Troublemaker, Part 2

I should apologize for taking so long to finish this story. Life got in the way, but so did my migraines, which have been on a real tear lately, and made everything hard. I also want to extend a special thank you to Simone F. That really helped a lot.


2 – In A Former Life

8-Ball squinted at the phone, and Chai got the distinct impression it was something of an act. Why? What was the point of that?

“Oh yeah. This dude bought half my Freddie a coupla days ago.”

Chai thought he was being honest, but he glanced at Holden for conformation. His expression was stone, so Chai honestly couldn’t tell. But he guessed Holden would have looked angrier if he’d thought he was being lied to. “He tell you why he wanted it?”

8-Ball chuckled and shrugged. “No, man. Why would he? I don’t ask, and they don’t tell.”

Was that an attempt at a joke? Chai wasn’t sure. He couldn’t really read this guy. He seemed tense and nervous, but was attempting a casual posture, as if nothing bothered him. It was a lie, yes, but it was like his body was a tug of war battleground between anxiety and relaxation. He would have attributed that to lying, except he came up to the table that way. 8-Ball seemed like he was legitimately uncomfortable in his own skin.

“He use a lot of painkillers?” Holden asked.

“Most of my customers use painkillers,” 8-Ball said with a shrug. “Since pot’s legal now, people want the heavier stuff.”

Chai almost made a comment about American health care, but kept it to himself. If he hadn’t gotten a pay off from the insurance company after his accident, the medical bills would have killed him. He was far from the only one with that problem. “Did you sell it to him here?” Holden asked.

8-Ball shook his head. “Met him at Howdy’s in the square.”

Howdy’s?! He didn’t mean that lame restaurant chain, did he? Well, if the square was short for Pioneer Square, he did. “Howdy’s?” Holden repeated, clearly just as surprised as Chai. “You do a lot of business there?”

“A fuckton. Half the staff buys from me, and a lot of other people meet me there to pick up something for after work. Nobody looks at you funny if you go into a Howdy’s on your way home, even if they should.”

That made sense. Chai wondered why those middling chain restaurants where the food was genuinely crap and the atmosphere even worse stayed open. Drug dealing locations made perfect sense. He also completely understood why half the staff was on them, and didn’t understand why the rest weren’t on drugs. Being in the service industry fucking sucked. Chai gave it a try when he was a teenager, and wasn’t sure if he should do the sex for money thing anymore. He didn’t even last an hour before quitting. Sex for money seemed pretty good after that. Also, he was shit at taking orders, which he’d never though about before. Considering he was a cam boy first, he thought he was decent at it. Live and learn. “Was that usual for him?” Holden asked. Chai was honestly impressed he knew what questions to ask. But Holden had said bullshit was his superpower, and he wasn’t kidding.

8-Ball shrugged. “Either Howdy’s or Mickey’s on Fifth. Why?”

Holden tucked his phone back in his pocket. “He’s missing. We’re trying to find him.”

“Good luck.” 8-all gave E a slappy sort of handshake and took off, disappearing into the crowd.

“Wasn’t 8-Ball a character name in Breaking Bad?” Holden wondered.

Chai shrugged. He was behind on his TV watching.

“Maybe that’s where he stole the nickname from,” E suggested. He looked towards the bar, where Chai belatedly realized he’d been watching for half the time they’d been there. He tried to look where E was looking, but the club was crowded, and he wasn’t sure. “Which guy?” Chai asked.

“Gym arms, blue shirt, floppy hair,” E replied.

Chai found him, but since he wasn’t looking their way, all Chai could catch was a partial profile. Hard to say if he was attractive or not. “You know, odds are good he’s straight.”

E shrugged. “Don’t care. I can adapt.” He got up and headed that way. “Good luck investigating.”

“Thanks, we’ll need it,” Holden said, sighing and slumping in his chair.

“Oh. Was I right in thinking this wasn’t helpful?” Chai asked.

He nodded. “I don’t think he’s involved in Sean’s disappearance. He’s just some failed frat boy pill vendor. He probably carries a stun gun instead of a pistol because guns are gauche.”

“So what’s our next move?” Chai felt he excelled at doing research, but Holden excelled at talking to people, and scaring the shit out of them. And, if you believed the rumors, beating the shit out of people too.

Holden ran a hand over his face, and in the gel lights bleeding from the ridiculously small dance floor, Chai could see he had callouses on his knuckles. But he’d been working out at a boxing gym, so maybe that explained those. “I have to think of what Roan would do.”

“What would he do?”

“He’d tell me that a slim lead is still a lead, and I need to work it until it’s completely dry.”

Chai nodded. “Sounds sensible. How do we do that?”

Holden frowned, and then closed his eyes and pressed a palm against his forehead. “I’m a weirdo cat guy superhero who likes really noisy music and think everyone smells funny.” He fell silent for a moment, letting in the horror that was the Taylor Swift remix now playing, but before Chai could ask if that helped, Holden said, “Oh shit, I think that worked.”

“It did? How?”

“I don’t know. It just occurred to me if he bought at Howdy’s in the square, and didn’t go home, maybe he was staying at one of those flops near the square.”

“Are there any still around?”

Holden shrugged. “Most have moved farther out, but there’s still a couple left. Let’s go check them out.”

What else was he going to do? Chai still felt weird about using a cane in a club, but it helped him stand, and hey, Holden was right – it was a weapon if he ever felt like hitting someone with it. Which was often, but he didn’t, because it was rude. And what if the other person wanted to fight? That brought back too many painful junior high school memories.

But he had to remember he was with Holden, therefore anyone wanting to fight him was in for a very nasty surprise. Time had rendered Chai and most people more fragile than they thought they could ever be. But somehow, time had made Holden more lethal.

Chai tried to remember the last time he’d seen Pioneer Square. Long before he left for California. Back then, the Square was still one of the skuzziest places in Seattle, and one he tried to actively avoid. It was full of cheap bars and cheap dealers, desperate junkies and desperate homeless people, and worst of all, the types that preyed on them. He still felt a pointless flutter in his stomach at the idea of walking in there. But he was following Holden, right? Just like old times.

It gave him a small sense of deja vu. Using Holden – Fox – as a human shield, walking into places he didn’t know, with men he didn’t know, but everything was fine as long as long as Fox took the lead. He could always swing the room, keep everything under control, while never seemingly like he was the puppet master. That was a talent few had.

Getting a glimpse of Pioneer Square now, Chai was genuinely disappointed. It was gentrifying, and looked pretty much like any other part of Seattle. The cheap dive bars had given way to “ironic” dive bars, where you could buy the same rotgut, but at a thousand times the price. Somehow it was more depressing this way.

What cheap motels used to be around this area were mostly gone, replaced by apartments and more expensive, tourist friendly hotels. There was one place that seemed vaguely familiar, but probably because all cheap motels had that same sort of feel, like you could get crabs from simply looking at them straight on.

The woman clerking there was less than helpful. She didn’t recognize Sean, although she barely glanced at his photo, and asked them repeatedly if they were cops, even though Chai would personally be shocked if any Indonesian/Indian/Thai people were a part of the fucking Seattle Police Department. If there was, they probably stood out a bit. While it had changed somewhat, the SPD he knew was relentlessly white, which was probably true of most if not all US PD’s. Holden, for his part, was offended anyone would ever mistake him for a cop.

The next place was one of the few holdovers from the old Pioneer Square days. On the outside, it looked like a really dilapidated small apartment building. On the inside, it was an even more dilapidated flop house. Some people probably lived here long term, if month to month counted as that. They also had some rooms you could rent for the hour. It probably wasn’t technically legal, and the wiring probably dated to the fifties, but it was allowed to continue, because where else were they going to put poor people? Seattle was trying its best to get rid of them all, but a city of only rich people didn’t work. Not for lack of trying, though. Maybe once everything got automated, they’d be able to succeed, at least for a little while.

The clerk was one of those guys who could be anywhere between forty and eighty – a sort of ageless but still aged look that was always strange to encounter. His eyes were slightly glassy and slightly yellowed, and up close he smelled of something off. Not body odor, not exactly, but something medicinal or chemical. He was definitely ill, and maybe even worse. He didn’t ask if they were cops, because he already knew they weren’t. Chai got the feeling this guy knew all the cops in the area.

Holden showed him Sean’s picture, and he began shaking his head. “I never pay attention to who rents here anymore,” he said, pausing for a moment to cough into his hand. “No point.”

Holden pocketed his phone. “Fine. Do you have a guy who maybe rented a room for a couple days? Within the past week?”

The man coughed again, and shrugged. “Don’t want any trouble.”

“Won’t be any. His sister asked us to find him. She’s worried about him.”

That was actually true. Chai never really got to know many female sex workers in his time, but Holden had, and he knew more than Chai would have thought possible. Sean was the troubled brother of a sex worker who called herself Velvet. Sean had mental health issues and had been in and out of jail, but his main problem was addiction. He had a history of trying to get sober, doing it for a bit, and then failing spectacularly. Currently he had parole conditions that required him to be sober, but she was afraid the reason he had gone missing was due to a hard fall off the wagon. 8-Ball pretty much confirmed that. Considering the last time Sean fell off the wagon he got stabbed, and Velvet was afraid he might get himself killed. He wasn’t a peaceful user.

She didn’t trust cops, for obvious reasons, and really didn’t have the money to hire a private investigator, so Holden agreed to take the case in exchange for a “favor” at a later date. Holden had done that as long as Chai had known him, collecting favors, and he still wasn’t sure why. He’d asked him in the car, and Holden told him, “You never know when you’ll need a couch to crash on. Or an alibi.” Chai initially thought he was kidding, but he was no longer sure. He also had no idea how Holden kept track of everyone who owed him favors. Maybe he had a ledger somewhere.

The man studied them for a moment, frowning to himself, then pulled out keys that actually jingled. No key cards here. “He might not be the guy you’re looking for. I didn’t pay any attention to him when he rented the room.”

“How long did he rent it for?” Holden asked.

The old guy shuffled out from behind the check in desk, and started moving towards the rickety old staircase. He actually did shuffle when he walked – he barely lifted his feet off the ground, which made Chai think he had something physically wrong with him. Was it related to whatever was turning his eyes yellow? At the last possible second, the man deviated from the stairs, to a hidden, narrow elevator, which might have been more rickety than the staircase.

Chai could handle stairs, but they weren’t his favorite. Still, he almost would have preferred it to the elevator. When the fuck was this thing made, the 1930’s? He had no chance to object, though, as Holden followed the guy in, and the choice was made for him.

Once the elevator jerked and groaned to life – holy shit, this was terrifying – the proprietor finally answered Holden’s question. “Four days. Said he was having a four day weekend, whatever that meant.”

The elevator shuddered and jolted to a violent halt, and Chai made a mental note to never ride in that goddamn death trap again. He’d take his chances with the stairs.

The upstairs hallway was narrow and dark, and smelled like an intriguing blend of mildew, canned tamales, and urine. Chai was kind of glad it was too dim up here to see properly.

Like everything in this fucking place, the doors were narrow. The proprietor pointed Holden to the right door, and he knocked on it. He waited a few seconds before knocking again, adding, “Sean? I’m a friend of your sister, Varla. She’s been looking for you.”

Velvet’s real name was Varla? That was a name he’d never heard before.

Holden tilted his head towards the door, trying to listen. By this time, the proprietor had joined them at the door. Holden was probably going to ask him to open it – Holden got this look on his face when he was pretending to be polite – but the man had already sifted through his monstrous collection of keys and was sliding it in the lock. Either privacy rules really didn’t stand here, or the man had already decided he wanted him out of his place.

The room was dark – of course it was; this place should have been named Dark and Narrow – but what hit Chai was the smell. It was body odor, vomit, and a backed up toilet. All of them recoiled, but Holden seemed to turn it into forward momentum, and charged into the room. “Shit. Sean, you still with us?”

It took a moment for Chai to understand that. Then again, he didn’t know the smell of death.

On the bed that took up most of the room was a lump, although Chai couldn’t make out any relevant features of the thing beneath the blue bedspread. Holden must have, though, as he was leaning over the mattress, feeling for a pulse in his neck. “Sean,” Holden repeated loudly. The shape on the bed didn’t move. “He’s alive, but barely. You might want to call 9-1-1.”

Chai fished out his phone, as he saw the rickety night stand had a shooting kit on it, as in shooting heroin. Needle, charred spoon, a small scatter of cotton balls, and a lighter. There was something on the floor, either a belt or a tie, and Chai assumed that was what he used to help him find a vein. Wow – he knew more about drugs than he thought. He thought it was more pop culture than personal experience, but who knew? Maybe Chai was fooling himself. It wouldn’t be the first time. “Overdose?”

“Probably,” Holden said with a shrug. “He may have mixed his fentanyl with something, but why? Fentanyl’s been straight up killing people who aren’t infecteds left and right.”

“Sometime’s the pain’s so bad you don’t care about the consequences”, the proprietor said.

For just a second, that made Chai freeze. He was a man speaking from experience, and Chai knew that feeling as well. Holden flashed him a brief look that said he knew it too.

In that moment, they realized that everyone in this room had something in common, and Chai had to repress a shudder. There had to be more to life than simply managing pain.

But Chai shook himself out of this dark realization as the dispatcher picked up on the other end of the phone line. At least Sean was still alive. Hopefully they’d be able to keep it that way.


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