Blind Pig

An Urban Fantasy Short Story by Jay Caselberg

Blind Pig

by Jay Caselberg

 

Jay Caselberg is an Australian author and poet whose work has appeared around the world and been translated into several languages. From time to time, it gets shortlisted for awards. He currently resides in Germany.

Word on the street was out. Blood simply wasn’t blood any more. It wasn’t what it used to be, wasn’t any good. Me? It didn’t matter a hill of beans to me, but the Vamps, well, they weren’t too happy about it. Don’t get me wrong; there are vamps and there are Vamps. I’m talking about the second type, the ones with the big teeth. I’d heard the mutterings on the street, of course—the shine guy was the one who told me first—but I didn’t expect the subject of the scuttlebutt to walk right into my office on a pair of spiked heels and a tight black dress, not too long after sunset.

Sunset comes early in the city anyways. It has to do with the buildings. I don’t quite understand it, and I guess it’s a technicality, but once the sun is gone, it’s set. City like ours, it’s the ideal place for Vamps; the buildings are taller. Maybe that’s why they passed the Vladimir Act in the first place. Folks, quite naturally, were getting kind of unsettled with all the public and open consumption. Sure, we understand it, and me, I was kinda queasy too. It was blood, after all. The more Vamps, the more ruby stained lips, the unavoidable viscous pools. You know, no matter how much you try to ignore it, it’s hard to look away. The colour draws you in like a tarnished dream reminding you of your mortality.

The place had changed since the turn of the century. Chicago, the great melting pot. It was the yards really—the great Stockyards. Give them work and they’ll come. It was no surprise that the Vamps were drawn to the place. It was their heritage too, the old Eastern European influence, the old Eastern European flavour. And there, in the Back of the Yards, amongst the 475 acres of old swamp, the 50 miles of road and the 130 miles of rail track, they lived and loved and died. Problem was, some of them didn’t really stay dead.

Before that night, I wasn’t too worried about any of that. The Yards were there, sitting in the back of my consciousness like a grey smudge, and when it came down to it, I was more content wrapping myself around the contents of a bourbon bottle. The day had been pretty slow. A divorce, a missing person, both of them leading to nothing. I was halfway through my first glass when she sashayed in and fixed me with that look. You know the one. She had that accent too—full of ‘v’s and ‘z’s.

“You are Walker?”

It took me a moment or two to free up my throat, despite the burn at the back of my mouth.

“Um, yeah. That’s me.”

“You came recommended.”

Who the hell would be recommending me to the likes of her didn’t pass my thoughts right then. My mind was on other things.

“So what can I do for you?” I cleared my throat and took another swallow.

“There is a problem among…our kind. We need you to investigate. That is what you do, no? Investigate.”

“Yeah. Charlie Walker, Private Investigator. That’s what I do. Just like it says on the sign. Take a seat.” I waved her in the direction of the pair of hard-backed chairs sitting in front of my desk. I watched her all the way. If she hadn’t have been what she was, I mighta been dizzy for this dame. Instead, I pulled another glass from the desk and slid it her way, but she didn’t even look at it.

“So what can I do for you, Miss…?”

“You can call me Jirina.”

“Okay, so how can I help? Why did you come to me?”

She fixed me with that look again and I reached for my glass. I couldn’t help myself.

“It has to be someone outside. One of your kind. We cannot move as you can.” She glanced out the window at the gloom outside. The look was almost wistful.

I got it then. There was something going on that needed freedom of movement in daylight.

“So, what is it?”

“Someone is targeting our kind, Mr Walker. We need to find out who.”

“Targeting, how?”

“You have to see.” She gave a wry laugh then.

I started to talk about fees, but she simply waved her hand and instead slipped a piece of paper across the desk.

Be there at midnight,” she said.

It was an address not too far from the Palace Theatre. I sort of knew the place, but I wasn’t too comfortable with the midnight thing. I kept my eyes on the address.

Do not worry, Mr Walker. We will make sure you are all right. You need to see.”

Uh huh,” I said, and met her gaze.

Good,” she said and pushed back the chair.

I wasn’t too sure it was good, or what I was getting into, but I guess I was hooked, not that I couldn’t do with the extra dough. I watched her as she glided out of the office and reached for my glass again.

#

I turned up on West Randolph about 11:15, suitably fortified and ready for anything…well, less worried about what I was going to find. I stayed back in the shadows and settled back to watch before the appointed time. Force of habit. The shadows weren’t going to make a difference to them. I was probably standing there glowing like an engine light, but I didn’t really know how they saw things.

The place was set close to the sidewalk, downstairs with a no-name door announcing to no one what it was. There were a lot of these places since the Vladimir Act. I observed a couple of clients arrive in succession—the usual get up, the dark clothes, the plush red, the boots. I never worked out whether it was a peculiar fashion sense or a carryover from some past age.

About twenty minutes later, my vigil was rewarded: a couple approached the discreet doorway, one leading the other. The one who was being led seemed to be having difficulty seeing his way; he stumbled on the steps, ended up in the arms of his companion, who then led him to the door and rapped. The small slide opened, checking them out and then the door swung open, granting them access. I’d never seen Vamps walk like that. Maybe zombies, sure, but they were a whole different ball game.

It was getting close to the time. Swallowing hard, I checked either way making sure there were no surprises and headed down to the simple doorway. Taking a real big breath, I knocked. I knew what I was expecting—it was just another Vamp juice joint after all, but I can’t say I was real easy about it.

The small peephole slid open and a pair of eyes fixed me with that look. There was a moment’s hesitation, the panel slid back into place and then nothing. I thought I was going to be stuck out there looking like a chump, standing in the dark and shaking in my shoes, but finally the door swung open. Nervously, I slid inside.

The place was full of Vamps. They looked pretty much alike; the black, the red, the slick pale look and those particular gazes that almost had me fixed right where I was. I needn’t have worried though; the one called Jirina was standing there in a huddle and she beckoned me over.

“Mr Walker,” she said. Again with the ‘v’.

“So, why here?” I asked, glancing nervously around. There was something funny going on all right. Some of them were draped over the bar, slumped. Another was holding his head. A low muttering circulated through the narrow space. I thought it mighta been me, but they didn’t seem to be interested at all.

“You can see,” she said.

“I don’t get it, sister,” I said, taking another quick look around. One of them looked over at me and then looked away, not even giving me the gaze. I turned my attention back to Jirina.

“Someone is sabotaging us, Mr Walker. Whatever they are doing, it is robbing us of our night vision. What good are we when we cannot see any better than your kind. Blind at night and unable to move in the daylight. You can see, around you. We believe the source of the problem is here, but we are powerless. We need you to find out what is happening and we need you to stop it.”

I’d seen this sort of thing before. There’d been word on the street about the normal juice joints. People tampering with the product, that sort of thing, coffin varnish. Torrio and The Big Fellow had put a stop to most of that in our joints. Over on the bar, there were glasses, full of red. I hadn’t even registered them, but I got an eyeful of them then.

I looked at her and frowned. “Well, it’s pretty clear,” I told her. “Why do you need me?”

She sighed then and fixed me with the look. “We have spoken among ourselves. Our source is reliable. We know that. What is being done is being done somewhere else. We suspect it is in the Yards. It is not safe for us to be there, and since the Act, our movements there are restricted. Most of what happens there is in the day. So…”

“So you want me to go to the Yards and find out.”

“If we cannot rely on our sources anymore,” she said slowly, pausing, letting the message sink in, “Then we will have to find other ways.”

I thought it through and saw what she was saying. The picture in my mind was one I didn’t want. Not where I was standing right then. I swallowed and I nodded.

“So you will do it?” she asked.

“You got yourself a gumshoe,” I said.

It had been quite a while since I was as happy as I was to get out of a place and back onto the street. I was even happier by the time I got out of the neighbourhood and back to my small apartment. The bottle there waiting for me was new. It was about half empty when I finally hit the sack.

#

I headed down to the Stockyards armed with nothing more than my gun and a name: Karnecki. He was a Pole, like thousands of others who worked around the Yards. If he’d worked up a line in supplying the Vamps, then he wasn’t likely to be threatening it, I thought. That meant there had to be some other connection. Most sane people made it a habit to stay pretty clear of the Union Stock Yards. The working conditions for the thousands employed there were pretty bad. Those who worked on the killing floors had to do so amidst stench and shrieks of animals being slaughtered while they stood on blood-soaked floors. Ten to twelve hours a day in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees was not unusual. Wages were low and that was it, but the immigrant workers were desperate to earn a living. Those guys could get away with murder. Perhaps someone was trying to return the favour, but it wasn’t the Vamps who were to blame, so that just didn’t add up.

I asked around, but it wasn’t so easy. A lot of them down there looked at me with suspicion or simply couldn’t understand. English just wasn’t their natural way of talking, after all. They tended to stick to themselves as well. Ukraine with Ukraine, Pole with Pole and so on. Finally, I found someone who pointed me in the direction of the Poles and I picked my way through rail cars and sleepers, sheds and trucks in that general direction. All the way, I kept one hand on my gat. It wasn’t the safest place to be. When you’re scraping for a dime, there’re all sorts of ways to make ends meet, and I didn’t particularly want to end up being one of them.

By the time I found who I was looking for, I was wishing I was somewhere else. It makes you edgy, a place like that.

Karnecki was a stocky man, a ring of white stubble above a round balding pate. He had a couple of days of white growth on his cheeks and chin as well. When I asked him if he was the guy, he peered at me suspiciously with ice-blue eyes, sizing me up.

Who are you? What you want?” he said.

His suspicion was natural, especially if he was involved in any sort of business. I could have easily been someone from any one of the local families looking for a rake off.

Relax, Karnecki,” I told him. “I’m here on behalf of a-” I paused. “A woman… called Jirina. My name is Walker. She has a little problem that needs fixing.”

His eyes shifted, glancing to the other side, behind me, then back over his shoulder. “You’d better come inside,” he said, gesturing to the door of some sort of cobbled together shack behind him. I was happy enough to follow him into the gloom; the sights and sounds and smells out there were starting to get on more than my nerves.

So what do you want?” he asked. Straight to the point.

There didn’t seem to be any reason to do otherwise. “Someone is tampering with your supplies,” I said.

But that is not possible. You are mistaken.”

I can assure you, I’m not. I’ve seen what’s out there,” I said. “It wouldn’t be hard, would it, Karnecki? There’s plenty of stuff out there on the floors. Just a bit here. Just a bit there.”

He had his back pressed hard against the tin and wooden door, and it creaked with his weight as he shook his head and frowned. “No. It is not possible.”

Why do you say that?” I said. “Where do you get your, um, product?”

He looked me straight in the eye. “It is all from the community. They are volunteers. Of course, they get a little extra income, and I am happy to help out. These are my people, Mr Walker. Why would I do this?”

I dunno. That’s what I am trying to find out.”

Karnecki was being straight with me. I had the feeling in my gut that told me so. And what he said was making sense. Why would he tamper with his income stream? Conditions were hard enough down here. And his people…they all stuck together, looked after their own. It was the sort of thing they’d do together.

So who? Is there someone who wishes you harm? Maybe one of the Families? Another community?”

He held his hands wide and shrugged. “We keep to our own. We do not interfere.”

I was drawing a blank.

When are you due to make your next delivery?”

Tomorrow night.”

And the product?”

It takes place nearby.”

Well, you’re going to have to show me. We have to see what happens. I need to see who comes and goes, need to see if there’s anyone.”

He was frowning again. “These are my people, Mr Walker. Why would they do this?”

That’s what we have to find out.”

Karnecki looked troubled, chewing on what I was suggesting as if it were something bad, but he agreed to help. He didn’t really have much choice.

#

The following afternoon, I watched them all file in, in groups, in ones and twos, individually. Families, single men, girls together, there must have been fifty of them all told. All of them wore work clothes of one form or another. They were either from the slaughterhouse floors, or the packing lines. One thing they had in common, apart from the particular look that bound them together, was that they all wore long sleeves, despite the sweltering heat of the day. There wasn’t much chat, and they were pale. They disappeared inside the small building on the edges of the rail yards, and then they appeared again, perhaps looking even paler than when they entered. Finally, Karnecki appeared, wearing a stained apron, rubbing his hands as if trying to clean them of something, and then wiping them on the back of his overalls. He glanced towards my place of concealment, but apart from that, gave no sign that he knew I was there.

I waited until dark, but there was nothing. Eventually, after a few hours, after the sun had set, Karnecki reappeared in the company of two others. They were of the same stock, heavy set men, dressed in the clothing of the workers, one of them wearing a cloth cap, another, bare headed, his balding head shining in the darkness. The younger of the two companions stood outside the shack looking up and down, keeping watch, while the other two slipped inside, and then reappeared, rolling a large barrel between them. They loaded it onto a nearby cart, and then all together, pulled and guided it across some tracks and away, further into the darkening rail yards.

Still, I waited for about another hour, but there was nothing. Another blind alley. Feeling exposed, I quit my place and also headed across the tracks and back out of the Yards and home. If something didn’t turn up soon, I was going to run out of ideas and I’d have to go back to their place empty-handed.

Three more times, each a couple of days apart, I held the vigil. Three more times I came up with nothing. I thought that even Karnecki was getting tired of seeing my face.

On the fourth night, I hit pay dirt, but not in a way I expected.

I was close to giving up, tired, my mouth dry and my mind wandering to the bottle sitting lonely on the desk in my office, when there was movement near the makeshift shack. I had watched the afternoon procession long enough to recognise a couple of the earlier visitors. An older man and a woman, straining with the weight of a wooden container between them. I kept still, waiting, biding my time. Sure enough, they reached for the door and went inside.

Quietly, carefully, I stepped across to the door, my gun already out and ready. I eased the door open and entered.

They had the large barrel open between them, the contents black in the gloom. Together, they were straining, lifting the container between them.

“What are you doing?” I said.

The woman looked up and gasped, fumbled, lost her grip. The container slipped from her grasp and thumped to the ground, its contents slopping out and pooling and then seeping, dark into the loose earth floor. That smell filled the small space. You know the one.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I said again.

The woman stood with her mouth still open, looking at me, then the gun, then at the man she was with. He looked only at the gun.

“What we must,” he said haltingly. “We are doing our duty.”

I tilted my head to one side, asking a question.

“Giving them what they deserve,” said the woman. “They deserve this,” she said, pointing at the dark patch on the floor. “They deserve only what is left from pigs. They are pigs.”

I didn’t get it straight away. This wasn’t an attempt to do anything to Karnecki, as I had first suspected. They were after the Vamps themselves.

“But why?” I said. “I saw you today. You were with the rest of them.”

The old man cleared his throat and spoke in a quiet voice. “We understand what Cyryl is doing. He tries to help us. They come to him, because they know he comes from our old home. He tries to help us all. But he doesn’t remember like we do. Back home, back in Krakau, they took my father. They took my wife’s sister, too. We have seen. We can understand what Cyryl does, but we can have some vengeance too. They should pay for what they have done.”

Finally, he lifted his gaze to mine and met my eyes. His expression was almost pleading. I kinda felt sorry for the guy.

“But these Vamps weren’t responsible,” I said. “Or even if they were, how could you know?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We come from the same place. We honour the memories of our families.”

I bit my lip and sighed. Me, I didn’t have a family, not anymore, but I could understand what the old guy was saying. “Listen,” I said. “I’m not going to argue about why you’re doing it, but you have to understand. What you’re doing is hurting you, me, your people: all of us.”

He frowned and glanced at the old woman, who looked back at him, seeking some sort of explanation. I continued. “The Vladimir Act keeps them regulated, controlled. If they can’t get what they need, they’ll just go back to the old ways. We can’t get rid of them, we know that. So, we gotta live together. What you’re doing here, is spoiling what they need. It makes them sick. It makes them blind. Well, not blind like you or I would be, but blind all the same from the way they see things. If this goes on, they’re going to stop drinking what they’re given, what they’re getting from people like Karnecki, and they’ll go and get their own. Think about it. Think about the way things were.”

As the message started to sink in, the old woman’s eyes widened.

I took pity on the both of them. “Yeah,” I said. “Now, get out of here.”

I waited for them to leave, and then I followed, closing the door carefully behind me.

#

I didn’t get back in touch with Karnecki. I figured the empty container and the stain on the floor in the old shack would be enough. Maybe he’d be more vigilant in future.

I went back to the Vamp juice joint though, and I relayed what I’d found to Jirina. When her fury subsided and she’d got a hold of herself, she reluctantly accepted what I’d told her. She paid my fee, and that was that. I didn’t think I’d be seeing them again. Well, not by choice.

The last thing I did was ask her where she was from.

When she told me Krakau, well, I guess I didn’t like thinking about that too much.

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