Good Night, Sweet Prince: Part One

Submitted by C B Wright on
Curveball, by Christopher Wright
Forrest Brownstone, Roof

The roof of the Forrest’s brownstone can’t be called a commanding view, not by New York City standards, but CB likes it. It’s night, but there’s enough light to see over the tops of the other brownstones in the neighborhood and into a small park located behind the houses across the street. In the distance he can see taller buildings rise up into the sky.

It’s chilly tonight. The wind is almost sharp enough to convince CB to go back inside. But he wants to smoke, and the house is strictly smoke-free.

“Hey.”

CB looks over his left shoulder. Leaning out the window that opens into his stretch of roof is an attractive middle-aged woman, smiling at him.

CB smiles back. “Juliet.”

“You left the window open again,” she says. She sounds more amused than angry.

“Old habits,” CB says.

“Bad habits,” Juliet counters. She’s blond, fair-skinned, with only a few wrinkles around the corners of her eyes. She holds out a green thermos. “Coffee?”

“Sure,” CB says.

Juliet crawls out on to the window and awkwardly slides down the roof, dragging the thermos and a blanket behind her. When she slides in next to CB she stops, hands him the thermos, and wraps the blanket around her shoulders.

“Not surprised to see you here,” she says. “This is where you and grandpa would go to talk.”

“And smoke,” CB says, waving his cigarette in the air.

“That was just you.” There’s a hint of disapproval in her voice.

CB snorts. “Alex smoked like a chimney. He just never did it around you.”

Juliet looks at him sideways. She’s not sure she believes him.

“Not kidding,” CB says. “Hey, until the… 80s? Early 90s? Smoking was pretty much everywhere. A lot of people did it. And Alex was born in 1920. Everybody smoked back then. Hell, in World War II he was convinced it was good for his health, and so were his doctors. The doctors at the Paragon Project actually prescribed him cigarettes to counteract the nausea from his treatments.”

“Hmmm.” Juliet’s voice is noncommittal. “And you? Did you think it was healthy?”

“Nah.” CB takes another drag. “I just thought it made me look tough.”

Juliet laughs. She still has that care-free laugh, the one that makes him want to laugh too, even when he doesn’t really know why she’s laughing. “You’re a bad man,” she says. “A terrible influence.”

“That must be why they never used me in one of those ‘Just say No’ campaigns.”

“Weren’t you on the FBI’s Most Wanted list during most of those campaigns?”

CB thinks back. “Yeah,” he says finally. “That probably had more to do with it.”

Juliet laughs again. “Are you going to drink any of that coffee?”

CB looks down at the thermos. “After the cigarette,” he says.

“Then pass it over here.”

CB hands her the thermos.

“Saw you and Peter talking earlier today.” Juliet unscrews the lid and pours some coffee into the screw-top cup. Steam rises into the night. She holds the cup under her face, breathing in the warmth. “Nice to see you talking again. I thought it was terrible the way things ended up.”

“I was pretty mad,” CB says, “but I never hated him.”

“You broke his jaw.”

“Everyone keeps bringing that up.” CB flicks the ash from his cigarette into the gutter. “I don’t know what you were expecting me to do to the guy telling me that my choices were to either sign myself over to the government or go to jail.”

“It wasn’t his decision,” Juliet says.

“Which is why I only broke his jaw.”

Juliet hmmmms and lets the matter drop. “What were you talking about?”

“Alex’s will, mostly. He made a few requests that are making some of Pete’s bosses uncomfortable.”

“Oh really?” Juliet sounds intrigued. “What requests were those?”

“Well, he wanted me to speak at his funeral.”

“We already knew that,” Juliet says.

CB shakes his head. “Not the real one. The one they’re going to put on TV.”

Juliet chokes back laughter.

The curtains at the window draw back, and Martin sticks his head out, peering down at CB and Juliet. “Hah! Knew I’d find you two here. Room for one more?”

CB waves him down. A minute later the three of them sit side by side on the roof.

“I think I need to put rails up here,” Martin says. “And maybe a few ashtrays.”

“Joykiller,” CB says, grinning.

“That’s my job,” Martin says.

“Pete says grandpa wanted CB to speak at the national service,” Juliet says. She adjusts her blanket so it drapes over her husband as well. “And here’s some coffee.”

“Hmm.” Martin takes the thermos. “I can think of a few people who won’t like that. Your brother. The governor. Most of the DHS…”

“I know,” CB says. “Alex must have known too. I guess I was rubbing off on him after all.”

Everyone laughs, then lapses into awkward silence.

“I’m sorry,” CB says. “I’m sorry about Alex, and I’m sorry I haven’t been around. I missed you guys.”

“We know why you couldn’t be here,” Juliet says softly.

CB snorts. “That’s one up on me. I don’t have a clue.”

“Liar,” Martin says cheerfully. “You were always good at that. Lying. Especially to yourself.”

CB doesn’t reply.

Martin unscrews the thermos and drinks from it directly. He makes a face. “Instant? Julie. Instant?”

Juliet sighs. “It’s all I could find. We used the last of the real stuff this afternoon.”

“I’ll pick some more up tomorrow. Is there anything else we need? I could turn it into a proper trip if you want.”

“Good idea.” Juliet stretches and shrugs off the blanket. “I think I’ll go make a list now. Don’t freeze to death, boys.”

She climbs over Martin, gives him a quick peck on the cheek as she passes, then climbs back through the window into the house.

CB frowns, then reaches for another cigarette. “That was weird.”

Martin chuckles. “What’s weird? I wanted to talk you in private, so she made an excuse and went inside.”

CB stares at Martin and shakes his head in disbelief. “You wanted to talk to me in private.”

“That’s right.”

“All you said was you were going to buy coffee tomorrow.”

“She knew what I meant.”

CB laughs. “That’s creepy, Marty. Only telepaths should be allowed to talk like that.”

Martin shrugs. “Years of marriage. Mind reading. Same thing.” He takes another swig of coffee and winces. “This really is terrible.”

“I’ll stick to smoking, then.” CB lights his cigarette. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I’ve got a list,” Martin says cheerfully, “but it boils down to ‘are you going to be all right?’ and ‘what trouble are you going to stir up when you start looking into Alex’s death?’”

“I’ll be fine,” CB says tonelessly.

“Don’t bullshit me,” Martin says. He says it casually, as if he was complimenting a woman’s hat. “I’m not Julie. You don’t have to play act in front of me, remember? You had a hell of a day today.”

“We all had a hell of a—”

“Hey, guess what?” Martin interrupts. “I’m getting old.”

CB falls silent.

“And so are you,” Martin continues, “but you don’t show it. You’re like Alex. You saw how it affected him, you’re here after being gone ten years, and suddenly I have gray hair, Julie has wrinkles, and Jenny and Andy are the age we were when we first met. Suddenly you don’t know if you have more in common with them or with us. It’s freaking you out.”

CB flicks ash off the side of the house and watches as bits of it, still glowing, disappear into the darkness. “Yeah.”

“So you’re trying not to think about it,” Martin continues, “but your best friend in the world—the one guy who would understand more than anyone—isn’t here any more. So now you’re sitting in the spot where the two of you used to sit for hours talking about… I don’t know, everything. And you’re trying not to wonder what it’s going to be like in ten more years, but you can’t help it.”

His voice is still cheerful and kind, and it doesn’t let up. CB remembers seeing hardened criminals crumble just by listening to that man lay out all the evidence they had in exactly the same voice he’d use to tell his daughter a bedtime story. That’s just how Martin is—he’s the nicest guy CB’s ever known, and he’s brutal when it comes to telling the truth. Mr. Rogers, the Grand Inquisitor.

“You know how it was with Julie’s dad,” Martin adds.

CB sighs. “Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” Martin says. “It’s morbid, I know, but… that hit him pretty hard. After that I saw him watching us grow old every time he stopped by to visit. You know? He was steeling himself for the day he’d have to go to one of our funerals. He ever talk about that with you?”

CB blows streams of smoke out of his nostrils. “Just once. I don’t want to talk about it. No offense.”

“None taken,” Martin says. “I don’t have to deal with it. I get to grow old and die like everyone else in the world. You’re the one getting left behind. I’m sorry about that.”

CB wraps his trench coat a little tighter around him.

“Is that why you left the first time?” Martin asks.

CB shrugs. “Pretty much,” he admits. “I mean, I was pretty much disgusted with the world at the time and wanted to hide anyway, but… that just made it easier. Other than you guys, I don’t really have a family. A few friends. That’s about it.”

“That doesn’t sound easier to me,” Martin says.

CB doesn’t reply.

“Are there any others?”

“Other what?” CB looks over at Martin. “Any other Peter Pans? Yeah, actually. A few.”

“Well?” It’s the first hint of exasperation Martin’s shown all night. “Have you thought of talking to them?”

“About what?” CB narrows his eyes. “You might find it hard to believe, but ‘hey guys, we might be immortal’ isn’t much of a common bond.”

“It might be as soon as everyone else around you starts dying off,” Martin points out.

“Jesus, Marty…” CB laughs bitterly. “I know two guys, OK? But trust me, there’s nothing—”

“You keep making excuses,” Martin says. “Are you shy? I’m going to answer that for you: you’re not shy.”

“Are you finished?” CB asks, irritation rising. “Vigilante is an interesting guy, but aside from having the single least creative name in the business, he’s also considered a criminal by the government. And that’s only when he’s not considered a terrorist by the government. The body count around him is a little high for my taste.”

Martin frowns. “Vigilante. Right. I thought he died.”

“Yeah,” CB says. “More than once. But it doesn’t take.”

“OK,” Martin says, “Vigilante is probably not the guy you want to kick back and have a beer with. What about the other guy?”

“Fella named Jack Barrow,” CB says. “Great guy, to be honest. Pretty down to earth and laid back, when he’s not on the job.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“He works for the Mob,” CB says.

Martin’s eyes narrow. “He works for the…? Wait. Scrapper Jack?

CB shrugs. “His life is complicated.”

“A life of crime will do that.”

“A life of law abiding behavior will do that, too,” CB points out.

Martin harrumphs, takes another swig of coffee, and winces yet again.

“Anyway,” CB says, “you can see how it might be difficult to strike up a regular friendship with either of them.”

They both lapse into silence. CB finishes his cigarette. Martin tries to finish the coffee, but gives up in disgust.

“You ever miss the force, Marty?” CB flicks the rest of his cigarette off the roof.

Martin shrugs slightly. “I’d never pass the physical.”

“Not what I asked. Do you regret retiring?”

“I didn’t exactly retire,” Martin says. “Not by choice. I went on disability and saw the writing on the wall. But yeah, I regret it now and then. What about you? Do you regret retiring?”

CB raises an eyebrow. “Who says I did?”

“Pete Travers,” Martin says. “He says the government is actually paying you to retire.”

CB laughs. “Yeah. They actually put me on a… I forget what it’s called. Abstention something. It’s a pension. All I have to do is stay out of the game.”

“Have you stayed out of the game?” Martin asks.

“Sort of,” CB says. “But I told ‘em when it started that if I didn’t cash a check in 30 days they better take me off payroll.”

“So you never ruled out coming back.” Martin thinks it over, then grins. “Who am I kidding? You probably never left to begin with.”

“I cashed their checks,” CB says. “And I stuck to the letter of the agreement.”

“What about this month’s check?”

CB doesn’t reply.

“CB?”

CB sighs. “Cashed it the day Alex died. Before I found out. Guess I’m going to have to give Uncle Sam a refund.”

Martin nods slowly. “You’re going to look into the murder.” It’s not a question.

“Hell yes I’m going to look into it. Marty, nobody puts a bullet right between Alex’s eyes in a fair fight. Not even in an unfair fight. And it sure wasn’t a bunch of random hooligans in commando gear.”

“You don’t buy the official story?”

CB laughs bitterly. “Do you? You know what he could do. There are only a few people I can think of who could pull this off. They’re all bad news, but they don’t do vendettas. This wasn’t a whim, it wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t a revenge killing. My money is on a contract killing. Someone wanted Alex dead. I don’t know why, but I’m going to find out.”

Silence.

“I want in,” Martin says.

“I’ll take all the help I can get,” CB replies. “And since you’re offering, I need you to call in some favors and get me access to Alex’s apartment. I want to see where it happened up close.”

Martin nods. “Can do. You want me to smooth things over with Pete? I expect he’s supposed to be keeping you off the job and all that.”

CB shakes his head. “Pete’s a smart guy. He knows why I’m here.”

“So when are you going to get started?”

CB thinks. “Well, there’s the viewing in the morning, and the service tomorrow…”

Martin nods. “And then in the evening we’ll have everyone over here.”

CB hesitates. “The whole family?”

“Every last one.”

“Well,” CB says, “that settles that. I’ll get started tomorrow night.”

Comments

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Missing conjunction

wants to smoke, and the house

Hmph. Pete's smart enough to

Hmph. Pete's smart enough to know when to look the other way, hmmm?