Winner of the 2015 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Non-traditional Fiction
by James Finn Garner
Back in my trailer, I busied myself removing wet lollipops and frosting smears from my overcoat. Hell, if I wanted spots on my clothes, I’d talk to a tailor and get it custom-made. The fewer reminders I had of this morning’s party, the better. That included Earl Dimmick and the mobster’s now-undying gratitude to me. No matter what his aspirations, he was still an unstable thug at heart, and no amount of “Big Word Power” was going to change that. (“Unstable Earl”? “Erratic Earl”? “Mercurial Earl”? Boy, he’s got his work cut out for him with that nickname business.)
Then there were those kids I made laugh so unmercifully at the party. Damn Dimmick for putting me in front of those little stinkers. With the state I was in, it could’ve been a disaster. I’m dangerous when . . .
See, us joeys are an emotional lot. High-strung, maudlin, volatile. Usually it serves us well and keeps the world laughing. Other times, it makes things a complete larry. Now I get to carry around the image of those worn-out, punch-drunk little bips in my head as a reminder. Add it to the scrapbook. Happy birthday to me.
Exhausted, I strung the hammock under the canopy in front of the trailer and tried to get a little shut-eye. At first the steady rain was soothing, but before long I started having dreams of little dogs setting out for voyages across the ocean in soup tureens. Some were barking and some were talking, as the waters churned harder and harder.
Then I heard a Chihuahua say in a high-pitched voice, “Asleep in his hammock. Wotta picture. Like a little baby warthog.”
“Watch yer mouth, Fido,” I said, “or I’ll tip you right into the drink.”
The dog laughed. “Hahahahaha, great idea . . .”
With that, my hammock was flipped and I crashed face down in the dirt. When I gained my bearings, I realized I wasn’t alone, and why the Chihuahua’s voice was so familiar. Because bending low and mocking me was the fat, round, baby face of the nastiest cop in town.
“Hahahahahaha,” he chittered like a greasy chipmunk. “Down will come Koko, cradle and all!”
Detective Pinky Piscopink. God hadn’t packed so much bile and arrogance into such a little body since the day He invented wolverines. He and I had had a few clems in the past, each one nastier than the one before. It’s an old saw that clowns and midgets don’t mix, but Piscopink and I gave it an exclamation point.
“All right, Pinky, back up, give ‘im room.” The deeper voice belonged to Detective Sergeant Tom Kashaw, the midget’s partner. A muscular gee with slicked ebony hair, pug nose, and a calm self-assurance that didn’t have to push hard to get results. Tom had been okay with me in the past, but I always have to remember, the past is the past.
I groaned as I pushed myself off the ground. “Been to the boardwalk, Tom?”
“Then where’d you win the kewpie doll?”
“Very funny,” piped the midget. “No wonder you’re such a laughingstock.”
“Make yourself at home, detective. Do you need a phone book to sit on?”
“Watch your lip, bigshoe,” Piscopink said. “I could bust you so low . . .”
“You could punch me in the eye?”
He was inhaling at a higher pitch with that one, but Kashaw rolled his eyes and moved to break it up. “Gentlemen, please, let’s not get out the brass knuckles just yet. We’ve got a few questions to ask you, Koko, about last night.”
“Fire away,” I said, counting out the facts in my head that I knew for sure, just so I could keep my lies straight.
I stood my kiester up on end and sat down. Kashaw pulled up an empty crate and did likewise. “Nasty business, what happened. Explosions and shootings ain’t so common at a black-tie party like that. We know you talked with the boys downtown, but some things just didn’t add up for us.”
Piscopink leaned forward with his hands on his hips and said, “Such as, why would some fancy-schmancy party like that need to hire you for stupid antics?”
“I wasn’t hired for entertainment. I was hired for security.”
“That’s a hot one, clown. Tell me another.”
“Come on, Rex,” said Kashaw. “No offense, but who in their right mind would hire you to work security?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t divulge privileged information, but I was actually hired by the Senator himself.”
“Lodestone?” Piscopink said. “That guy could rent an army battalion if he wanted to. You expect us to believe he’d want some cheap operator like you? It’s a lucky thing the whole crowd didn’t get massacred.”
“Besides,” Kashaw continued, “there was already security in place. I know the guys on the squad who were there.”
“Maybe you just answered your own question,” I said.
“What about this guy who got shot at the party? Did you know him?”
“Met him at the party,” I fibbed, as I stood up from the trunk. Our little confab here under the canopy was getting stifling.
“Did you know this Schatzie guy was a German national?”
“Really? He told me he was from Alabama. I’ve never been too good at sorting out accents.”
Piscopink jumped up to stand on the kiester and look me in the eye. “Something’s funny about this whole deal, Koko.”
“Funny like a joke or funny like a smell?”
“And you’re smack in the middle of it. This isn’t going to go away. A lot of big name people were at that party last night. Rich, powerful people. The kind who aren’t accustomed to having their food blow up on the serving cart. Maybe you and your Clown Alley pals like a food fight, but these folks are civilized.”
“What are you saying, that I made that soup explode?”
“Maybe a gag backfired. It happens.”
“I tell ya, I wasn’t there for entertainment. I was security.”
“For working security, you make a good clown,” Piscopink sneered. “You must really slay ‘em when you work the big top.”
“Yeah, Piscopink,” I said tightly, “whatever you say.”
“I heard you really knock ‘em dead every show.”
“Hey, Pinky, that’s enough,” Kashaw said, getting nervous.
“I mean,” he savored the words, “when things get really hot.”
He wanted a reaction, and I delivered. I tipped over the kiester and sent the police-pixie tumbling. Kashaw began shouting something, but I couldn’t hear. Hot blood filled my ears with a glurky-glurky-glurk sound, as Piscopink reared back and punched me in the knee. I grabbed him by the collar of his nicely tailored jacket. I kicked the latch of the kiester open, tossed the midget inside and slammed the lid. His muffled squeals and little kicks were very satisfying.
“Koko, get him out of that box!”
“There’s air holes in it. He’ll survive.”
“He was out of line, Rex,” Kashaw said. “But you can’t go around assaulting police officers, whatever he might say. We need whatever you got on this whole thing. I know the Senator hired you, and I’m sure he’s got his reasons. You find them. A lot of pressure is coming from the top, so we need everything we can use. I know you’ll help us out.”
“Sure, I’ll help you out, Tom,” I said, and picked up the trunk by the handle and swung it out to the street, into the rain.
“Don’t take it so personal, Rex. Come on.”
“That was beyond personal, Tom, and you know it. Muzzle that midget or you get no help from me.”
“Sorry you feel that way, Rex,” he said, as he hiked up his collar and got ready to leave. Then he stopped and turned. “One last thing. What were you doing at Earl Dimmick’s house today? Security, too?”
“No . . . entertainment.”
He paused a bit to let that irony sink in. “This is already a mess, Rex. Get yourself right with it.”
He went out to the curb to let his partner out. Piscopink was all teeny arms and legs trying to get back to me, but Kashaw led him away to their car. Watching them exit, I lit up a coffin nail and thought about getting hammered. If I had to replay the events of the previous 24 hours in my head again, I was going to march up the aisle of my own mind and ask the box office for my money back.
James Finn Garner is best known for the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories trilogy, which have been translated into more than 20 languages around the world. A former columnist for Chicago Magazine, his latest project is the clown noir mystery series starring Rex Koko, Private Clown. Of the three books in the series so far — Honk Honk, My Darling;
Double Indignity; and The Wet Nose of Danger — the first and third have won Book of the Year, Nontraditional Fiction, from the Chicago Writers Association. For more of his projects, visit www.jamesfinngarner.com.