Seven: Bright city, dark underbelly
Mel lost his motel in a poker game in
Part 1; he met a man who claimed to be an alien in Part
2; in Part 3,
he found himself in alien surroundings; in Part
4, Mel befriended some strange beings looking for barroom
trouble; Part 5 seemingly
found Mel back on earth, face to face with a green-sweatshirted
man who looked exactly like Mel; and, in Part
6, Mel discovered the parallel world of Stumptown -- and began
searching for an unlikely hero named Frank Burley ...
Part Seven: Bright city, dark underbelly
Stumptown was bustling. Everything was cleaner than Bridgeton,
and even the buildings seemed higher to Mel.
In the downtown bus mall, fewer people seemed to
be wandering with no place to go. Mel strode through the streets
with Frank Burley's picture in hand, head held high; his red sweatshirt
was perfect on such a chilly day. With renewed confidence, Mel
went in search of his only hint of an ally in this -- or any --
Now came the problem of how. Something told Mel
he couldn't just go to the phone book and look up Interplanetary
Legends in the Yellow Pages. Judging by the subject matter of
the photo, Mel figured that Frank wouldn't be out in the open.
Still, he shouldn't be too hard, figured Mel, for an expert blackmailer
to find. The brighter the city, the darker the underbelly.
Mel's first step was to find a porno shop. The nearest
in Bridgeton was just a few blocks out of downtown. So Stumptown's,
he supposed, would be fairly close.
Mel tucked the picture into his red pocket -- the
one so recently vacated by his lethal zapper -- and headed north
Chinatown's gates were flanked by two huge stone
lions, foo dogs, as the slopes called them. Mel walked straight
through, and sure enough, there was a huge and gaudy porno shop.
Since no one was around the entrance, he wandered inside.
An old man snored loudly behind a streaky plastic
window; Mel threw a dollar bill over the top. It settled on the
old man's forehead like a wrinkled butterfly.
Past the vestibule was a dark area filled with small
wooden enclosures the size of phone booths.
Mel waited, and every few minutes someone would
come out of or go into one of the booths. He flashed a picture
at these sleazy underworld types, but stirred no response. At
last a booth opened up, and its occupant emerged. It was a handsome
young man in an expensive business suit, and his eyes were wide
with fear as he looked at Mel.
I'm working on your
objectives as we speak. I didn't recognize you in red, sir
should we be seen here? It's ..."
His stammering was interrupted by Mel, who decided
to milk his doppelganger's reputation for all it was worth. Mel
pinched the young man's nose viciously, and began dragging him
out of the porno shop without a word.
Out in the bright sun, Mel made a beeline for a
somewhat respectable-looking bar across the street. With his informant
painfully in tow, Mel sat at a patio table. He released the young
man's nose and motioned for a waiter.
"Mr. Smith, I ..."
Mel silenced him with a got-your-nose sort of gesture.
The waiter arrived, took Mel's order of beer, and left.
"How long have you worked for me?" Mel
made it sound almost rhetorical, as if he did know how long the
young man had worked for Mel's green sweatshirted double.
"Sixteen years, Mr. Smith. Since I was 12 and
ran the paperboy extortion ring for you." He sounded desperate
for approval. Mel favored him with an imperceptible nod, slid
the photograph very slowly across the table, then folded his hands
in his lap.
"Where is he?" Thinking of Edward G. Robinson,
he tried to make it as sinister a question as possible.
"It's Frank Burley. Hard to say where he is
at any given time. There is his shop on the northwest side
"Where." It wasn't even a question anymore.
Mel was getting a kick out of this playacting.
"I don't know the address by heart, I can look
it up in the file for you
Mel got up without a word and left the young man with the tab
and the beer that had yet to arrive.
He walked a few blocks, turned, and when he was sure he was out
of earshot, cracked up. Through laughs he made a passable Edward
G. impression. "Nobody double-crosses Rocco, see. Where's
Frank Burley, see."
This was turning out to be fun.
Mel proceeded to find a phone booth. There was no
Interplanetary Legend category and no Yellow Pages, but there
were Purple Pages, and in the business section Mel found an entry:
FRANK BURLEY, SUPERNATURAL INVESTIGATOR.
It bore a phone number and an address, which wasn't
too far of a walk. He got started.
Half an hour later Mel was just about there and
terribly thirsty. He stopped at a convenience store and headed
to the refrigerator case to get some O.J. While perusing, he heard
a commotion. Several people were in line, but the person at the
head wore a ski mask and brandished an enormous revolver.
"Give me the till, motherfucker! Now!"
The frightened clerk made ready to obey. Mel noticed
the second person in line was a familiar face -- Frank Burley
held a huge bag of pretzels and a gigantic bottle of hard cider
in his overly muscular arms.
Slightly shocked, Mel watched the cashier hand
a stack of bills to the robber. As their hands touched, Frank
reached out and crushed the robber's gun hand with the thick glass
bottom of the cider bottle. The ski mask muffled a cry of pain
before the bottle descended on the robber's head. Without missing
a beat, Frank grabbed cash and gun and gave them to the clerk.
Pointing to his groceries, he uttered "You're welcome"
in a somewhat sleepy voice as he stepped over the prone body and
out the door.
Mel followed. He caught up with Frank down the street
and fell alongside.
"Frank Burley? I saw what you did back there.
Nice of you."
Frank didn't turn to look.
"What the fuck do you want, Smith? I told you
not to try and muscle me."
"Suppose I told you I wasn't Smith?" That
He turned to face Mel. "Run that by me again?
You're not Smith?"
"This is gonna be a long explanation, Frank.
A guy named Thomas said you could help me out."
"Doubting Tom sent you? All right, let's go
to my shop. There's enough pretzels and cider for awhile, but
if they run out while you're explaining yourself, it's your turn
for munchies. Fair enough?"
Mel followed Frank a few blocks down the street
to a brownstone. A sign over the stairs read SUPERNATURAL INVESTIGATOR.
A series of cute cartoons was obviously intended to show the shop's
services to the illiterate: there were depictions of a cartoon
Frank Burley kicking a werewolf in the crotch, throwing a ghost
down the stairs, etc.
The last, a cryptic one, seemed to show Frank drinking
beer with Dracula.
Frank, holding his packages with one arm, opened
the front door to reveal stairs going up.
"After you," he said. "If you're
not Smith, then who are you?"
"My name is Mel."
"Mel, you look just like that bastard Smith.
Except for your tacky sweatshirt. This story better be damn good
to take up my time like this."
" Mel smiled. He was on his
way. "... I don't know about good, but at least it oughta