The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Four

Phil's scissors were working on taking a little off the back when I saw Lois Lane exit the subway and cross the Daily Planet plaza. She was wearing a navy blue suit, the skirt cut a little longer than her usual office look. A concession, I knew; Lane's wardrobe was tailored to the day's interview. If a glimpse of thigh would net her more story, she would use the advantage, but she also knew who would disapprove. More days than not, the glimpse of thigh would win. And, she had told me once, a shorter skirt was easier to run in.

Ever practical, Lois Lane. I just hoped she didn't have to do any running today.

The ring of the bell over Phil's door cut into my speculation on which repressed official or temperance worker Lane would be interviewing. Phil's steady snip-snip paused.

"Eddie! How ya doin'? Need an early trim?"

The short hairs on the back of my neck, lifted by Phil's paused comb, reacted to the voice that answered. There was a forced huskiness to the usual nasal whine. "Not today, Phil. I'm here to see Jones."

"Of course," Phil acknowledged, returning to his trimming. "So you'll let me even you up on Saturday, as usual, right, Eddie?"

Phil still had me facing out, but I let my eyes slide over to study the man leaning just inside the door, his hat pulled low. "Sure thing, Phil," Eddie Gornicki agreed, putting a cigarette in his mouth. I closed my eyes as he lit a match, waiting until the smell of lit tobacco overrode the burnt sulphur odor to open them. "Heard you was in the Print Room this morning, Jones," Gornicki remarked.

"Damnedest thing," I replied as Phil worked around my left ear, putting himself between Gornicki and me. "Woke up this morning and had an unbelievable hankering for one of Artie's breakfast scrambles."

I could hear Gornicki inhale on his cigarette. "Hell, man, you ain't got breakfast scrambles in Uptown?"

"They always put that chorizo in them."

Gornicki began to laugh, the wheezy sound turning into a cough. Phil, whose hand was on the back of the chair, ready to spin me to work on my right side, relaxed and walked around the chair instead.

Gornicki pounded on his chest. "Damn, Jones, you still all right by me. Whatchya say you buy old Eddie a drink?"

Phil put a hand on my head to keep me from turning and urged me to tip to the side for a better angle. "Old times sake, eh, Gornicki?" I asked.

"You know I'm always good for talkin' to, Jonesie."

Phil gave a final snip by my ear and set down his scissors and dropped the comb back in the sanitizer. "Angie still working at the Madison Tap?" I asked. I didn't know what Gornicki wanted, or what he knew, but he was giving me an excuse to stay in Midtown and in sight of the Planet.

"You know it," Gornicki replied, and I could hear the leer in his voice.

Phil was brushing the cut hair off my skin. "There you go, Johnny." He handed me a mirror as he unclipped the big apron from around my neck.

I gave my reflection a cursory glance. I could see the pale skin along my neck where my hair had been shaggy enough to keep the sun off. I looked like a rube trying to pass for city. Somehow I thought I was feeling just the opposite. "Looks good, Phil," I said, handing him back his mirror as he peeled away the tissue around my collar and gave a couple more strokes with his brush. I stood up and reached into my pocket, pulling out the requisite two bits and an extra dime for Phil's trouble. He accepted the money with a nod.

"Don't be a stranger, now, Johnny. And Eddie - Saturday."

"Yeah, yeah, like you say, Phil," Gornicki answered, opening the door for me as I resettled my hat on my head. He tossed his cigarette into the gutter as we jaywalked across Monroe.

The sun was getting stronger as we crossed the plaza, and I knew I'd be sweating under my coat before the day was over. Gornicki waited until we were out in the open to say anything about why he had to see with his own eyes that I was back in Midtown. "Heard you got into it with Rockwell."

"News travels fast in this neck of the woods," I replied, knowing Gornicki would miss the irony.

"He's bad news, Jones. You're lucky Kent stepped in."

We paused at the intersection of Madison and Siegel, waiting for a chance to cross. "This some kind of warning, Gornicki?"

Gornicki interrupted his back and forth scan of the traffic to chuckle and put a hand to my shoulder. "Jones, when you ever listen to my warnin's? I'm just sayin'."

His hand moved as he began crossing the street, and I followed.

Gornicki was a snitch, something of a fixture in Midtown. He had information on anything for the right price, and for a righter price he would even make sure the information was correct. Usually. Except the times when someone knew who he was snitching to and had the sense to feed bad information.

Gornicki probably thought he owed me on a past investment. Either that, or he was trying to make sure I hadn't developed a craving for revenge in my Uptown rat hole. I couldn't get a clear read on him as I followed him across Madison and stepped up onto the curb in front of the Tap.

"Feels like old times, don't it?" Gornicki remarked as we entered the bar.

I blinked in the dim light of the interior. "Something like that," I agreed, scanning the bar.

"Hey, Angie," Gornicki hailed the waitress over the racket of the wireless behind the bar. I claimed a stool at the plank that crossed the smoke darkened front windows.

"What the hell you want, Gornicki?" Angie shot back, clearly not seeing me. "You know your credit's shot in here."

"Just bring me two -" Gornicki looked back toward me. "Whatchya drinkin' these days, Jones?"

"Jack. Straight up." I wasn't looking to see Gornicki's reaction. My eyes were watching the traffic on the plaza.

"Two Jacks, one straight, one on the rocks," Gornicki called.

"Hope your friend knows he's paying," Angie said, her voice closer, but at a new angle. By the sound of it she was by the bar, probably exchanging looks with the uncertain bartender. The Madison Tap always had uncertain bartenders. The owner paid for shit, was always getting kids barely old enough to shave and training them on how to water down the drinks and survive bar fights. Dom knew as long as he had Angie and Moira to run the floor, uncertain bartenders could be a virtue. By day two on the job, they usually figured out that they hadn't seen anything, hadn't heard anything, and had no idea what anyone had ordered - and never would if they knew what was good for them. They always quit before they'd been around long enough to grow a set.

I turned away from the window. "I got it, Angie," I said, giving her the first view of my face since I'd entered the bar.

I thought I heard her say, "Shit," and then I heard the rock tumblers being set on the bar.

Gornicki settled on to the stool by me with a grin on his mug. "You on a case?" he asked, making a show of noticing where I'd sat us.

A hint of too-sweet perfume invaded our space, and two glasses of whiskey were set roughly on the plank in front of us. "Don't be bringin' any shit in here, Jones," Angie snarled.

"Hey, Angie-babe-" Gornicki started as I took a moment to give Angie a look-over. Her dirty blonde hair was tied back, a couple straggling curls hanging limp along her face. She'd put on a few pounds she could've used anyway. Her arms were bare, and there was no trace of bruising, either there or on her face. For the first time, it occurred to me that something good might've come out of the warehouse fire on the edge of Suicide Slum.

"You're looking good, Angie. How's life treating you?"

She glared at me. "Still working this shit-hole, ain't I? And I mean it, Jones. You ain't too popular in these parts."

I met her glare, and it faltered. "I'm not looking for trouble," I promised her, impressing on her how much I meant it.

She scowled as she blinked rapidly a couple of times. "That don't mean it won't follow you," she muttered, turning on heel and stalking away.

Gornicki watched her go. "I think she's sweet on you."

I picked up the glass of whiskey and took a swallow, not bothering to reply. My stomach welcomed the curdling heat of the booze, and I felt some tension leave my shoulders as the noise in my head blurred enough for me to focus.

Gornicki was watching me. "I heard you crawled into a bottle. Guess they didn't lie."

I lifted the glass, watching the amber liquid catch the filtered light from the window. "Whiskey keeps its promises," I remarked.

I could feel Gornicki pale a little. "Now, Jones, you know-"

"Relax, Gornicki." I smiled at him. "And how could I be on a case? You know anyone around here that would hire me?"

He chuckled weakly. "Yeah, you got a point there. Rockwell was still ranting about you when I stopped in the Print Room, and I didn't hear anyone disagreeing."

"Good to know my reputation is intact." I took another swallow of whiskey. Beside me, Gornicki was settling himself.

"I'd still watch myself, if I were you," Gornicki pointed out unnecessarily, sipping his own whiskey and joining me in watching the increasing throng on the plaza. "That Clark Kent was looking mighty interested in what Rockwell had to say."

I snorted. "You got me buying you whiskey to tell me to watch out for Clark Kent? Thanks, Gornicki." I tossed back the final swallow of my whiskey.

"Wait, Jones. You don't know what I know." Gornicki sounded anxious, probably worried I would leave.

I gave him a skeptical look. "I'm not worried about what some milquetoast reporter thinks of me."

"Come on, Jonesie. Have another drink. Where else you got to go?"

I made a show of thinking about it. Then I called, "Angie, two more."

"Good man, Jones," Gornicki approved. "You always been a reasonable guy."

"Too reasonable," I muttered.

"What was that?" Gornicki asked, but then Angie was back. She dropped down our new glasses and waited impatiently as Gornicki finished the last of his first drink. "Thanks, doll," he said with a grin. She answered him with a withering look and left again.

"To reasonable men," Gornicki toasted, and I half-heartedly clinked my glass against his. We both sipped, and then he smacked his lips and began speaking again. "Good man, that Jack Daniels. Anyway, problem with Kent is he's a busybody type. Listens a lot. Schemin' type, you know?"

"Kent? Please."

"You ain't been around like I been. There's guys that's quiet 'cuz they yellow or 'cuz they stupid, and there's guys is quiet 'cuz they smart or hidin' somethin'. Kent ain't yellow, and he sure ain't stupid."

Gornicki was hitting a "trust me on this" point of conversation, and I swallowed some more whiskey, using the silence to try to get a better read on what Gornicki knew. Trouble was, Gornicki was so full of half-truths and could-be truths I wasn't sure he knew which parts of his stories were lies. Nonetheless, whatever run-in he'd had with Kent had left an impression, and I filed that information away. Someone turned up the wireless as the new Dinah Washington song started playing.

"Fine. Kent's not stupid. He's also the guy that pulled Rockwell off me this morning before things got ugly."

"Rockwell's always ugly," Gornicki pointed out, giving one of his wheezy laughs at his own humor. He pulled a pouch of tobacco out of his pocket and set it on the plank.

"I didn't expect him to be so hot after all this time." My eyes were looking back out at the plaza, and I kept a frown off my face as I saw Lois and Jimmy running out of the front doors of the Planet building. She was hailing a cab, and he had a camera around his neck.

Gornicki was giving me a surprised look. "Din't you know? He was lookin' to get somethin' started with that chippie who went down in that Wayne thing." He went back to peeling a cigarette paper from the bundle in his hand. Lois and Jimmy were getting in the cab, and there was no sign of Kent.

"Rockwell was?" I asked, feeling the usual cold in my gut as Hortense Arroyo's face floated up in memory. If Kent wasn't heading out, I could feed that cold feeling more whiskey. I tossed back what was left in my glass and flagged Angie for another.

"Yeah. Came out quiet like after the flap started to die down. Rockwell was tryin' to keep the pot stirred, and White finally took 'im off the crime beat." Gornicki started to sprinkle tobacco in the center of his paper. Dinah Washington's crooning over the wireless was suddenly cut off.

"...rupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. Police are currently engaged in a high speed chase out of the central business district, following presumed members of the Caglioni gang after a bank heist at First National on State Street. The chase seems to be heading toward North Bridge and - this just in. Superman has been sighted on the Interborough Bridge. I repeat -"

Angie appeared at my elbow and set down my drink. "Jones, normally I wouldn't say nothin' 'bout a man's drinkin', but don't you think this is a bit much before 10 am?"

I picked up the glass. "I'm fine, Angie." I was brusquer than I needed to be, trying to watch for Kent without being obvious.

"Yeah, lea' 'im be, Angie," Gornicki mumbled as he licked the edge of his rolling paper and sealed his cigarette.

"Your liver," Angie shrugged, taking away my empty. There was still no sign of Kent. Over the wireless, the newsman was reading updates as fast as they came in. I took another drink of whiskey, trying to keep the channels straight in my brain. It seemed like the background buzz of the bar was getting louder, harder to shut out.

"That Superman, helluva guy," Gornicki remarked. "Anyway, like I was sayin'-"

He paused to light his cigarette, and my attention was too split to react before the match flared to life. The fire seemed to burst into my brain, a starburst of pain in the middle of fractured thoughts. I rose unsteadily to my feet, trying to hold it together. "Hold that thought, Gornicki. Need to hit the head."

"You all right, Jones? Maybe Angie's right 'bout the booze-" He shook out his match, but I had already turned away to make my staggering way to the men's room.

Halfway there the echo of the fire was beginning to fade, and I felt myself steadying. I saw Angie looking at me with a worried expression, and I gave her a reassuring smile that didn't seem to work.

I slumped a little against the swinging door of the men's room as I opened it, noticing belatedly someone was already in the stall. I straightened up and went to the sink, splashing water on my face and staring at the bricks where a mirror might have been once. My brain was still overfull of voices, uncut by the alcohol buzz. I shook my head muzzily and took a staggering couple of steps to the urinal, unzipping my trousers. I heard the hinges squeak on the stall door and wondered who convinced Dom a men's room needed a stall door. Then there was a sharp pain in the back of my head and I was watching the porcelain lip of the urinal fly toward my face.

Another sharp crack, and then there was nothing at all.