a serious joke: chapter 4

“take my wife, please…”

– Henny Youngman

Bryan Hannick had set up comfortably for the evening in his Thunderbird, tinted windows rolled up, telephoto lens resting easy on the dashboard, binocoluars hanging around his thick goon neck, .45 strapped cool but ready across his shoulder. Guzzling down mouthfuls of jelly candies. Empty bags of assorted fruit flavored jelly based candy littering the interior of the tinted Thunderbird. No sign so far. Lots of waiting. 10:48pm—no sign of Spleen. Hannick reluctantly placed the bag of candy down on the center console and jotted it down in his notes. 10:48pm—no sign of Spleen. Coast clear. Sky looks as if to rain. Partly foggy. No signs. Nothing exceptional. This is it. Lots of waiting. Mostly waiting. Lots of candy eating. Lots of candy eating and mostly waiting—and watching—punctuated, if you’re lucky, by the occasional excuse to whip out the .45.

Hannick was getting a toothache. Too much candy. Hours upon hours of surveillance, most nights of the week, with nothing exceptional to show for it….translates to a lot of sugary jelly candy eaten. Soda, water, coffee, fluids of any type are no good…no time and no-where to piss, in the rare and extremely unlikely event you miss that golden moment while stepping out to take a leak. So, candy. Hannick had a sweet tooth. And it was killing him, right about now, in the middle of a particularly important stakeout. They all say they’re particularly important, but Hannick—despite decades of experience in finding they all say the same thing—had somehow stepped into his black tinted Thunderbird that night with the distinct impression this one really was important. Normally he wouldn’t sweat it so much…tough it out, maybe even cut a corner or two…but the strange importance in the air tonight gave him an uneasy feeling. The tooth was now throbbing. The entire side of his thick, pronounced jaw. Hannick removed his sunglasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. His wide, neanderthal-ish, jock face seemed to vibrate with the pain. Or, it was the thought of the solicitor for tonight. The thin, hollow, empty voice on the other end of the phone. Not a guy to be easily fazed, Hannick had picked up on an unsettling….void….in the solicitor’s voice. Not easy to put a finger on. Some kind of odd vacancy to the way he spoke. Quite articulate and expressive…but vacant in the way a dead man’s voice could be said to be vacant. If dead men could speak, Hannick thought, you’d probably describe the tone of his voice as ‘vacant’. How hair and fingernails continue to grow after death, or so they say…a fair representation of a human quality, but…empty. Different. Not real hair, not real nails….not a real voice. Vacant. Void. Some counterfeit thing…

“Damn toothache must be getting to me,” he thought, reclining only for a moment in the fine leather seat of his black Thunderbird. Dead men acting as solicitors. For what? What could a dead man want with a hack comic from the heart of darkness, the central region and parts south of Virginia? Interesting geographic region first of all for a dead man to want staked out…and an even more puzzling target…small-time open-mic catch as catch can hack comedian. Morocco. Tangiers. Istanbul. The kinds of places you might imagine a dead solicitor taking interest in. And a sultan (are there still sultans?). Or a diplomat…an Interpol agent…something like that. “I’m god damn delirious…Dennis, Bryan Hannick calling, it’s late I know, apologies, but I’ve got one hell of a toothache…when you get this I’m wondering if you can get me in on, like, an emergency basis…,” Hannick found himself in the middle of a voice message to his dentist…the pesty tooth from a month or so back jolting him into flipping his phone open and making a plaintive, humbling request; something quite at odds with his boorish, blusteringly domineering nature. “…anyway, if you could get me in like right away, soon as you get this man, Dr., man, Dennis…that’d be, like…a big relief. Thanks. Bye then.” Defeated, his .45 impotent against a simple jelly candy, sugar and sucrose, Hannick snapped the phone closed…as possible as it is to slam a cell phone, slamming it down, closed. Impotent. Hannick groaned in pain…drool forming in the space under his tongue and between his cheek and gums. Still reclining.

The humorous attempt at entertainment, considering the possibility of his solicitor for the night being a dead man, or a ghost, now seemed quite less humorous. Hannick was unsure why, though.

At that moment, a scene erupted outside the club he’d parked his Thunderbird strategically in view of. Some shouting. Shoving. Hannick was still reclining, groaning. Drooling. In all the shoving, Jim Spleen emerged from the doors, walking briskly at first, then running—pursued, albeit only briefly—by a rather diminutive young man dressed in black, wearing a fedora. The small man chasing after lost his hat and seemed to gesture laconically as if to say, “fuck this!”, and shortly stormed back the other way, towards the club doors. Spleen had disappeared down an alleyway; Hannick, now passed out and drooling all over his fine leather upholstery, had missed the entire episode—the golden moment. The one in a million. He might’ve stepped out to take a leak, hundreds of times, thousands in fact, over years and years of surveillance…and never missed a thing. But this was it…the golden moment…the .45 moment…how the big bully-ish goon of a PI had longed to pull out that .45 over those many, many years. He’d gotten the chance a few times. Two, hadn’t been in the clear to pull the trigger, no questions asked. Another, he’d been in hot pursuit…and twisted his ankle running down a flight of stairs in the metro. The last…he missed. Considering himself something like a good defense attorney, Hannick took no interest in the innocence/guilt of his subject…if the solicitor indicated he/her was guilty, up to no good, if it would be unfortunate should something bad happen to him/her, Hannick took it as marching orders and considered it a code of honor. Or, his .45 considered it a good shot at emptying a round in a warm body. For once. But no…this was a bloody thought. Not how it works. If my solicitor tells me the subject is a filthy pedo or a stalker or a wife-beater…that’s orders, and justified, and to be believed. There are no questions asked. And the .45, always cool and ready, for that golden moment. What Jim Spleen had done, however…according to Hannick’s solicitor, it was inexcusable…unconscionable…in fact, should some ill fate befall the man, so much the better. The fine print, written in invisible ink, between the lines and in the margins, of course…

What Jim Spleen had done, in fact, was unconscionable. But Bryan Hannick only had the Cliff’s Notes to go on. The full text was currently sprinting down avenues and alleyways, jumping fences, stumbling over trashcans and weaving in and out of traffic, running in-between fast-moving cars like raindrops. But none of that frantic running would’ve meant a thing to Bryan…it’s orders, and his .45 was cool and ready, and implicit instruction had been given by the hollow, possibly dead voice of the solicitor.

Unfortunately, he’d missed his chance—that golden moment. So much time spent waiting—watching—eating sugary jelly candy—waiting for that moment; the candy in the end had ruined it. Possibly, maybe, some sort of irony there. In any case, Bryan Hannick was still passed out, drooling all over his fine leather upholstery; and Spleen was by now far away…for all anyone knew, in Morocco, or Tangiers, or Istanbul.

Hannick’s cell phone began to ring. The odds being, it was not Dennis the Dentist.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

“Slow down, calm down,” Hannick barked through clenched jaw, beads of cold sweat condensing on his temple. “Start from the beginning. What happened, who’s this guy to you?” He pulled a notepad and pen from the breast pocket of his leather jacket, flipped it open and stared expectantly. Grinding his jaw to a fine powder, eyes focused widely on the interviewee in an attempt to hide the mortar and pestle rhythm of molars, bicuspids and canines. Pain is no good. Pain undermines. Right about now Hannick felt his manhood shrinking up into his pelvic cavity—like a frightened turtle. “What’d he do, fuck your wife, what?”

“How did you know?” the diminutive young man in black—now gripping his matching fedora nervously by the brim, suddenly came to life—eyes wide, knuckles going white around the brim.

“Well.” Hannick pretended to write something in his ersatz notepad. “That wasn’t so hard now was it, kid?” Self-satisfied, and without right to be.

“Yeah…,” the young man in black with the kung-fu grip on his matching fedora slowly lowered his head, in a dejected tone mumbling yeah yeah over and over again. “That cunt.” His grip loosened. Hands somber.

“Women are cunts, that’s true.” Hannick was matter of fact now. Haughty. The turtle very suddenly gaining an air of accidental confidence. Head poking out proud. “Why though?”

“Who knows, man…women are heartless bitches. You know…I think I know why. Well, I have a theory on that I mean…it’s like women got all the choices in the world man, and even the best looking dude still has to fight for that upper hand…it ain’t even, women are up here, you’re down here, no matter how good you are…I was GOOD, dude, I—“

“Why did your wife fuck that guy, I mean.” Hannick almost had to stifle a grin through the throbbing pain…which was almost a nice thing…given the pain. But you never smile either. A show of pain—a smile—either one is vulnerability. Teetering strangely on that normally broad line, Hannick elaborated. “Marital problems? She know the guy, the comic, far as you know? You found out just tonight, am I correct? Otherwise the idiot wouldn’t have taken off, no big scene here outside…walk me through it.”

“I don’t know why she…with that asshole. Some hack. Biggest swipe artist in the scene…”

“Whoa, hey, hold on, my mistake. You’re a comic too then?”

“Yeah, man. I’m headlining.” The young man in black placed the fedora haphazardly back on his head and pointed up and to the left.

“John Lewis,” Hannick said out loud, reading the marquis. He pretended to write the name in his notepad.

“Yeah, that’s me. No, I didn’t…”

“What’s that? Didn’t do what?” Hannick asked, still looking down, pretending to write something else for good measure.

“Didn’t find out tonight…about Spleen and my wife.”

“Why the big scene then?” Hannick asked, glancing up, turtle’s head at full mast, the throbbing in his molar almost a distant memory. “And your wife’s name, by the way?”

“He’s a swipe artist, like I said.” John Lewis adjusted the fedora and looked back down, somber. “It’s Colleen.”

“Swipe artist, what’s that mean?” Hannick, writing up a fake storm…

“He steals jokes. Like, almost word for word. Entire bits even. He’s stolen from me more than anyone. He knows I know.”

“Steals jokes,” Hannick repeated, as if to demean the trade of jokes and joke-telling—and tucking the blank pad full of case notes back into his breast pocket. “Who does that?”

“Assholes do it,” John Lewis said emphatically as he jolted forward, striking cobra-like with his answer. “Hacks who aren’t funny, can’t write a joke to save their life.” At this point it was unclear whether the joke-stealing or the wife-fucking was the primary grievance. Both men seemed indifferent. Both for different reasons.

“So….” Hannick’s molar began to throb again… “It was this Jim Spleen stealing your jokes that set all this off. The wife thing, so far as tonight anyways, that’s moot.” A cell phone ringtone preempted his next thought. “Apologies,” Hannick said, smiling only strategically, then shutting it off. “Well, anyways, like I was about to say…ask, rather…who books these shows? Why book a joke stealer the same night as the guy he steals from? Did he know he was booked with you?”

“Well, yeah, I don’t know…” John Lewis trailed off, lost in the multiplicity of questions posed. “Okay,” he began again, “I don’t know who books for this club. Anyway, it’s not like whoever it is would give a damn you know…that’s on Spleen. He had a lot of balls showing up here tonight. As for my wife, no, well…it’s not moot, it’s just—”

“Who confronted who? About the joke stealing, I mean?”

John Lewis made a furtive break in eye contact, pretend coughed before answering, “Well, I don’t know, we were just both kind of talking you know…and I’ll be honest okay, I had a few to drink, I was nice & loose, so maybe I just brought it up in passing-like…and I guess things went from there.”

“I see.”

“Hey, I didn’t start nothing, it was just—like—a naturally evolving conflict and shit. You know…how you can casually mention something and one person can say like ‘what’s that supposed to mean?’ and then you’re like ‘what the fuck’s your problem, man?’, and…like that.” John Lewis had removed the fedora from his head once more and his knuckles were white again, around the black felt of the brim. “Hey, he started it!” he burst out after a long pause—gesticulating, flailing.

Bryan Hannick flashed a very deliberate shit-eating grin to this. “My daughter says that all the time.” He meant it to sound disingenuous yet friendly. Through the pain, however, the words emerged semi-hostile and bizarre. “Her name’s Colleen too, actually.” His strategic, shit-eating grin was also off at this point. It appeared more as the thorazine-induced grimace of a man sitting indian-style in a rubber room. “No shit.” The lights on the marquis just then went dark, and with them, Hannick’s counterfeit line of questioning. All the gawkers had wandered off almost on cue—gnats and mosquitoes drawn mindlessly to the remaining bright lights and shiny objects of the night. Show’s over, Hannick thought. He began to adjust himself; pulled his leather jacket tighter around the collar, tugged delicately at his clip-on tie, grabbed around at his belt-loops, hiking his slacks up just a bit—and finally putting his shades back on. “Anyways, looks like the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding. Thanks for your time, Mr. Lewton.”

His back already turned, John Lewis asked after Hannick, bending slightly to one side, “Hold on, wait.” Hannick sighed and turned only halfway.

“Yeah.”

“Dude punched me though. I wanna file charges.”

“Yes, of course…” he turned around only a centimeter or two more in radius and said, before turning back around again completely, “Just go to the station tomorrow morning. They’ll take your complaint.”

Leaning even further to the side now and asking even further after Hannick, “Yeah, cool…but can I get your name, officer?”

Bryan Hannick shouted back without turning at all this time, “It’s Stone.”

“Detective.”