from my fingers. A moment later she stuck her face to the crack, which up close was more jarring than the voice. Worse yet was her breath that came rolling through the opening, carrying with it the stench of old sardines and raw garlic and other carrion that she had consumed in the decade since last brushing her teeth.
“How much you gonna pay for my goblet?” she screamed across the football field at me, although our faces were only a foot or so apart, blasting me again with fumes so nauseous that I nearly gagged, this time augmenting it with a fine shower of spit to help make her point.
“I’ll give you fifty dollars, ma’am,” I said in as even a voice as I could manage through a mouth full of bile, backing a safe distance away from the door (although no distance was truly safe from this horror).
“Two hunnurd,” she screamed back. “It’s worth at least two hunnurd and not a penny less.”
“Two hundred! You only paid thirty-five for it last week!”
“Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t. Don’t matter. It’s two hunnurd or get the hell off my porch.”
“Well, can I at least see it first?”
“You show me the two hunnurd bucks, I show you the goblet.” She paused a minute, breathing loudly through her mouth while I retreated another step or two. “You don’t have it, do you, you dirty ass lickin’ lowlife piece of horseshit. You come by early on Sunday morning, all dressed up in your fuckin’ fancy church clothes to impress an old woman, you don’t even have enough money to get a look at what you want to buy. You want my goblet, you bring two hunnurd dollars back here. In fact, you can just make it three fuckin’ hunnurd now just for trying to cheat a poor old woman. You rotten son of a bitch.” This last scream was underlined and boldfaced by a huge blast of reek sped my way by the slamming of the door. A second later my card dropped back out through the mail slot.
And so it was that a couple of hours later I was back in my secret agent outfit, face scrubbed clean of sardines and spit, sitting in one of the booths at One’s-a-Meal and drinking coffee while an identically-dressed Jimbo Bond waited for the already-tired-although-it-wasn’t-even-lunchtime-yet waitress to bring his cheese sandwich “without lettuce or any of that other stuff” and milk. The Boomer had declined participation in this part of the master plan: Jimbo Bond and I were going back to the Vulture’s to steal the cup, although we would leave ‘adequate compensation’ in its place (which I generously calculated as thirty five dollars plus seven bucks, reckoning 20% as a more than suitable capital gain on a one-week investment). I hadn’t asked him for the usurious two hundred plus, nor had he offered it when I told him about my early morning encounter with The Vulture of Foulbreath. On the other hand, he didn’t moralize by asking was it really worth risking the next two-to-twenty years of my life to break into an old lady’s house for a thirty-five dollar antique that I was going to turn around and give my girlfriend as a birthday present and what if she didn’t even like it? After all, she wasn’t that hot on The Picture, and that was quite obviously worth a lot more than a chunk of battered metal stemware, so her aesthetic judgment was suspect anyway. The more I thought about what I was doing, the stupider it sounded. Too bad I was going to do it anyway. I’m not even sure if The Boomer was reluctant to break the law—I’d never seen him hold the American Legal and Judicial Community in particular esteem before—or whether the next phase involved a greater sacrifice than he was willing to make for this harebrained scheme: a lengthy association with Jimbo Bond.
“Sir, here is the easiest and safest way to do the job. You knock on the door, just like before. When she opens it I’ll plug her through the crack. Then we’ll just break the chain, lock the door behind us, and finish at our leisure.”
“Agent X-41 is too valuable, Lash. Reinforcements from Washington will be here in another few days. We must not harm her before then or we could spoil the whole thing. That’s my worst fear, that the whole bunch of filthy commies will go underground, only to surface next month or next year to spread their poison in some other unsuspecting community. No, we can’t shoot her, as much as I’d like to. We’ll have to come up with a better way to get her out of the house.”
We bandied another couple of bad suggestions around while I drank another cup of almost-as-bad coffee. All of a sudden, the bluebird of inspiration came flying through the smeared window and crapped on my shoulder.
“I’ve got it. We’ll make up a flyer saying that there’s going to be a big sale at Erma’s tonight, one night only, everything seventy-five percent off. She’ll never be able to resist going. Then we’ll have thirty minutes to break in, get the goblet, and get out of there before she gets back.”
Jimbo Bond agreed that yes, that was a brilliant idea sir, although obviously disappointed he wasn’t going to get to shoot any commies.
So I paid our bill—Jimbo Bond had taken a significant bite out of my working capital, both figuratively and literally—and off we went to make up a flyer. I hand lettered it, Xeroxed it onto a piece of pink paper for a dime over at the library, and gave it to Jimbo Bond to slip through The Vulture’s mail slot.
I’d chosen 7:30 as the latest credible starting time for a Sunday night sale at a junk shop. So it was dusky but not nearly dark enough to be perfect for our nefarious deeds when The Vulture of Foulbreath cracked her door, peeked out of her lair, and ventured forth into the gloaming (a sonorous phrase I remembered clearly from one of Mrs. Harrigan’s Best Loved, although back before Google I didn’t have a clue who had penned it). We’d been waiting for almost an hour, me standing a block up the street trying to look innocent, Jimbo Bond hunkered down in his vulture blind. By the time she was out of sight and I’d made it to the house, he had already checked the back door and windows and pronounced that he could get us inside in a jiffy.
And he was as good as his word. He disappeared around the back while I waited uneasily on the porch (feeble cover story ready in case The Vulture should discover she’d forgotten her favorite shopping bag and come taxiing back), and a couple of minutes later the front door opened a sliver and I slipped inside.
The old house must have still had its World War II blackout curtains; it was so dark inside that I could see no further than Jonah in the whale. Jimbo Bond had a tiny penlight that allowed me to make out where he was, but not much else. The smell of ancient furniture and musty carpet, delicately laced with just a hint of garlic and sardines, overpowered any other information that the rest of my senses might be trying to transmit to my brain. So I stood there motionless, effectively struck blind, deaf, and stupid on the road to Damascus—two better than St. Paul, but without a corresponding conversion—until my brain caught up and I finally remembered that I had brought a flashlight too. One of those cheap two-battery jobs, nothing exotic like Jimbo Bond’s patented Dick Tracy penlight nor powerful like Uncle Joe Bob’s coon hunting light which he could have used to point out constellations if he’d had the foggiest idea what a constellation was. I pulled it out of my back pocket, pointed it toward where I thought the other side of the room must be, and pushed the button.
“Holy mackerel,” Jimbo Bond exclaimed impiously, while my brain instantly registered that we were wasting our time. The inside of The Vulture’s lair could have stocked Erma’s twice over and no one except The Vulture would have known that anything was missing. Every surface in the living room was covered in junk antique trinkets. Cut-down cardboard boxes filled with unmatched plates fought for living space with laundry baskets crammed with hats, feathers sticking out the holes like space age porcupines. Empty decanters and canning jars spilled out of cartons packed tighter than a salt crystal; dozens of shoes, from Farmer Brown’s brogans to Dorothy’s ruby slippers, covered what must have been a couch. And that’s just for starters. I was standing on a narrow path begrudgingly left through a jungle of junk, less than two feet of walking space between a crate of cast iron skillets and a basket of fabric remnants, empty oatmeal boxes, and balls of twine.
Finding a needle in a haystack may be the proverbial Herculean task of the seeker, but the real ball-buster is finding a needle in a stack of needles. The Vulture could have been gone for a week and the goblet there in that very room, close enough to touch even, and we still probably wouldn’t have found it. Not only that, but the house had two stories.
We should have left right then. Realistically there wasn’t a damned thing we could do. I could have made the money slinging burgers at One’s-a-Meal faster than I could have found the goblet in that Temple of the Goddess of Jetsam.
But then again, no one has ever accused me of being realistic. I truly believed that the goblet would call to me if I could just rid my head of the fetor and pay attention.
I tried. I took a deep breath—bad mistake; it started my eyes running and my nose burning and made the feathers dance around my feet—and began making my way toward the kitchen, with Jimbo Bond following close behind to provide covering fire if I triggered an ambush.
An uneventful (or perhaps anticlimactic is more accurate) day or two later we made it. The kitchen wasn’t quite as bad as the living room—there was about three square feet of counter space with nothing piled on it, the sink was empty, and there was a dish drain beside the sink that held two clean mismatched plates, a battered aluminum saucepan, and some random silverware.
I checked the counter while waiting for my empathic connection with the cup (real or imagined) to kick in. Nada. But feeling like I was on the right track, I started opening cupboard doors, not bothering to look in the back, just checking the fronts of the shelves. Then I tried the drawers and under the cabinets. After that I started thumbing through the piles and boxes, not seriously searching, just glancing, looking for a clue and listening to The Marquis at the same time.
Slowly it was coming to me. I had been here just this morning negotiating with The Vulture over the goblet. All her life would have been vindicated in a single moment—something that she had bought had turned out to be valuable beyond her wildest expectations (or maybe not—two hundred dollars was a pretty wild expectation). Surely she’d taken the goblet from wherever she had stashed it—assuming she could find it—and put it in a prominent spot, fondling it whenever she passed. I shuddered at the thought of The Vulture taking sexual liberties with my kidnapped “precious” while waiting for me to come up with the ransom. If she had hurt it in any way I was going to turn Jimbo Bond loose on her!
I had just turned to leave the kitchen, following my new insight, when all hell broke loose. I heard in short order a strangled scream from Jimbo Bond, a sound like grandma farting—you know, when she thinks that she’s being really quiet but everyone in the room hears it, even if they pretend they don’t—glass breaking, and another wail that came from something either alive but not human or that had once been human but wasn’t any longer. I twirled toward the unknown wail just in time to catch a glimpse of a shadow flying overhead as more glass began crashing and pots and other metal things began banging into each other and hitting the floor and bouncing around.
The first image that jumped into my mind was the mess at Erma’s around the shelf when I had gone back to buy the goblet; the second was a grade B movie that The Boomer and I had sort of watched one night under the guise of making fun of it (in exactly the same way that women watch the Miss America Pageant every year, ‘not really watching, it’s just on, you know,’ laughing at the contestants and joking about how ugly and untalented they are) where the house threw things off the walls at the new occupants and chairs would slide in front of them. The third thing was putting the two together and realizing that the cup was a genuine poltergeist, hot damn, we really had to find it now, followed in short order by the fourth thing which was the realization that the goblet had to be close if we were within throwing range.
Meanwhile, The Vulture’s antiques were still flying around and banging and breaking and then there was that awful inhuman wailing sound again only this time it was behind me and then grandma farted again and I turned back around, this time shining my light toward the sounds and all of a sudden it was clear that no poltergeist was involved after all. Instead there was Jimbo Bond, down in a shooter’s crouch and holding a silenced pistol in both hands, trying to draw a bead on this thing that was bounding from shelf to stove to countertop, sending a bushel of Erma’s former stock flying with each bound. As I watched he fired again, and behind me came a different sort of crash. Water started hissing and spraying. The Marquis finally got off his dead ass and took over and I hit the floor just about the time a huge shaggy cat so filthy it couldn’t have licked its own fur without gagging launched into one last leap and wrapped itself around Jimbo Bond’s head, scratching and clawing.
Then both were wailing and moaning, sounding astonishingly similar. Jimbo Bond dropped his pistol and tried to grab the cat and get it off his head, and the cat was just as intent on getting off only it wanted to go the other way, so when Jimbo Bond was pulling the cat was clawing and scrabbling like its cousin on the hot tin roof only the roof was Jimbo Bond’s face and neck. Even in the dim light and with all that rank cat fur flying I could see he was a bloody mess. After a few seconds of that minuet Jimbo Bond gave up first and let out a long scream, no little wail this time, which didn’t quit as he headed for the door, smashing boxes and knocking over vases and laying waste to plastic statues with every step. I don’t know how he found the door, running through all that trash in the dark with his worst furry nightmare wrapped around his face, but it didn’t take him long to rip it open and go screaming out into the night. I could hear him a long way down the street until finally the sound of my own loud breathing and the spraying water covered up his operatic debut.
Well, that tore it. I shined my light toward the sound of the water and saw that one of Jimbo Bond’s wild shots had shattered the hot water faucet on the kitchen sink. A half-inch stream was spraying up and splattering off the ceiling, then dripping back down to gently water The Vulture’s bumper crop of secondhand treasures.
I opened up the sink cupboard and turned off the valve, but didn’t see anything else I could do. I mean, the whole place was trashed. I couldn’t have cleaned up the broken glass by morning, much less before The Vulture got back. So I wiped a spot beside the sink dry, and put The Boomer’s sixty bucks plus what Jimbo Bond hadn’t eaten of my eleven there under the corner of a cup with a broken handle that I rescued from the floor.
Then I looked around for something to write a note with but of course there wasn’t anything. This creature specialized in junk objects, not paper or writing utensils, and putting a pencil in the drawer would take away space that might house a spoon from the Forties. So I finally pulled back the curtains from the kitchen window, took a ratty bar of soap covered in cat hair, and scrawled “Sorry” on the glass above the sink.
Finally I picked up Jimbo Bond’s pistol, which I would have left as additional payment except I assumed it was traceable, ejected the round in the chamber and stuffed it in my pocket. Having thus accomplished what little I could, I looked around one last time to see if by some miracle the goblet was just sitting there in plain sight. Then I got the hell out of there. And I’m proud to say I didn’t even break into a run until I was out of the door and down the steps.