The sixth story in the Winter Prose Competition 2011 series.
"Where were you last night?" he snarled.
I heard the words, but the question made no sense to my sleep-and-gin-soaked brain, even though he kept barking it at me. I was dreaming I was back in London when Bryant snatched the blanket off me and jerked me back to this nightmare city.
"Between eleven and two, Jake."
I tried to pull together an answer while I pulled on my shorts.
"Where were you?" He kicked the foot of my cot, nearly knocking it out from under me.
"Fer christsakes, Bryant! Let me get my trousers on would ya?" I wasn't sure what time it was. The vacancy sign still lit the window, so the sun wasn't even up yet. His question slowly penetrated the booze clouding my brain, and I didn't like the implications.
"Quit stalling, Jake." He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his mangy pea-coat, his fingers searching their depths while his eyes interrogated my hotel room. Not a delightful abode; naked bulb on the ceiling, bare window overlooking the street, washbasin, cot. He sneered like he smelled something dead, which maybe he did. I didn't have the best neighbors. "Simple question. Not too many places will let your limey carcass in anymore." His fingers surfaced with a battered cigarette, and he looked pleased with himself, like he had finished a magic trick. "Unless you left town."
"You know I can't leave Santa Carla without breaking parole."
"Sure I do." Bryant wasn't looking at me anymore, he was fishing in his pockets again. The twisted cigarette hung from his mouth like a dead maggot.
"Don't care what your badge says, Bryant." I finally managed to fasten my trousers and stood up to face him, but the room wobbled around me. I was too hungover to care. I just pointed at him. "The Agency don't give you the right to break into my room and rake me over the coals without telling me why!"
He grabbed my chin and slammed my head against the wall.
"Look at this," he growled and pushed the badge on his jacket into my face. The letters flashed, even under the tarnished brass. "What does this say?"
"Bright boy. You know what that means? I'll tell you." He crammed the badge against my forehead so hard it felt like the letters imprinted into my flesh. "It means that I am God. I can waltz into whatever rat hole you're cowering in anytime I chose and do anything I want to you! Understand?"
"Yeah. Yeah, sure! Just get that off me."
"Good." He dropped the badge, but squeezed my chin harder and leaned close enough for me to smell beef burrito and coffee. "I'll tell you something else."
He let go of me and returned to foraging in his pockets. I waited. A siren wailed somewhere in the direction of China Town, and a barge horn moaned out in the bay.
"I like to sleep late, Jake. But the Captain yanked me in early this fine Monday morning because someone knocked over Cohen's Antiquities last night. So, I've got no patience. Play it straight with me, or I'm going to hurt you." He produced a stainless steel lighter and ratcheted it to life under his cigarette. The tip reddened as he sucked nearly a third of it to ash in one draw. The lighter clanked shut like a trap. "Where were you?"
"Not much to tell, mate. Hustled pool at the Blue Stone 'til after eleven sometime, then traded my winnings at the Brown Jug for the largest bottle of gin they'd give me. I believe you're familiar with both those fine establishments."
"Yeah. And you better believe I'll check your story." His cigarette wiggled as he spoke, which made it look like a burning maggot. "Where did you go then?"
"Right here. I drank myself to sleep. Next thing I know, you're waking me with your earthquake impressions."
"Can anyone back up your story after you left the Jug?"
"No...but," I reached under the cot, "here's the bottle of Plymouth...what's left of it, anyway."
Bryant looked like he wanted to pace, but there wasn't enough space with both of us in the room. Instead he stared at the brown smear on the wall. Evil blue smoke wreathed his gray hair.
I opened the bottle and drank what was left. "Why are you so sure I did it?"
"I'm not, or you'd be in Number Six already. But it felt like your work."
"I gave up that line of business."
"I might have guessed by the looks of this pit." He crushed the butt of his cigarette on the fake wood-grained wash basin, then poked a fat finger in my chest. "You know I'm not stupid, Jake. Either you did this job, or someone's out there putting your signature on their work."
"Either way," I brushed his finger off, "you can't send nobody up to Number Six unless you catch 'em with the goods. And, you can see," I flourished the bottle, "there's no place to hide anything here."
Bryant walked to the door and opened it. He paused, but didn't turn around. "I'm watching you," he hissed, then slammed the door behind him.
I slumped back in the cot and glanced at my watch. Both hands were fornicating with the six.
This was going to be a long day.