The Fifth Fedora: An Excerpt of "A Million Lost Souls Plus One" by Christina Lay
The Fifth Fedora: Weird Noir and Stranger Tales in Honor of Stephen T. Vessels is now published by Borda Books and Wilder Utopia, and is available on Amazon or in our bookstore. "A Million Lost Souls Plus One" helps start off this collection of tales told in Stephen's honor. The following, for your enjoyment, is an excerpt of Christina Lay's story.
For a large man, Roscoe was very good at disappearing. And I don’t mean in the usual, one day he’s around, losing too much money at the poker table, and then the next he’s nowhere to be found sort of way, although he did that too. What I mean is that one minute he’s there lounging on the sleeper sofa eating a bag of pretzels in a locked room, and the next, when you (meaning me) turn your back for half a second in reaction to the anachronistic clanging of a phone attached to the wall—okay, maybe it was a full second. Who still has a land line these days?—he’s gone. Poof. Nada.
What really rankled me about this disappearing act was the hat. Damn hat. The ultimate f-you.
For not only did he roust his not-small self from the sagging couch, cross the room, hoodoo the locked door, and get past the extra muscle in the outer room without so much as a crinkle of the pretzel bag, he paused to retrieve his hat from the coat rack. Because yeah, that disappeared too.
“You’re worried about the hat?” said my boss, Angel “Bonebreaker” Johnson, looking at me down those gun barrel eyes of his.
Now, if it had been anyone else who’d lost the mark, they wouldn’t be explaining the significance of a cheap-ass fedora without even any tech installed. But I’d worked for Angel for nigh onto twenty years at that point, and he knew I wasn’t a tweaker or a pushover. Also, he knew about Roscoe, knew he was the type to have a disappearing act up his sleeve. So he listened instead of hastening to do what his nickname would suggest.
“Means he wasn’t in a hurry,” I said, pulling on my cuffs, trying not to look ashamed.
Neither was Angel. In a hurry, that is. He took a thoughtful drag off his cigarette and leaned back in his green Naugahyde swivel chair. He was a small man (the smaller the meaner I’ve discovered) with a thin mustache, long black hair, and not an ounce of fat on his wiry frame. He enjoyed mid-last century furniture, raising purebred min pins, and taking away other people’s hard-earned money without their consent. He did well at this and owned a large house on Mercer Island not far from where The Gates mansion now stood crumbling behind barbed wire fencing.
“Well, if anyone can find him...” Angel blew out a cloud of smoke and smiled. “It’s you, Lola.”
This was not a compliment. It was a threat. You lost him, you find him. Translated, “It’s you, Lola” meant “Complete this assignment or throw your sorry ass on your own sword, unless you’d rather give Angel the opportunity to do more creative things involving sharp objects and your flesh.”
I nodded and left. No sense fretting on a possibly unpleasant future when there was a task at hand.
I thought back on the moment I’d lost Roscoe.
The phone ringing. He’d made it ring, which suggested an accomplice. Roscoe wasn’t the sort who had friends, but accomplices? Sure. Plenty of those sprinkled throughout his curious life.
I decided to start at the beginning, the place where I’d first met Roscoe, and headed for the circus on the corner of 4th and 157th.
The intersection formed more of a dodecahedron than a square, with multiple roads at oblique angles crossing or ending at this juncture on the edge of town. An allegedly permanent big top with high wooden walls and a canopy roof filled the space created by the convergence of roads. Some enterprising soul had painted the entire thing in black, red, and white alternating segments, and when the breeze ruffled the canvas, the effect induced nausea in the sensitive.
I was not sensitive, which might be why Angel sent me in search of Roscoe P. Visitor in the first place.
Angel did not believe in money. He said that other than the bills in your pocket and the loose change in your couch, it was an illusion, usually while gesturing in the direction of the abandoned Gates mansion. All it takes is God, he would say, or some alien, or a pimple-chinned hacker in outer Brooklyn pushing the wrong button and poof, all your assets are grass, gone in a puff of digital smoke.
For someone who’d only recently started investing in a Roth IRA, this was discouraging news, but I didn’t withdraw my funds and invest in couch coin, for although rich, Angel wasn’t that bright.
He didn’t believe in money, he believed in power. He believed in objects that conveyed power. So, yeah, my tough guy boss was wackadoodle over all things magic.
I’d gone to the circus on the corner of 4th and 157th in search of Roscoe and a bag of magic beans, or something like it. The smell of burnt peanuts and animal dung brought back a lot of memories, not of going to the circus—I only went the once—but of certain dreams I’d had as a kid. The spectacle must have made an impression, because I got it in my head that I wanted to be one of those guys who rode the elephants. I had no interest in wearing a bespangled bikini and a feathered chandelier contraption on my head, but I did want to be in charge of my own fleet of pachyderms. I wouldn’t wield a whip, I decided. I’d simply walk into the elephant tent, and those critters would take one look at me and know I was their protector, their leader, their boss.
So I was a weird kid. Sue me.
The second person I saw after I entered the big tent that first time and adjusted my eyes to dusky, dusty gloom was Roscoe, although I didn’t know it at the time. The first person, a remarkably thin Italian dude holding a monkey in his arms, told me to take all my annoying questions to the ringmaster, The Great Oswald.
I’ll take a break right here and tell you that Roscoe was a man of many names, including but not limited to The Great Oswald, Sam Stephanopoulos, Jerry Brown, Dude Blewster, and Sister Maria of the Eternal Gratitude (don’t ask). Roscoe explained to me how his names reflected whatever mood or dimension he was focused on at the moment. I always called him Roscoe, because that’s who he was being when I first learned he existed.
On this occasion, he wore a top hat. A tall black silk affair with a red rose in the band. As afore stated, he was large, large enough to be charged for two seats on any airplane. He sported a wispy blond goatee, no mustache, and a broad smile. Beneath the top hat, the lime green jogging suit rankled the eye, but as I learned, that was standard issue Roscoe.
Mismatched, ill-fitting, askew, rumpled, and often still sporting the tag from whatever shop he’d pilfered it from; that was his fashion sense.
The Great Oswald took one look at me from the center of the one-ring circus and hustled over. He was tall, I was tall, and he looked straight in my eyes and asked, “Have you seen Roger?”
I said I had no idea since I didn’t know who Roger was.
He nodded and was about to scuttle away when I countered with, “Have you seen Roscoe Visitor?”
He paused in mid turn, gave me a mischievous sidelong glance and asked, “Are you the horse lady?”
Many tall women would be offended by this question. I wasn’t, and thought to reply that no, I was the elephant lady. Roscoe had that affect.
“I’m here on behalf of Angel Johnson. Roscoe has something Angel might want to buy.”
“Oh, there’s no ‘might’ about it.” The Great Oswald swept off the top hat and bowed at the waist. “Roscoe P. Visitor at your service. The Great Oswald is a nom de guerre.”
“Never would’ve guessed,” I said. “So you got the dingus?”
“Dingus?” Roscoe laughed. Let me tell you, Roscoe had a laugh that would blow the buttons off your shirt. It was loud, but also comforting, like maybe you might want to laugh too. Before you form any rash opinions, and think I’m a humorless cuss, I’m not saying I didn’t grow up with laughter. My dad chuckled and my mom shrieked. Their kind of laughs made us kids tense up, because it mostly meant they were mad. Roscoe’s laugh made me think that maybe something might actually be funny. I didn’t think my question was funny, though.
“Thing-a-majig. Whatsis. Bag of magic beans. Bottle with a genie in it?”
“A skeptic, I see, Miss, Mrs. Ms. . . . ?”
“Lola,” I said.
“Why, that’s a wonderful name! So much better than the name I was thinking of for you. Come this way, Lola, and prepare to have your skepticism banished!”
“Oh, I’m prepared.”
I followed him across the dirt floor of the tent, across a strip of pavement and into a rusty trailer on three wheels. It rocked side-to-side as he walked its short length and bent over a large steamer trunk at the far end. I glanced around and saw mostly books. Paperbacks with garish covers, dusty hardbacks with gilt-edged pages, encyclopedias and dictionaries propping up tables and serving as small tables themselves.
“Let’s see,” Roscoe muttered. “Angel Johnson. That would be the, uh, the uh, Gilded Medallion of Alexander the Great. An object of great power crafted in the ancient city of Ur. Alexander came to possess it by way of a witch he met in Angkor Wat.”
“Fascinating,” I said.
“It is, isn’t it?” He held out a cheap-looking disc that resembled the necklace one of my older brothers used to wear when he went retro disco dancing. “If rubbed the right way during a full moon, it will show you what your enemies are up to.”
“Angel’s got lots of enemies.” I nodded. I didn’t get to decide what my boss threw his money away on.
“The amulet can be dangerous in the wrong hands,” Roscoe said ominously, accompanied by an eyebrow waggle, probably trying to drive up the price.
“Angel’s got the wrong hands, all right. But I got the money right here. Up to you if you want to swap that worthless piece of shit for hard cash or not. Personally, I could care less.” I patted the inside pocket of my suit jacket and looked as disinterested as possible. Truth was, I wanted him to just fork it over, ‘cause otherwise I’d have to hit him, and I didn’t much want to. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my job and all that, and I don’t much like people, so I occasionally hit them even when I’m off the clock, but getting into a ruckus with a large doughy man in a small, out-of-balance trailer didn’t sound like a good time to me.
“Oh, all right.” He sighed, but kept clutching the dingus tight. “On one condition. Answer a question, if you will.”
My inclination not to punch him waned. A solid punch usually put an end to the questions.
“Shoot,” I said instead.
“How did you come to your profession? Did you always want to be a goon?”
“Goon is politically incorrect. We prefer ‘appropriation engineers’.”
He thought a moment. “APES?”
I shrugged. He laughed. He handed over the dingus without me having to explain about my anti-social tendencies and how the elephant-training gig hadn’t panned out. I handed over the envelope of cash.
So that’s the story of how I met Roscoe P. Visitor...
***To read the rest of this curious tale, consult The Fifth Fedora, now available on Amazon or in our webstore!"
A native of Eugene, Oregon, Christina Lay heads up ShadowSpinners Press. Her fiction won first place in the Rupert Hughes Prose Writing Competition in 2000. Her novella, Symphony of Ruin, was published in 2017. She’s had many short stories appear in anthologies. You can find her non-fiction work at christinalay.wordpress.com and shadowspinners.com.