A Friend in the Fire

An Auden & O'Callaghan Mystery: Book Two

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Emporium Press

April 29, 2021

Cover art: Reese Dante

Genre: Amateur sleuth mystery, romance

At 12:47 p.m. Rufus O’Callaghan was still in bed, the sheets kicked down around his feet, with one arm hanging over the edge of the mattress to peck at the screen of the burner lying on the floor. 

No messages. No calls.

But of course not. 

Three months ago, the exchange of numbers had only gone in one direction, leaving it up to Rufus to initiate the conversation. The apology. But he hadn’t. And then so much time passed and Rufus was… just too tired to try.

He flung the phone across the studio. It narrowly missed the fridge, smacked the floor, and settled in the hall leading to the bathroom. Rufus rolled onto his back and stared at a crack in the plaster that splintered like a spiderweb. Or maybe it was a spiderweb. He wasn’t exactly domestic. Rufus couldn’t remember the last time he’d dusted.

He was having trouble remembering a lot lately.

Because he was tired.

But not for sleep.

Ever since Rufus had checked out a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare from the New York Public Library last month and studied Hamlet’s famed “To be, or not to be” scene, he wasn’t quite tired enough for sleep. Hamlet had raised the question of what dreams may come in sleep, and that, what if our dreams are worse than all of the trials and tribulations in life?

The soliloquy had sent shivers down Rufus’s spine.

He hadn’t ever considered that sleep—death—could be a cure worse than the disease.

So what was he to do, if he couldn’t die and couldn’t be happy?

The East Village tenement Rufus called home was old. Over a hundred years, he was pretty sure. The thin walls and thin floors allowed the comings and goings of life to seep into his apartment at all hours. 4B across the hall had adopted a puppy a few weeks ago, and the thing had not once stopped barking. Pauly Paul next door was stoned and singing “Back in Black,” but it seemed like he couldn’t remember all the lyrics, so every fourth or fifth word was just a really off-key Brian Johnson raspy scream. Below, Mr. Gonzalez was blasting the Game Show Network. 

Rufus had considered, for the better part of an hour now, dragging some clothes on and joining his landlord in watching reruns of Jeopardy!, but would Mr. Gonzalez notice that Rufus had gotten thinner? Would he notice that Rufus hadn’t washed his hair in… he wasn’t sure how long? Would Mr. Gonzalez notice the bags under Rufus’s eyes—ask the one question that hurt more than all others: What’s wrong?

Everything.

Rufus returned to his side and stared at the wooden floorboards, visible where the ancient, cheap linoleum had peeled away over the years. If he studied the grains and texture long enough, they began to resemble ink blot tests. Rorschachs, they were called. Did they still use those? Rufus was curious what his results would say about his current state. 

There was that one particular image referred to as the “father card.” Plate IV. Rufus had read a college textbook, a psych primer he’d picked up for a dollar, and there’d been a chapter on Rorschach tests. It was suggested that any subject interpreting Plate IV as dangerous or menacing would be an indication as to their relationship with men or authority.

Rufus snorted and scratched at the floorboard with his fingernail. What good had men ever been? From Alex Mitchell at PS14, shoving him down a flight of stairs and breaking his arm, to Sam Auden… well, men had been fucking Rufus—literally and figuratively—his entire life, only to then take that metaphorical walk for a pack of smokes and leave him devastated. So, menacing? Sure. Plate IV resembled a man standing over Rufus, ready to stomp his guts out.

Pauly Paul had moved on to “Thunderstruck.”

Somewhere outside came the distant boing of a basketball being dribbled down the sidewalk. Laughter of young teenagers followed in its wake. Farther—across the street—that screwball who’d taken up residence on the corner for the last week was shouting about the end of the world. Yesterday, the cause had been Hairy Feminist Witches. Today, the world was going to end because of The Lecherous Homosexual.

Rufus cracked a smile. Damn homosexuals.

He thought about going outside to ask if the kook knew which day, specifically, the world was going to explode or whatever. Because if Rufus had until, say, Tuesday, he might get his act together enough to get laid one last time.

Pauly Paul was on the “Highway to Hell” now.

Canned audience applause echoed from downstairs. Maybe someone had just won a Brand-New Car!

Rufus sat up, his red hair in complete disarray. He climbed off the bed, padded across the floor, and crouched to collect his phone.

1:00 p.m.

Cash Cab would be on soon. Mr. Gonzalez enjoyed poking fun at the tourists as much as he enjoyed trying to beat Rufus at the trivia questions. Maybe if Rufus came bearing a gift, the man who’d babysat him on more than one occasion while growing up would be properly distracted from what a mess Rufus had become. 

Rufus picked up a pair of jeans with torn knees from the dirty pile against the wall, checked the pockets, and found a few bucks. Perfect. Margarita had been working the corner near the laundromat, mooching off the gyro street vendor’s customers with her little pushcart of enticing mango con chile for the last several weeks. Mr. Gonzalez loved those spicy mangoes on a stick. He’d be too busy munching on that to ask Rufus why he resembled roadkill, and then they could watch Cash Cab in peace.

He dragged on the ratty jeans, found a black shirt with the words NO FLAG stamped across the front in white, then spent a few minutes looking for his jean jacket and beanie, the search taking longer than it should have in the tiny studio with little by way of belongings, because Rufus just seemed to… kind of forget what he was doing sometimes.

After tying the laces of his scuffed high-tops, Rufus was out the door. He slid down the old stairwell banisters, steps barely a whisper on each landing. He tugged the cheap plastic sunglasses from the collar of his shirt and put them on as he walked into the building’s vestibule, but he stopped at the wall of mailboxes.

4D - R. O. had a slip of paper sticking out from the bottom of the door. It might have been a menu for a new bougie restaurant in the neighborhood that specialized in free-range potatoes or ethically harvested mac ’n’ cheese, or something equally pretentious that would close in six months. Or it could have been one of those “Welcome to the Neighborhood” postcards Rufus had been getting en masse lately, which was a well-meaning exclamation only thirty-three years late. Perhaps it was preapproved credit card junk mail—which, considering Rufus didn’t have a credit score, he always found a bit amusing.

Rufus gave it a tug, and out came a sheaf of lined notepaper, folded over several times. Not mail. Rufus furrowed his brows as he hesitantly unfolded the note.

I have information on Daisy

23rd & Ave. C—FDR overpass

11:00 Saturday night

Come alone

 

-A Friend