A u g u s t   2 0 0 1

Guest Writer

Part Seven: Bright city, dark underbelly
by Jess Gulbranson

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 -- world.

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 to Chinatown.

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.

"Mr. Smith … I … I'm working on your objectives as we speak. I didn't recognize you in red, sir … I, uh … 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 of town …"

"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 stopped Frank.

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?"

"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."

"Good …" Mel smiled. He was on his way. "... I don't know about good, but at least it oughta be interesting."

Find out more about Mel in our archives.

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