February 2008 Volume Two Issue Two
Sandwich Street - Kurt Kirchmeier
Jansen received his payment via the usual method: hard cash rolled up in a leaf of lettuce, sandwiched between two slices of foccacia bread.
"Thanks, Max," he said as he reached out over the deli counter.
Max Maraschino held onto the packaged sandwich longer than was strictly necessary, his customer-satisfaction-guaranteed smile failing to reach his eyes. "I put a little extra mayo on there for you," he said. "I know how much you like mayo!" He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple betraying the amiable words.
Jansen cursed inwardly. Extra mayo could only mean one thing: Max's deli & eatery had been infiltrated; a spy was in their midst! Jansen wondered if it might be the fellow counting change behind him, or maybe the school-teacher-looking broad just off to his left. Knowing Antonio, Max's brother and sole competitor, it could be anyone. The war, it seemed, was escalating.
Lest his cover be blown, Jansen continued with the charade, and flashed an appreciative smile. "You're the best, Max!" he said, to which his employer replied by shooting a furtive glance towards the washrooms, and then sniffed as though his allergies were acting up.
This, too, was a sign, though not one Jansen immediately understood. Max sniffed again, rubbed his nose, and continued standing there with an idiot smile until finally Jansen picked up on the clue: sniffer!
The single word elicited warning bells, and for a second it was all Jansen could do just to keep his composure. A spy was one thing, a sniffer quite another.
Sandwich and coffee in hand, he hastily made for the exit.
Sniffers -- dubbed thus on account of their ability to track magickers -- were a rare breed, more often than not employed by law-enforcement agencies and various branches of the military. Had Antonio somehow found one to work the private sector? If so, it was a testament to the man's resolve. Jansen could only imagine what the price tag attached to such a contract might be.
Once outside, he shot a cautious glance over both shoulders, then knelt down next to the building and pretended to retie his shoe, using his pinky finger alone to trace rune-spells onto the sidewalk: one to entice passers-by into the deli by means of olfactory stimulation, another to enhance their taste buds, and finally a third to ward off fellow magickers -- sniffers not included; there was little to be done about them.
His mission completed, Jansen got in his car and turned the ignition, marveling all the while at the lengths Antonio would go to just for the sake of foolish pride. Not that Max was really any better.
Truth be told, Jansen often questioned the mental fortitude of both Maraschino bothers -- or Cherry brothers, as they had come to be known. That they would continue to go to such extremes because of a woman who had long since broken their hearts and fled seemed tantamount to madness.
Jansen shook his head as he turned out of the lot, his hands trembling at the close call.
Although the Cherry war had been raging for several months now, Max and Antonio had only recently enlisted the aid of magickers like Jansen and his counterpart from down the street -- whoever that might be. At the outset, they had relied solely on their wits and entrepreneurial savvy, the combination of which had not only resulted in both establishments becoming much-improved shadows of their former selves, but also a renewed sense of worth that ran the length of the entire block.
Fourth Avenue, formerly dingy and rundown, took heart from the Cherry brothers' example, and soon became the home for a dozen new businesses, each of which greatly built upon the area in terms of both aesthetic appeal, as well as economic growth. Not that any of this mattered to Max or Antonio. They'd thrown themselves into their businesses for one reason and one reason only: loneliness. The notion of revenge by success came later.
The woman's name was Stacy Rain, and both brothers had been head-over-heels from the first time they laid eyes on her. She claimed to have loved each of them equally and, though it pained her to do so, left them for exactly that reason. The Cherry's had heard nothing of her since, except that she'd made quite a name for herself in the cosmetic industry. Jansen wondered if perhaps she'd been lonely, too.
Lest the sniffer get his license-plate number and report him, Jansen shot across two lanes (eliciting honks and single-fingered gestures from his fellow traffic-goers), hung a left, and barreled into a seven-level parking garage just down a ways from Max's. Upon reaching the top, he grabbed the pair of binoculars from his glove box, got out of the car, and made his way towards the railing, intent on figuring out exactly who this sniffer was so that he might commit the face to memory.
Within minutes, a skinny, black-haired fellow with sunken eyes exited the deli, his flared nostrils immediately giving him away. The new spells Jansen had traced (they had to be reinforced every other day) had apparently reached him even through the double-doors leading into the business, albeit a mite belatedly.
Jansen watched as the sniffer got down on hands and knees -- his nose mere inches above the sidewalk -- and followed the trail to where Jansen's car had been parked, at which point he straightened to his full height and cursed repeatedly, his lips readable despite the distance. He'd obviously lost the trail.
Jansen allowed himself a sigh of relief, doing his best to ignore the fact that he was now out of a job -- at least temporarily. It was times like this that he regretted his sordid past, and all the accumulated gambling debts that went with it, not the least of which included an outstanding sum of five large. Two weeks, his bookie had said, and though he'd neglected to tack on the usual "or else," the threat had been more than evident in his eyes.
Thanks to bill #876, passed to ensure that businesses remained on an equal footing with each other -- or at least as equal as it had ever been -- freelance magick was now illegal in the economic sector. As long as the sniffer was around, Jansen would have to abstain from reinforcing the spells. Antonio, it appeared, had finally gained the upper hand.
Or had he?
Jansen raised an eyebrow as the sniffer continued down the street and entered a building with plywood over the windows. The place had most recently been a shoe store, but had closed down and gone to auction following a particularly damaging fire.
Why the hell would the sniffer be going in there? A stakeout locale, perhaps? A place from which to keep an eye out for magickers in the area? Although Jansen had heard through the grapevine that a crackdown was in the works, he had yet to see any firsthand evidence. Perhaps this was it, but who exactly was doing the cracking? FBI? Local? He had to find out.
After retiring to his condo for what he'd intended to be a power nap, followed by a hearty meal, but instead turned into a six hour snooze and a snack, Jansen set about his sleuthing in earnest.
Drunken stragglers notwithstanding, Fourth Avenue was deserted by midnight. The alleyway behind it, however, was not.
After parking his car a cautious distance away, Jansen continued on to the rear side of the former shoe store on foot. Once there, he sought concealment behind a trash bin and watched as three men, each dressed entirely in black, set about unloading boxes and crates from the back of a moving van. The sniffer himself was nowhere to be seen.
Several minutes passed, during which time the men continued making trips in and out. The boxes themselves offered no hints as to what they might contain -- no stickers, no emblems, no packing labels, nothing; just plain brown cardboard.
Electronic monitoring equipment? Jansen wondered. Despite the inherent risk, he decided to investigate, and crept his way along the shadowed face of the wall until he was a mere few paces from the entrance. It was then that the first of the triad shut the doors on the van and got behind the driver's seat. The second followed shortly thereafter, while the third paused just outside the open door to fish a set of keys from his pocket.
Pressing himself deeper into the shadows, Jansen felt along the ground beside him until he found a bottle cap. With a quick flick of the wrist, he flung it to the other side of the alley, where it connected with an audible plink against a dumpster.
The man at the doorway turned at the sound, and then stepped out far enough for Jansen to slip in behind him unseen. Seconds later, Jansen found himself alone -- or so he hoped -- in the dark, the jingle of keys in the lock followed soon thereafter by the vroom of the truck as it retreated down the alley.
Jansen breathed in deep and held it, willing his heartbeat to slow. He then reached into his coat pocket for his flashlight. A voice from across the shadowed room stopped him cold.
"Max's lackey, I presume?" A matchstick flared to life, illuminating an unfamiliar face; a wide face with a square jaw. Definitely not the sniffer.
Not that it mattered. Jansen stepped back and flicked the switch on his flashlight, turning its beam on the man across from him, who was now preoccupied with getting his cigarette lit.
"Want one?" he asked, shaking his pack.
"Who are you?" Jansen said.
"I asked you first. Max's lackey, right?"
Jansen narrowed his eyes, and then it hit him. "Antonio's," he said. It wasn't a question.
The man laughed. "Well," he said, "Ain't this a pickle?" He returned his cigarette pack to his pocket. "Snuck in while they were still unloading," he explained. "There's something I think you oughta see."
And with that he thumbed the light switch.
Jansen blinked for focus, then gaped as his eyes came to rest on a pair of industrial ovens, beside which rested a long counter of the sort found only in shops owned by the likes of Max and Antonio. A deli counter.
"Looks like we're in for a little competition," the man continued with a chuckle. He motioned for Jansen to follow. "C'mon," he said. "Might as well do a bit of digging. Name's Travis, by the way." He offered his hand.
Jansen shook it. "Jansen," he replied in kind.
They began sorting through the boxes for further clues, the search eventually yielding a stack of promotional posters that not only revealed the name of the future business in bold letters: "Toasty Time," but also exposed the deli's promotional angle by means of a large picture and a slogan, which simply read: "Yum, Yum! Toasty!"
The sandwich depicted on the poster made Jansen's mouth water. Fully twice the size of anything Max or Antonio offered, and with twice the toppings to boot, it looked like a meal fit for a family, never mind a single guy on the run. The bread was not only toasted (according to a bit of smaller print, all their sandwiches came toasted) but also of the low-carb variety, i.e., healthy.
Travis whistled low. "Yummy, indeed." He dropped his spent cigarette and ground it beneath his heel, after which he fixed his gaze on Jansen. "This ain't a promotional poster," he said, his tone becoming ominous, "it's a declaration of war." He paused momentarily, said, "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
Jansen was thinking about five large and a shattered kneecap. Might this upstart pay more than Max? Given the outrageous expense of a sniffer -- where the hell was he, anyway? -- the proprietor could certainly afford it. And since it would already be obvious that both the competitors had magickers on their payroll, it only seemed logical this one would be in the market for one, too. Additionally, the fact that there weren't any spells protecting the rear entrance made it pretty clear they hadn't hired one yet. Possibilities. Potential.
All this flashed through Jansen's mind in a matter of only seconds, Travis's last question still hanging in the air between them. You thinking what I'm thinking?
As enticing as the prospect of securing a larger paycheck was, it was obvious from Travis's expression that the thought of betrayal -- and indeed it would be betrayal -- had never even crossed his mind. What he was pondering was something else entirely. He waited for an answer, his countenance a mixture of narrow-eyed scrutiny and hopeful expectation. The word he wanted to hear was obvious.
Jansen wavered a moment longer, the image of Max closing his doors for good taking up residence in his mind's-eye. Bloody Conscience. With a sigh, he offered his hand. "Truce?" he said.
Travis smiled. "Truce," he agreed.
The sniffer, of course, was the first of necessary casualties; and rather easily subdued, as it happened.
As opposed to taking their news to the Cherry brothers -- both of whom might very well scoff at the notion of joining forces, despite the risk to their own financial well-being -- Jansen and his counterpart waited out the night within the deli-to-be.
The sniffer arrived at around six a.m., his specialized nose preoccupied with a ham-and-egg breakfast burrito as he put key to lock and entered Toasty Times' premises, at which point he was promptly blindfolded and gagged, and discreetly thrown into the trunk of Travis' car.
They drove him out to the middle of nowhere and, after interrogating him for the name of his employer, left him with a warning that should he decide to return to Fourth Avenue, he would be subject to punishment of the like he'd never imagined.
It was a bluff, of course, but one that sounded reasonably authentic on account of Jansen's mention of a few specific names, all of which belonged to men affiliated with the mob, not the least of whom was a bookie. Jansen's debts, it seemed, were outstanding in more ways than one.
They left the sniffer shaking uncontrollably in a farmer's field.
"That was a little excessive, don't you think?" Jansen said on their way back to town.
Travis nodded. "Little bit." He shot a look of concern out the back window. "We'll have to find some way to apologize once this whole thing plays out."
"Definitely," Jansen agreed. "If we can find him, that is."
Travis smiled. "Yep, there's that. You ever heard of Triangle Holdings?" Such was the name given by the sniffer when questioned about his employer. He'd claimed ignorance in regards to Toasty Time's actual owner, and said that his earnings came via an account that he'd been unable to trace. Given the state he was in, Jansen believed him.
"Nope," he replied. "Can't say as I have."
As advertised on their poster, and despite the fact that their sniffer was nowhere to be found, Toasty Time opened on the eleventh of August, six days after Jansen and Travis had first made each other's acquaintance, three days after Jansen's "two-week" deadline had passed. Left with no alternatives, he'd been forced to sell his car to pay off the debt, and now had to content himself with riding shotgun.
The Cherry brothers had, as expected, been reluctant to rekindle their familial bond, but were soon forced into doing so as both Jansen and Travis threatened to walk out on them and offer their services to the new deli down the way, which, they'd heard, was doing quite well in terms of sales.
Max was the first to cave, though it was Antonio who actually spilled tears at the long-overdue reconciliation. By week's end, both were aghast at their previous behavior, and swore never again to let something so silly as a woman come between them. It was at this juncture that Jansen and Travis turned their attention and, more importantly, their magick, towards toppling the growing phenomenon that was Toasty Time.
It was also at this juncture that Jansen became aware of his counterpart's juvenile sense of humor.
"Watch," Travis said, the corners of his lips raised in a maniacal grin.
They were parked in a stall of the Toasty Time lot, afternoon sunlight spilling down from above, air-conditioning running at full capacity. Travis had just returned from tracing a spell, and looked on the verge of giggling like a schoolgirl.
Within seconds of his return, a young couple approached the deli's entrance, whereupon they stopped dead in their tracks.
"God, was is that?" said the man, waving a hand before him.
The woman made a face. "Smells like . . . manure," she said.
Shaking their heads in tandem, they turned and fled the scene.
Jansen glanced sideways at Travis, who was now slapping his knee and laughing uproariously. "You're a sick bastard, you know that, right?" Jansen said, and then succumbed to laughter himself.
As they sat there savoring their soon-to-be-victory in the deli war, Jansen found himself wondering yet again about Triangle Holdings. Despite a commendable bit of detective work, the deli's proprietor remained elusive. Something about it just didn't add up.
Not at that precise moment, at any rate.
No sooner had Travis started the car to leave than did an angelic face appear at the passenger window. Flaxen hair, milky smooth skin, and the most wondrous emerald eyes Jansen had ever had the privilege of gazing into. His jaw dropped of its own accord.
She smiled mischievously. "I see you guys are having fun," she said, and then with a wink, "You better be. It cost me a bloody fortune to set this up." She gestured towards the deli and continued to smile. "Not exactly how I planned it to go down, but it'll do."
Jansen stared wordlessly, the name of the mysterious holding firm once again springing to mind. Of course -- Max, Antonio, and Stacy: Fourth Avenue's very own love triangle.
"Stacey Rain," he said. Suddenly it all made sense. Still, it was stupefying to think that she'd gone to all this trouble and expense just to get Max and Antonio back on speaking terms. Apparently, she really did love them both.
She put a finger to her lips. "Mum's the word," she said, and spun on her heel to leave. She paused a few paces away, shooting a glance over her shoulder. "My sniffer will be around in a couple weeks to close the doors. I expect you both to say sorry to him."
Jansen, in a state of bewilderment and lust, watched until her swaying hips disappeared around the corner, at which point he turned to find his accomplice gaping like a schoolboy.
"Hot damn," said Travis, as though under some sort of spell. "I think I'm in love."
"Me, too," said Jansen, his heart still aflutter in his chest. "Me, too."
They stared each other down.
- END -
Kurt Kirchmeier neglected to send me an author bio, so I was reduced to swiping one from the website of some guy with a very similar name: Kurt Kirchmeier is proudly Canadian, happily married, and foolishly anticipating the day when "work" and "play" become synonymous. Although primarily a writer of speculative fiction (with an admitted fondness for contemporary fantasy), he occasionally turns his virtual quill towards mainstream fare as well. Favorite writers include Ray Bradbury, Charles De Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert McCammon, and Robert Charles Wilson. When he isnít writing, Kurt enjoys reading, drawing, and hanging out in his local pool hall. http://www.kurtkirchmeier.com