Episode 14: Year of the Rat – Part 1

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I hadn’t had a drink since yesterday. I hoped I still remembered how. I shut the door behind me with some trepidation but more relief. If they found us there, there wasn’t much I could do to help anyway. Perhaps I shouldn’t have left those two alone with a gun, though. It’s just too easy to do something you regret with one of those things. Meredith was handy with a piece, no doubt about it, but I had to give Alice the nod in a fair fight. Of course, in an unfair fight she wouldn’t stand a chance.

I made my way out onto the street. It was hotter than the day before, if such a thing was possible. I needed some place dark and quiet to get my head wrapped around the situation, and some whiskey wrapped around my head. None of my regular places was safe anymore, but there are a hundred holes just like Jake’s, lacking only the barman’s gruff charm. I wanted to be very careful of who I ran into.

As I walked I considered. We couldn’t keep running forever. We wouldn’t last more than a few days if we kept playing the game by their rules. I needed to know more about the players.

In this city knowledge is better than money, and those who have it carefully guard it to maintain its value. People like me aren’t popular in this world; we are regarded as thieves since we spend our days finding information without paying the requested price. There are other sorts, however, who are disliked much more intently. Nobody loves the weasel, and the rat is universally despised. I needed a weasel now.

The weasels would tell you they perform a necessary function; if no information ever changed hands the whole system would break. I met one who compared himself to a stockbroker. I suppose the Wall Street weasels probably are just as bad.

The danger of trying to learn anything from a weasel is they are just as happy to sell information about you as they are to sell information to you. And most weasels were part-time rats. A rat I didn’t need. There’s a certain bravery to being a weasel, dancing the fine line of what your clients are willing to tolerate, but the rat lacks the ethic. The rat is looking for one big score and an early retirement. Most of them end up retired at the bottom of the East River with concrete overshoes. But still there are rats.

I thought about the weasels I knew and how I might contrive to run into one. In general weasels want to be found, so the steady weasels, the real pros, keep a fairly regular schedule. I made a choice and changed course.

I was sweating like a dog, damn near panting as well, by the time I had covered the blocks to The Bucket. I stepped into the darkness and groped my way down a flight of stairs and into the bar. It was a nice enough place, dark, quiet, a haze of smoke hanging in the air. You could have switched the line of mugs propped against the bar with the regulars at Jake’s and no one would notice – least of all the regulars themselves. A radio was softly playing mostly static and no one seemed to care.

At the far end of the bar was the man I was looking for. He saw me come in and his eyes got a little round but he didn’t say anything. He just got up and headed for a quiet table in the corner. I approached the bar. “Whiskey,” I said, “and another of whatever was in that glass there.” The barman nodded and had two glasses in front of me in no time. I paid in case I had to leave quickly, then took the juice over to where Jimmy Slick was waiting.

“Can’t say I’m happy to see you, Charlie,” he said.

“Why not?”

“You’re swimming with some big fish. If it weren’t for your friends I wouldn’t talk to you at all.”

“Tell me about my friends.”

He sat back with his gin and looked me over. “I can’t imagine why I possibly would.”

“You could do it as a favor to me.”

He didn’t even bother to laugh. He sat and tossed back the rest of his drink.

“Want another?” I asked.

“You’ll never get me drunk enough to help you.”

“I’m willing to try.”

“Fair enough.”

I went and got another pair of drinks. I had cash and decided to go top-shelf. Not for the booze so much – at least not the gin – but to show I had means and I was willing to use them. Jimmy Slick took a sip and nodded. “I’ve heard you’re on to something hot.”

I put my nose into my glass and smelled the graveyard smell of the highland malt. I took a sip and felt the vapors dance over my tongue. “Not by choice.”

He shrugged. “It’s like the Preakness,” he said.

“How’s that?”

“It’s a race, it’s probably fixed, and there’s a lot of betting. The biggest bettors are hidden behind elaborate smoke screns. Some are betting for you, most against, but most still want you in the race.”

“It didn’t feel like that last night.”

He nodded as if I had confirmed something he had only suspected before. “So what are you getting out of it, Charley?”

It was my turn to be the clam. Nothing’s free, but at least I might have something he wanted, besides just money. Money to a good weasel is just a byproduct. They loved the information itself. Perhaps we could do business. “I’m just trying to help a friend,” I said.

Jimmy laughed. “That’s a good one,” he said. He set his empty glass down, and dutifully I went for another round. I could get used to the good stuff, no doubt about it, and there was no reason to hold back now; either I’d be dead before the money in my pocket ran out or I’d be set. When I got back to the table Jimmy was ready. “What’s in it for me?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that. “There’s a lot of money for the winner,” I said.

“I’m not a gambler, Charley, I’m a trader.”

“I have nothing to offer except gratitude and money.”

“The gratitude of a dead man isn’t worth much.”

“Lots of money.”

“The promises of a dead man aren’t worth much either.”

“Come on, Jimmy. I’m not asking you to sell out your mother.”

“My mother wouldn’t kill me.”

“All right. Fine. I’ll find someone else to deliver my message.”

Jimmy Slick paused. “What message?”

I watched him, stonefaced. “You don’t want to get involved. I respect that. I didn’t want to get involved either. I did it to help a friend.” The scary part was that was true.

“Who to?”

“You know that better than I do.”

“I can deliver a message.”

I shrugged apologetically. “I’ve gotten you into enough trouble already.”

“A message isn’t trouble. I’m not ratting anyone out to deliver a message.”

“You don’t know the message,” I said.

Oh, but he wanted to. “Look Charley, you’re in up to your eyeballs. You say you’re doing it to help a friend. I respect that. Maybe you’re even telling the truth. I’m willing to take a chance.”

I looked over at Jimmy Slick. He was a weasel, and weasels could turn into rats when the moment was right. Still, I needed to know what he had, and the fastest way to his heart was though his curiosity. “All right,” I said, “Here’s the dope.”

Tune in next time for the conclusion of: Year of the Rat!