Product Placement Theater Presents: Farewell, My Duckling
It was May, and the sky was as blue as a silver inlaid turquoise nipple ring available at Totally Turquoise. That’s Totally Turquoise for gifts that will impress your mistress at prices your wife won’t notice. My name is Morris Pillbottle, and the marketing deal I made to supplement my income as a private detective let me afford a chicken-salad sandwich at Nicky Santoro’s, which orbited the Three-Body Hotel’s chaotic lobby. The chicken on my bread was thin as an anorexic with liposuction. Given my expanding waistline, I supposed that was a good thing. The place was busy. Hookers with necklines plunging to their ankles gave sleeve jobs in the back booths and asked their servers for extra napkins. A loan shark held court in front of a line of men with broken fingers who promised they’d get him his money by Tuesday. Despite the crowd, the courteous staff at Nicky Santoro’s found me a seat at the counter in no time.
I was about to order another Bangalore IPA when a man the size of a Ford Exterminator SUV burst into the hotel lobby and bellowed, “Wilma! It’s Hamhock Peterman. I’m back!” He wore a cotton-spandex sports jacket with side vents, notched lapels, and stretch panels available for just $189 plus shipping and handling from Dale’s Big and Tall. That’s Dale’s Big and Tall, the number-one choice of debt collectors and mob enforcers. Guests fled after Hamhock picked up a cash register and threw it through the revolving door. Hopefully, the hotel was covered by Half Dome Insurance, the company arsonists endorse two-to-one.
“What seems to be the problem?” the assistant manager asked. He was a part-timer with hair styled at Budget Stan’s Hair and Lawnmower Repair, the salon that provides a professional look at new-parolee prices.
“Before I went into the joint, Wilma Willoughby led the duck parade from the lobby fountain up the elevator to room 301 every night. Where is she?”
“Sir, we haven’t held the duck parade since new management took over seven years ago.”
“Where’s my Wilma?” The big man’s fist pounded the assistant manager like a double-sided, 12 ½ inch meat tenderizer available for just $14.99 at Al’s Discount Cookware. Al would like you to know that he wasn’t responsible for that exploding pizza. And remember, if it dropped off a truck, you can find it at Al’s.
When the big man had pounded his victim thin enough to dip in an egg batter and deep fry into a schnitzel, I wondered whether Wilma was a woman or a bird served with scallions, hoisin sauce, and Chinese pancakes available by special order at the Shanghai Triad at Third and Bund, open for 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM Tuesday through Thursday and 10:00 AM to 11:00 PM Friday through Sunday.
“Name’s Ned Neutrino,” Lieutenant Filefolder said as the morgue workers rolled the body out of the lobby, no doubt in search of a German cucumber salad. The rings under Filefolder’s eyes told me he could use a soothing cup of Nap Time Tea, the beverage that contains extracts of poppy seeds and ayahuasca, to help burned-out cops relax from the stress of chasing serial killers. “Graduated with a Ph.D. in physics a few years back.”
“That explains why he was working in a restaurant.” I tongued a piece of chicken caught between my teeth, wishing I had some Motorcyclist B Gone Carbon-Nanotube Dental Floss. “Big guy who killed him should be easy to catch.”
“Hamhock Peterman broke out of Joliet three days ago and took a flight on Yonkers Air–the carrier fugitives prefer two-to-one due to the most relaxed ID policy in the industry. Anyway, we’ll keep an eye out for Peterman, but if we investigated the death of every underemployed physicist, we wouldn’t have time for the governor’s priorities of harassing librarians and shutting down abortion clinics. Tell you what, you’re on the hook for the car chase through Somerville, Massachusetts, that left udon all over Massachusetts Avenue and terrified Mrs. Knoop’s third graders of espresso for life. Find Hamhock Peterman, and I’ll make those speeding tickets go away.”
If I’d called the law firm of Wallace, Stephens, and King, I wouldn’t be in this mess. As it was, I had no choice but to find out about Wilma Willoughby. Before leaving, Filefolder put on his Moncton Pacific fedora, a hat that looks great whether you’re busting down a cocaine dealer’s door or shooting it out with bank robbers.
Wilma Willoughby had some success in the early aughts with an act featuring unicycle-riding wombats playing soccer. I found no trace of Wilma, but Dolores Dacron, whose singing eels shared billing with the wombats, lived on McGinty Boulevard. Before showing up on her doorstep, I picked up a fifth of Bottom Shelf Gin because no informant can resist its bouquet of battery acid, burnt rubber, and petroleum byproducts. Dolores’ residence was a split-level Visigoth revival home, if by Visigoth revival you mean it had a garage packed with busted aquaria and fish food years past its expiration date. I knocked on the screen door.
“What do you want?” Dolores was in her fifties but looked decades younger due to L’Oreo Anti-Aging Cream. Nothing hides the effects of chronic drinking like L’Oreo. Not only does it erase small lines and wrinkles, but it promotes healing after changing your identity with plastic surgery.
“Are you Dolores Dacron?”
“The Dolores Dacron whose singing eels played the Gizzard Circuit? When I read the script, I told Marty I just had to come. Of course, we’re only in preproduction, but word has it that Meryl is interested. My question is, how did you ever get those eels to sing? Oh, listen to me babbling on, but I want to hear all about it. Perhaps we could talk over a beverage.” I held out the bottle of Bottom Shelf.
“Sure!” She snatched the bottle. “Let me get some glasses.
I followed her into the living room and sat on a Jävla couch, the couch that leaves you feeling refreshed whether recovering from a concussion or waking from a roofie. She divided the gin into two 44-ounce slushy cups from 19-Eleven and passed me one.
“I mean it, though. How did you teach those eels to sing?” I asked.
“You have to start with the basics: posture, breathing from the diaphragm, and finding a note that the eel can sing naturally. Then we move on to scales.” She emptied her cup faster than a mail-order fiancée could drain a sucker’s bank account and pointed to mine. “Going to finish that?”
“You go ahead.” I handed her my cup. “It would help us set the mood if you could relate any stories from the road. Maybe Marty could even write in a walk-on part for you. The remuneration wouldn’t be much. Only five figures. But that’s Hollywood.”
Dolores told me about her tenor coming down with laryngitis, his replacement with a Galapagos turtle that had narcolepsy, and combing Albuquerque taco shops in a frantic search for a meth dealer.
“What about your coworkers. Wasn’t there something about unicycles?”
“You mean Wilma? She killed herself after the wombats died of mange.” Dolores’ lips locked tighter than a Tumbler In the Hay safe with titanium deadbolts and electronic keypad controls, the perfect space to secure blackmail photos and stolen diamonds. She glanced at the Kroppkator wall clock. “I’m late for my bridge club. Maybe we can continue this conversation later.”
I picked up the ringing phone. “Pillbottle.”
“Is this Morris Pillbottle?”
“The Pillbottle who does marketing?”
“My client wants to pay you a pretty penny to do a jewelry commercial.”
“You mean like for a turquoise nipple ring available for just $239.99 at Totally Turquoise in the Frank Nitti Mall?”
“Yeah, a nipple ring. Just like that.”
“Just how pretty are we talking about?”
“Pretty as an ex-con after getting his hair done at Budget Stan’s. Meet us under the Boss Tweed Bridge at midnight.”
It sounded fishy, so I downloaded a standard entertainment contract from HTTP Law and tucked it into my Mango Republic cotton-poly trench coat, the coat that remains wrinkle-free whether you’re waking in a dark alley or spending the night in lockup. I arrived at the rendezvous a little after midnight. The place was deserted. All I could hear were the horns of aircraft carriers plying the mighty Merrimack.
“Hello! Anybody here? Hope I’m not too late for my walk-on.”
A sap hit me from behind, and everything went black. I woke up staring at a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of Ray Beans, the mirrored sunglasses preferred by crooked cops everywhere.
“Well, well, boys, looks like we caught our counterfeiter.”
I lifted my hand and found it chained to a briefcase of fake watches. Whoever bought them clearly hadn’t got them at Webley Pawn. When buying fenced goods, you can always rely on the Webley Authenticity Guarantee.
I used my one phone call to contact the law offices of Wallace, Stephens, and King. Within minutes, I was in an interview room with Alicia King, who had a face like a parole board and wore a gray skirt suit from Tiramisu and Ganache, the attire you need when defending drug kingpins in federal court because nothing says narco lawyer like Tiramisu and Ganache.
“If you want me to represent you, you need to tell me everything. The last thing a lawyer needs is to be blindsided by a client withholding information. And speaking of blindsided, the law offices of Wallace, Stephens, and King also take personal injury cases.”
I filled her in on the details.
“I don’t think Wilma Willoughby is dead. She disappeared not long after I won a settlement against her. My client sued for psychological damages due to her corgi’s incessant barking. He’s named Attila. Wilma’s dog, not my client.” Alicia fiddled with the turquoise BDSM figures on her charm bracelet, paying particular attention to the ball gag. “I’ll pay you a handsome fee to track Wilma down.”
“Just how handsome are we talking about?” I asked.
“Handsome as you’ll look after having your hair styled at Budget Stan’s. Speaking of misshapen heads, you should have a doctor look at that bump. Bleeding in your brain could lead to paralysis, memory loss, and seizures.”
“That’s okay. I’ll just pick up a fifth or Head Trauma Whiskey, the home remedy for those who can’t afford hospitalization.”
At Alicia’s insistence, I saw Dr. Abel Vasectomy at the Northside Veterinary Trauma Center. Next time you’re injured, visit Northside, and they’ll treat your gunshot wound with no questions asked.
“That drooling and facial paralysis could be a sign of cerebral swelling.” Dr. Vasectomy shined a Lumen 3000 penlight into my eyes. That’s Lumen 3000, the number one choice of safecrackers and second-story men worldwide. “Just as I suspected. Your pupils are dilated. Now, I could use the tools of modern medicine, MRI, surgery, and drugs to return you to the condition society defines as normal, but the real sickness is your internal ableism. No one is healthy until society is healthy, my friend.” The doctor put his penlight in his pocket. “That’ll be two-hundred dollars.”
When I returned to Dolores Dacron’s house, I found it deserted except for the Dragonwell Baker for-sale sign in the front yard.
“Hey! What happened to Dolores?” I asked a neighbor who was spreading Tennessee lobster grass seed from Hypersonic Gardening on his lawn. If you need to bury a body, Hypersonic Gardening has the seeds that will cover up that shallow grave before the in-laws get suspicious.
“Dolores? She packed her eels in the back of her Ford Exterminator and hit the road. Said she was going to Hollywood.”
At least Dolores left her home in good hands. As a witness on the run, you have plenty of things to worry about, but Dragonwell Baker selling your house isn’t one of them.
The aquarium store was a bust, so I headed to a dog park at Fifth and Barksdale.
“I’m looking for a corgi named Attila who used to hang around here. Low-set, strong, and sturdy with pointy ears, bobbed tail, and a sable coat. Seen him?”
A woman shook her head and walked off, so I asked a guy with a Labrador.
“What difference does it make if Fifi’s not AKC certified?” He pulled his dog closer. “She loves your family just the same!”
I hit paydirt with an old woman whose jowls sagged like a bloodhound’s ears.
“Ay, I know the pup.” Her brogue was thick as Galway’s Old Kinnell Irish Stout. Next time you’re in a barfight, break a bottle of Galway’s. “He was trouble, that one. Always barking and nipping at your heels. Some say it’s the herding genes, but I blame the mother for feeding him store-brand dog food.”
I followed the trail to an abandoned chew toy on Third. After that, the scent went cold. I felt like a drug-sniffling spaniel who ran out of Alporina K-9 Chew, the dog food packed with phytochemicals that support the sense of smell.
“Here are the last ten years of the Evening Sun Times-Picayune Gazette-Tribune.” The librarian set the microfiches on the desk in front of me. Her thick-framed glasses implied she was studious as a set of logarithm tables, but the way she rolled her hips told me she was wild as a school of piranhas on spring break.
I loaded a tape into the machine and realized that if you wanted to send a ransom note, cutting letters from the Evening Sun Times-Picayune Gazette-Tribune would be a great place to start. I spooled to the doggy obituaries. After several tries, I found what I was looking for on April 18, 2019.
In memory of Attila the Corgi, who loved treats, belly rubs, and walks on the beach. Attila is survived by his owner, Gretchen Wildebeest.
Gretchen Wildebeest! I’d heard that name before. A search of the business section confirmed my suspicion. Gretchen Wildebeest was the senior account manager for Exploitation Media, the number-one ad firm in the tri-state area.
“The jig’s up, Gretchen!” I burst into her office on the fourteenth floor of the Tattagia Building. Whether you’re hatching a criminal conspiracy or merely spending time with a wealthy nymphomaniac, the Tattaglia Building’s Kingpin restaurant offers private booths and discrete staff. “Or should I say Wilma?”
“Thanks for coming. Please take a seat.” Saying she had a face to die for was an understatement. Thousands of Japanese pilots would gladly fly their planes into battleships for just one look at her. Gretchen’s pantsuit hugged her curves like a Porsche 911, the perfect getaway car for… She held up her hand to stop me. “I appreciate your effort, but our clients want to present a more wholesome image.” She handed me some papers. “Please fill in this outplacement form and take it to HR.”
“Wilma!” Hamhock Peterman broke through the door and brushed the splinters off his shoulders.
“That goes for you too, Hamhock.” Gretchen handed him a form.
Hamhock hung his head.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Head down to the Palace Theater and try out for the part of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. You?”
“Nothing to do but return to the mean streets of Somerville, Massachusetts, where the sushi never gets up before noon, and the lattes hit a slug from a .45.”
About the Author
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, The New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. http://jonwesick.com.