I wish I could say it ended in a hail of gunfire, but I can’t because it didn’t. Or winning the dame, but that didn’t happen either. Alex Carter’s my name, I own The Comics Clubhouse. This is my story.

         The wet streets and cloudy skies made The Avenue a dangerous place. The noir movie I watched last night, pulled me into this world I at times inhabited.  At least in my imagination. Filtered through my mind’s eye, everything turned black and white. Around each building corner lurked, I’m sure, evil… But I walked these streets anyways. 

         The Ave was coming alive as the early morning burst from behind the cloudy skies. Heads down, the city’s denizens, avoided puddles that dotted the sidewalks as they scurried to their destinations, determined to complete tasks without mishap. The Ave, as it’s known by the locals, sits in the heart of the U-District. This was an eight-block long melting pot of restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops, and a tattoo parlor or two situated within walking distance of the University of Washington. Thus, the nickname U-District. Hence My office, some called it a shop, fit right in with the quirky nature of the area and offered a respite from the perilous Seattle streets.

         As I rounded the corner on my way to the office, I wrinkled my nose at the smell of cigarette smoke. Wong, whose real name was Thomas, but everyone called him Wong, stood on the sidewalk, enjoying his morning cigarette.  Wong was the proprietor of Wong’s Chinese Food Emporium. I smelled the mouthwatering aromas of food cooking, as the kitchen prepped for the lunch crowd. Wong’s had the best Chinese food in the city. It’s rumored that back in the ‘60s Bruce Lee was a waiter there. I love Bruce Lee and I love Wong’s, so it was a win-win for me.

   “Good morning, Alex.” Wong stood by the open door of his restaurant. The cigarette glowed red as he took a drag and then a cloud formed in the air over his head as he expelled the noxious fumes. I’d never figured out the allure of smoking.

“Hey Wong, how’s it going?”

“It’s good. Wonton soup and fried rice for lunch today?”

“We’ll see. Got a lot on my plate today. Heh, I cracked myself up sometimes. So many clients, so little time.”

          “Alright, well you know where I am if you need lunch.” With that Wong sucked the ash down to the filter and with a flick of his finger the spent butt was exiled to the street gutter.

          I nodded in agreement and continued toward the door of my office thinking—good thing I had a workout scheduled for this evening. My office door had a Post-it stuck to the glass.

         I looked around—you could never be too vigilant. I pulled the note and read,

Come next door, I’ve got something for you.

         Normally I’d hope that message was an invitation—nudge-nudge, wink-wink—but being familiar with the handwriting and the fragrance attached to the Post-it, I knew it was business. The Ave motor traffic with sounds of exhaust, tires on pavement, and occasional horns honking, played a discordant symphony in the background as I walked past my doorway and up to Inks Enough Tattoo Parlor. The tattoo parlor bookended my office opposite Wong’s. I was curious as to what surprise awaited me.

          I pushed the door open and removed my fedora—I’m a gentleman after all—then stepped into the parlor. I felt a palpable change in the air. The beat of my heart quickened. Was this the beginning of another case?  Or once again had my imagination mixed reality with fantasy? 

          Sheela Rocher, or “Rocker” as she preferred, was the proprietress. She was lovely, dressed in her usual leather miniskirt and black sleeveless blouse that displayed her full sleeve tattoos on both arms and hints of a large tattoo covering her back. A red leather vest completed the look.

She stood in front of the counter that was opposite our connecting wall. The walls of the tattoo parlor were covered in photos of tattoo art. Along with the photos were hand drawn illustrations for her clients to choose from.  Her hair was shaved three quarters on the left side and the rest swept over to reach just below her jaw line on the right. She looked very punk, but classy punk. Sporting the tattoos, the punk hair, the leather, and a few piercings in each ear, I sometimes thought of her as a pirate. A classy punk pirate. 

I looked around and my eye was drawn to the chair-like apparatus in the middle of the room, which reminded me of a barber shop chair or maybe a dentist’s chair. Not every person who came into the tattoo parlor was comfortable with the tattoo machine and the pain it brought. I often heard cries of pain from Rocker’s clients through the connecting wall. In the past Rocker had told me, with a devious smile on her face, the chair was where the magic happened. I believed her. Tattoos seemed too much like torture. Not my thing, nope not at all.

         Her first customer stood beside that chair, as he took his shirt off. I ignored him as he settled in and reclined. I could see he had other tattoos, so he was a regular. I didn’t expect to hear any cries of pain from this client.

          “Hey Rocker, what’s up?”  I always began with a question. It helped to get people talking.

          “Not much. Just another day living life,” she said with a smile. She pointed to the package sitting on the counter.

          “Here, this was dropped off a little bit ago. You know I’m not always here. One of these days you may need to figure out another method of accepting delivery. But the UPS guy was cute, so thank you for not being available this time.”

          “And who was this again?”  Couldn’t be too careful. She looked at me with a slight shake of her head, the same look clients gave me when they weren’t sure what I was asking.

          “Alex you’re weird.”

          “Hmm, how was it delivered?” I clarified. “Regular courier service?  Was he wearing a uniform?”

          She shook her head with a tired sigh, ““The usual way. It’s comicbooks, for your store. Like every delivery.”

          “Okay, it’s probably safe then.” I agreed.

Rocker rolled her eyes. “Uh-huh, okay. Alrighty then.” Rocker sighed again, not quite sure how to respond to my brilliant observation but as we’d had this conversation in the past she was used to this rather quirky aspect of my personality. “So…anyway, I signed for it so it’s all yours.”

          “Thanks. I’d better get to the office in case a client needs me.” I set my fedora on my head with a nod and picked up my package.

          Rocker waved good-bye. I stepped back onto The Ave and before the door closed, heard her say to her client, “Owns the store next door. Lives in a fantasy world where he thinks he’s a private eye. Nice guy nonetheless.”

          The package was heavy and well wrapped, and there was no movement nor sound from the contents. I stepped around a puddle on my way to my shop door, inserted the key in the lock and, as usual, it stuck. I twisted and turned the key, trying to convince the locked door to cooperate. Success!

When you first walked into The Comics Clubhouse, a massive counter dominated the space in the center of the floor. Four cars side by side could fit with ease in The Comics Clubhouse. If I stood in the middle of the counter space, I was able to see all four corners of the store.  The counter was chest high, and each side was approximately five feet long, with an opening on opposite sides of the square. The countertop was shiny metal, and the base was poured concrete.  Looked very industrial with conduit tubing stretched above and around the base of the counter and across the ceiling to complete the look. I pushed the door open and stepped across the threshold. The noir mood from earlier came back. The space was dim, but the light switch was next to the door and, one handed, I turned on the lights. Music began playing, Daydream Believer by The Monkees.

I didn’t see walls lined with shelves filled with comic books. The glass cases were no longer overflowing with action figures and comic character statues. It all faded into an office space with the counter turned into a desk that faced the door. I placed the package on the “desk”, along with my fedora. Removing my jacket, revealed my white shirt and black tie. I hung the jacket on the back of my chair. I looked out the windows that ran across the front of the store, it had started to rain again. It was the kind of weather that brought out the desperate and sinister. My mood turned with the weather, and the darkness overtook me finishing what the rain had wrought.

On the desk, stood a half full bottle of Old Grand-Dad bourbon and a glass with yesterday’s dregs gathered in the bottom. The bottle tempted me, waiting for my hand to grasp it and pour out a shot to get the day started. Around the bottle and glass, files laid scattered all over my desk; these were my current cases. I knew those files were just invoices I needed to pay, and that Old Grand-Dad was just the half empty bottle of Mtn Dew I hadn’t finished yesterday. But the fantasy was way more fun than the reality. Mornings, before anyone walked in the door, I could be whoever I wanted to be, right?

Opposite the bottle was a three-tier stacking tray that those files should be occupying, but my filing system balked with disgust at my arrogance. The files proudly ignored that stacking tray. To continue the PI office theme, there was a chair in front of the desk for my clients. It was old, wooden, and uncomfortable by design. My clients could sometimes ramble, the chair helped them focus and get on with telling me their problems.

From where they sat, clients could see hanging behind me to the right of my desk, a picture of a man dressed in a pin-striped suit, looking wistful. Didn’t know who the man was, but I liked the wooden frame, and the picture was just a placeholder for when I found a photo I liked. I haven’t found one yet. The gentleman was older, everyone assumed he was my partner who was killed investigating a case. I didn’t dissuade them of the notion. I avenged his death; I informed any client who inquired. I tell you; it impressed every time.

Behind me on the left, the wall was monopolized by a black four-drawer file cabinet that held all my case files and a potted cactus. The plant looked to need water but don’t let that fool you. I fell for it once and almost killed it. Turned out cacti don’t need to be watered every day. Who woulda thunk? The prickly bastard was given to me by a former client. She gave it to me after I solved her rather complicated case, a search for an elusive comic. I named the cactus Pokey as a warning to all to not get too close after it stuck me more than once.

 Leaned against that plant was my Nick Fury Action figure. And to be clear, it was an action figure not a doll. One of the first comics I ever read featured Nick Fury. In those comic stories Fury was a cool cat in addition to out Bonding James Bond. And along with the books and movies I devoured about James Bond and Sherlock Holmes those characters all became a part of my imaginary world. As a shy overweight nerd, my childhood idols, spies, private detectives, and superheroes helped me navigate the pitfalls of childhood. When I was being picked on, by enemies or friends, it was easier if I could submerge into the imaginary world I’d created. I was a spy saving the world or a private eye protecting the dame. Or even Batman stopping the Riddler. Who wouldn’t want to save the world like Nick Fury or James Bond? Or solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. And saving the dame like Phillip Marlowe was a dream I’d always harbored. Granted, as a child the imaginary world was totally acceptable but as an adult it sometimes complicated my life.

 If you looked in the left-hand drawer of my desk, you’d find my gat, Betsy.  Okay not exactly true. Granted I did have a gun, but it’s not named Betsy and it was not in a desk drawer where just anyone could pick it up. As a responsible gun owner, I’d never leave it lying around. I carried it when appropriate, like when I took the day’s deposit to the bank. But otherwise, it was locked up in a secure gun safe under the counter. The gun range I frequented offered safety courses for those of us who carry guns and I practiced the protocol required to be a safe gun owner. The gun in question was a Walther PPK. Chosen firearm of James Bond. One of his quirks I emulated, but I didn’t drink martini’s. Ugghh.

 I stood at the front counter, with the sun warming my face. The rain had stopped for now. Very Washington weather. Changes at the drop of a hat. I grabbed a random “case file” to go over, my work was never done. I heard the door open, bringing with it the sounds of The Ave traffic speeding toward mid-morning. I looked up. A client. I reached for my fedora. Gotta look the part, otherwise the client might not think he was getting his money’s worth.

He was young, probably in his early twenties. With a wrinkled brow he hesitated, then stepped all the way in. His light blue windbreaker was wet and reflected the light. He removed his baseball cap, I could see brown hair, damp at the edges from the recent rain. Seattle had been sunless of late which meant his tan must have been from another location on the globe. His uncertain movements showed he was questioning his decision to hire a private detective. He stood just inside the door and peered into each corner of the room, searching for what, I didn’t know. As the office was brightly lit any hidden adversaries would be visible. And then stepping in, he jumped at the squeak of his own tennis shoes—he must be in trouble. I was sure of it.

“How can I help you?”

He glanced at the open bottle of yesterday’s Dew. When I looked it was still the bottle of bourbon—did he wet his lips in anticipation of me offering him a shot? His jumpiness made it seem he needed a stiff drink, but it was nine o’clock in the morning. Even for me that was too early. Then again, somewhere in the world it was five o’clock and if he’d said yes, I wouldn’t judge. I’ve had days like that.

The drops that collected on his face could be from the rain. Or was he nervous? Might be sweat. With a quick breath he rubbed the back of his neck and focused on a spot over my left shoulder. “Umm, ah,” he stuttered and then started over. “Ok, I’ve never been here before. Can you help me? I’d like you to find a comic for me.” Did he really say that? Or did I imagine that, too?

“So, what’d this comic do to you?  Tell a bad joke?”

“What?” He looked at me in the same way Rocker did twenty minutes ago. Not everyone got me.

There wasn’t a clock in the office, but if there had been you’d have heard the seconds ticking away in the silence.

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