The hot pot of something was not adequate compensation for his services, but Mort Echo did not possess an adequate background to do his job either. At least, not officially. Actually, the P.I. had no notion of what the ambiguous slop cuisine might have been, yet it seemed somehow rude to ask the grateful mother what the murky mess of a meal really was. Still, he suspected that no investigator in all of Chicago had the skills or instincts to figure out the contents of the feast he was offered by Mrs. Codona for finding her daughter, Cernyavka.
The quiet high school sophomore, whose friends called Cerny, stood in Mort’s studio apartment, which also served as his office, a head taller than her mother. Indeed, she had matured beyond her fifteen years. And that may have contributed to her abduction — the danger of having her impatiently burgeoning womanhood being transformed. Or perhaps, fatally processed.
Mort never asked which of his low-tech advertising methods had brought Mrs. Codona to him with her problem. His stack of business cards placed on the LEAVE OR TAKE WHAT YOU WANT TABLE in the foyer of the branch public library on Clark, or his fliers pinned to a bulletin board in the donut shop on Morse Avenue beneath the Red Line CTA train tracks and taped to walls of eclectic notes in bars throughout Rogers Park, the city’s far northside lakefront neighborhood that was carved into the planet at the end of the last Ice Age by glaciers that eventually melted to form a phallic shaped body of water.
“Deportation,” was the worried parent’s one word response to Echo’s question as to why she did not go to the police about her missing daughter.
“The police will search for free,” he felt obliged to state the obvious, even if it was to his detriment. “It’s their job.”
“But if they find her and I am thrown out of the country, I will still lose Cernyavka forever.”
Mort knew that family separation by the Feds was possible, despite Chicago’s being self-declared as a SANCTUARY CITY. That status was under attack in the courts, and regardless of legal machinations, cops, sheriffs, local judges or immigration agents might just assume the roll of HOMELAND SECURITY SAVIORS to purge her from America. So he began his investigation which ended up being surprisingly brief. Unpredictably predictable, for the most part.
“What about her father? Is he involved in her life?” led to an uncomfortable dead-end.
“No. He is nobody,” Mrs. Codona bristled. “Nowhere. Nothing.”
So without comment, and certainly without judgment, Mort moved on to the next traditional suspect who might be responsible for a young female’s unknown whereabouts. A boyfriend. But according to mom, there was none. Still, the boss at her part-time after-school job, Mr. Gabiney, seemed very fond of her. Perhaps too fond, though she would not, or could not, provide any details.
Equivocal pieces of the puzzle were provided by Mrs. Codona when asked if anything new or unusual had been found in Cerny’s bedroom since her disappearance two days earlier. Discovered in the teen’s underwear drawer were such objects. First, there was money. Lots of money. Twenty dollar bills, many of which seemed to be stained with blood, of some sort. And secondly, an image.
Because Mort had used instant film cameras to quickly record points of interest in extended investigations, he knew what it was. To a degree. The tiny photo had been taken with a Polaroid 300, but what it depicted was ambiguous, at best. The pinkish color field and apparent tight though composite texture shown in the shot reminded Mort of two things. The inner thigh of his ex-wife Hyacinth, an Assistant Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Northwestern University in Evanston, and bologna.
The bus ride to Old World Sausage Factory on Milwaukee Avenue, where the teen worked, gave Mort time to consider what he knew, what he did not know, and what he suspected regarding Cernyavka. But his destination and the little picture also resurrected undergraduate memories of meals decades earlier at the Florida Avenue Coed Dormitory on the southern edge of the University of Illinois campus in Urbana on the edge of the school’s farm land which merged into the corn-belt in the middle of the state. Dinners in the cafeteria inspired comical conversations about what the gravy veiled cutlets that students were served really were. Meat? Fowl? Fish? Specimens from the school’s Veterinary Medicine Program? Residue fillets of Agriculture Department Frankensteinish live-stock experiments?
Old World was closed when Mort arrived, but because he feared that there might not be time for more time, he checked the rear delivery door which was also tightly shut, and while a side entrance was also closed, the P.I. could hear a mechanized whining and a man’s muted muttering. These circumstances, together with what he knew and suspected, may have warranted a call to the cops on his cellphone. But because of who his client was and because of what he was, or was not, that option was off the table. Echo could not initiate a series of events which could culminate in Mrs. Codona’s deportation. Also important was not placing himself in danger of prosecution for working as an unlicensed private investigator — a taboo dick.
Mort began his current career, of sorts, nine years earlier after in rapid succession he was fired from his position as a bank supervisor and thrown out by his past spouse. He lost his job for refusing to approve a stop-payment request from a wealthy depositor whose reason for not cashing the check was that the payee “was a whore.” Yet Echo told the teller that no valid cause had been stated to turn away the young woman at the counter without her money. And soon thereafter, Mort was tossed out.
Almost as if she were a branch manager of the bank, after learning of the termination, Hyacinth dumped his belongings into an alley dumpster and changed the locks. She was keenly aware of her needs and wants. A trait which had always aroused both Mort’s desire and annoyance for the woman with large hazel eyes.
The lock on the Sausage Factory’s side-door was not nearly as formidable as the one installed to keep him out of what had once been his marital abode. The three inch blade of the Swiss Army knife in his blue jeans front left hip pocket was sufficient for the task — sliding between the door and the frame’s strike plate to unlock the latch. Investigation had taught the P.I. how easy it was to commit most crimes, at least in Chicago, such as illegal entries. As he went in, with a red bandana kept in his right rear-end pocket, he wiped the knob and tangent areas clean of prints. Break-ins should be carried out in stealth. Ghostly.
Once inside, almost immediately, he was in a tiny make-shift oblong living space containing a mini-fridge, a hot plate, a soiled cot strewn with clothes that Echo guessed could have belonged to the missing teen, a Polaroid camera, and taped to one wall were tiny pictures of Cernyavka looking as she did in a school photo shown to him by her mother, but in these images she was undressed and posing with commercial flesh. Clutching a corned beef brisket against her bare breasts. Pressing an enormous Polish sausage between her butt cheeks. Grinding her groin upon a freshly slaughtered hog.
A man’s crude cursing and the high-powered purr continued in the Factory’s next room as the P.I. removed all the photos that he planned to feed to a paper shredder and placed them in the inner pocket of his denim jacket from which he pulled out a loaded two shot Bond Arms Mama Bear derringer that he had purchased in the back room of an Uptown pawn shop which had long ago been an Al Capone speakeasy. The gun, like the investigator, was unlicensed. Mort saw no reason to create an easy to follow trail of a bullet back to himself. Why help the cops be even lazier than most already were? He had long ago considered trying to become a statutorily ordained investigator, but lacked the cash and connections to be a kosher gumshoe. Still, he did what had to be done.
As Echo inched into the next room, he saw the scene that he had hoped he would not see. The proprietor, the boss, Mr. Gabiney, whose friends and regulars called Gabby, wore only an unbuttoned white blood-stained work frock. He stood amid a hulking meat grinding machine, a table of ingredients for bologna including cubes of pork fat, black pepper, paprika, sugar, celery seed, allspice, nutmeg, myrtle berries, and the final planned mystery meat component — Cerny, bound and gagged on a chopping block.
On the cusp of becoming future cold cuts.
A week later, as pleased as Mort was to see Cernyavka again with Mrs. Codona in his studio, he was just as relieved that no one again would ever see the Old World butcher. The case was closed, and as he locked eyes with the high school sophomore, he was confident, for everyone’s well-being, that they would never forget what had happened nor would they ever discuss the morbid madness. But once he again was alone, Echo still had one final question to answer. What should he do with his P.I. compensation? The hot pot of something.
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