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Festive Smear


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Saturday 22nd Dec, late evening


We wish you a merry S**tmas, we wish you a merry s**tmas, we wish you a merry sh*tmas, and a $£%!ing new year!


Yes, it was that glorious time of year in Bedlam, when the drunks prowled the streets spreading violence and badwill to all men. And women. And dogs. Of course, some people tried to celebrate it, but cynicism knew no bounds in Bedlam, and Ms. Caroline Cruz could hear a bunch of louts singing outside. Drunk. She knew drunk, of course. She knew it very well indeed. 


But that was not her concern right now, for she heard some banging on the door. 




It was not an unfriendly voice, but not friendly either. It was a low, panicked and desperate voice. 


And it belonged to a man in an overcoat, gloves, and hat. Dark skinned, darked hair, moustache, thick rimmed glasses. Slightly rotund around the girth but one would not call him fat. He was of average build and not blessed with good looks, but one would say he was well dressed. Rich, even. 


And of course Rich people had money. Money to spend on investigators. 


Even at this time of the evening. 

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And why did Caroline know drunk very well, especially tonight? Saturday night, plus Christmas season. She was planning on simply not being sober until New Year’s, but alas clients tended to show up more often in the holiday season. God knew why. So when some anal cavity started hammering on her door, she wasn’t exactly drunk yet. She’d put back a few, yes, but she was generally okay. Driving would’ve been a stupid decision, but she didn’t own a car so whatever.


Oh, right. Someone was hammering on the door, weren’t they? She got out of her chair and opened the door with one hand, scratching her hair with the other. “The hell else would I be?” Tact? Who needed that? Oh, right. Broke unlicensed PIs with potential clients at the door. “I’m just gonna guess and say you have a problem. Well, come in and take a seat. Don’t mind the mess.” She went back to her chair, where Jack Daniels called her name from the floor. She ignored him, for the moment, and propped her feet on her desk. “Shut the door behind you.”

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The man walked in, fast. He was trying to keep his cool, but he clenched and unclenched his fists in a most agitated manner. He was not cool. He wasn't agressive though, just...frustrated. 


He ignored the mess. He clearly had other things on his mind. 


"Cruz, I presume. I'm Tyrone Winchester" he said, introducing himself with a well eloctued American accent. "I got a problem, and everybody else is too drunk, too stupid, or too lazy to help me with my problem" he said, falling into the chair and pressing his hands together, hard. 


"And I got till Christmas day to sort it out. So if you can sort it out, Ill pay you. A lot" he said. It sounded like he wasn't best pleased with paying anybody anything, let alone a lot. It sounded like it wasn't his nature. But, on the other hand, he sounded like he was in a jam, and he needed to get out of a jam. Badly. 


"Someone's blackmailing me" he said. "I need to know why, I need to know how. And I need to have it stopped. And a bonus if you stop them hard..." he said, unambigiously clenching his fists. 

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“Well, I can promise I’m not too stupid or too lazy.” Caroline smiled, clearly joking. She literally had whiskey on her breath, so…yeah. “I am Caroline Cruz. I do solve problems a lot like yours. So then, why don’t you take it from the top?” She leaned back in her seat and once again ignored the call of a certain Mr. Daniels. “When did this all start? And what did you do that’s worth blackmailing you over? You can skip the specifics for now, but it’ll save time if I know what’s going on from the start. Establish the stakes so I know how to proceed.” Oh, yes. That warm glow of light inebriation. She basked in it. “If that’s a deal breaker for you, the door’s right there.”

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"This morning" said Winchester. "I got something through the letterbox"


He reached into his coat and pulled out an envelope. Inside, some photographs and a typed letter. Curiously, no demand. But "FOLLOW OUR INSTRUCTIONS TO FOLLOW. MUST BE COMPLETED BY DEC 26th"


The photographs were more revealing and of a carnal nature - quite explicit. Mr. Winchester was fornicating with a young woman. 


"They got me" he grunted. He did not have shame, but rather frustration and being caught like this. "Whoever they are. I deal with...information, you see. Electronic information. Quite what they want...I don't know. But they have got me" he sighed. 


"And I dont want my wife seeing those...." he said, pointing to the photographs. 


"WHatever you need to stop this, you got it. My guess...they want something sensitive I have. Blackmail the blackmailer, you might say..."

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Caroline had seen pictures like this before. Hell, this was Bedlam and she was chronically broke. She’d taken her share as well. And as for the activities therein…it had been a long, long time since she’d lost her virginity. Literal decades. So there wasn’t anything shocking there, either. “Two things. One, I would like to know where these were taken. Two, I can ask around, discreetly, but it would probably best to actually wait for the instructions. Yes, they probably want you for your information access, but this is Bedlam. It could always be someone desperate for cash.” Her somewhat inebriated brain processed for a few moments. “However, don’t misunderstand me. If this crosses one of the crime families, you’re going to tell your superior and take your medicine like an adult. I’m not getting killed in some inter family bull. Hence why I don’t want to know what you specifically do or who you do it for. Now, these are my rates.” She named them. Fairly reasonable, as PI rates went. “They’re not negotiable. I’ll need a way to get in touch. Again, non negotiable. Last thing. The more you lie to me, the longer your case will take and the more money you’ll be spending on me. You want to make me rich, that’s up to you.”

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"Ill double them" said Winchester, clearly, in response to Caroline's rates. "How's that for negotiation?"


He flipped a business card to her. 






Complete with contact details, including his mobile number. 


"I can't make you trust me. You don't know me" he said, astutely. "But, you can trust my wallet" he added, and pulled said item out. A day's advance was slammed on the table. "Trust the green. Maybe you will trust me in time. I'm not lying..."


He say back, frowning. "The thing is...it's not just my wife. Its my reputation. If it gets out I am blackmailed when I deal in data security, it's a big blow. I don't like getting punched. Not without punching back..."


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Surprise rippled across Caroline’s features momentarily, and she blinked. “It’s your money. You can pay me more if you feel like it.” A decent man in Bedlam? Eh, he was cheating on his wife, so no. “Most of that was boilerplate stuff. I’d say you’d be surprised how many people tell you half of what you need to know and pay you half what you want them to. And then have the nerve to complain about everything.” She shrugged. “I’d say that, but one this Bedlam and two you’re in a specialized field. So you know what I’m talking about.” She took her feet off the her desk and leaned forward, putting her elbows on it. “This is the part where it gets personal.” She held up one of the photographs, one with a clear shot of the woman’s face. “Suspect number one is her. Who is she, how well do you know her, and how well does she know you? Does she have any debts? Mobbed up ex-boyfriends? Desperately sick parents? Hell, any dreams of simply escaping this hellhole?” She looked him right in the eyes. “Suspect number two is your wife. Does she know about the affair? Has she done anything strange lately? Anything that might lead you to believe she’s preparing for a life without you? I’ll likely need to speak with her as well, and some of your employees. Especially those you trust most and those who are newer than six months or so. You can say there’s been a breach and I’m a consultant.”

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"My wife?" replied Winchester. "I can't say we have the best relationship" he mused, thoughtful. "Speaking frankly, that is. She wanted children. I didn't. She drinks too much and spends too much, but....we have been together twenty years and she has been faithful"


He mulled it over. "She doesn't know about my fling, either. And as far as I can see she is too...dependant on me to leave. If you speak to her, it would have to be most gentle. She can't suspect..."


"That floozy, though. She could well be on it. Said her name was Delilah. Met her in a Jazz bar called the Bad Beat. She came on strong - too strong really - and we ended up at her place. Or at least, she said it was her place" he muttered. "I have no reason to trust her at all" he added, indicating that it was with her that her suspicions were most strong. 


"Three nights of carnal lust, a week ago. Then nothing. She doesn't want to see me anymore" he added, anger creeping into his voice. 


"What do I know of her? Other than she is hot, and likes Jazz, I couldn't say. We didn't do too much talking..."

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Caroline simply sighed. This man, who was now her client, did an extremely stupid thing for a man in his position. Another swallow of Jack, and she’d have probably cussed him for being a complete idiot. However, she was inebriated enough that her expression said everything she was thinking. And she knew it, so might as well speak. “Classic honey trap, and you fell right for it.”She let the words hang in the air, and firmly decided to say nothing more on the subject. Men were all but blind when a beautiful woman was interested in them. She’d seen the study on the internet somewhere. Critical thinking skills dropped after viewing an attractive woman. “Anyway, I have a place to start. The Bad Beat. I’ll find it, talk to a few of the regulars.” Though it seemed a little…obvious, honestly. But she had rent to pay in less than two weeks, and as usual she was a bit short. “When I talk to your wife I’ll be as discreet as possible. The security breach story’s good for that.”


Hmm. One thing was bothering her about this whole situation, and there was a misunderstanding she had to correct. “Two things before we make this official. One, I’m an investigator, not a hired thug. I’ll get to the bottom of your blackmailing scheme. Anybody wants to get violent along the way, I’ll show them how that’s a poor life choice. If you want those responsible punished, Bedlam style, you’ve come to the wrong person and the door’s over there.” She pointed. “That said, there’re plenty of people in this town who’ll bludgeon someone for a few bucks. I’m sure you can find one. Which brings me to the second thing. A question. Where exactly did you hear about me, anyway? I don’t exactly have an ad in the phone book, and I don’t get along with the Families or the gangs.” Meaning she got clients primarily by word of mouth, and the occasional classified ad. Oh, right. Craigslist, too. She was, as she always did outside of the shower, wearing her jacket over her Quantum Gauntlets. She was fully prepared to toss him out her front door, if she needed to.

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Winchester did not like rules. More precisely, he did not like rules being dictated to him - for he surely liked dictating rules to others. He bristled when Caroline clarified the situation, but he was in a jam, and he knew it. He pretty much knew that Caroline knew it too, but damned if he was going to show it. 


"Fine. I'm hiring you for information. The End" he said, bluntly. 


"As to where I found you? Information is my business. American Data Management. Sometimes we need information that we can't get leg-I mean, through regular channels. I've got contacts all over the city, and beyond. You got a reputation. Not a great reputation, but a specific one. Competent, it seems" he said. 


"Don't make me wrong about that" he said, standing up and gathering my coat. 


"I can survive the expose. But it will sting, and sting badly. And I don't like getting stung". It wasn't precisely a threat, but it wasn't far off either. Winchester was a mix of emotions - frustrated, angry, even anxious. But above all he was driven and determined. 

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“Competent is what I aspire to be.” Caroline said dryly, and stood as well. “I’ll need some cash for tonight’s expenses. I assume the Bad Beat has a cover charge, and it’d look real odd if I didn’t have a drink or two while I was there.” She held out her hand to be shaken. “Other than that, looks like we’re in business. Our conversation has been confidential, of course.” She picked up one of the photos with her other hand and whistled. “I understand how she got you, though. She is incredibly hot.” Since the deal was set she was now changing approach, going for something more charming than hardass PI. “Don’t worry, she’ll only seduce me if I let her.” She smiled, again trying to set Winchester at ease. “And even then I’ll learn what I need to.” Stone sober it’d be transparently an act, but with some of Mr. Daniels warming her insides it wasn’t entirely an act anymore.

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"You seduce her? I think it might be the other way around, if you like women" said Winchester without a flick of an eyebrow. "I think it might be you who needs to be careful"


And later, at the Bad Beat...


Winchester had covered the cost of entry. The Bad Beat was underground, and its ventilation systems strained. It was not well furbished, in fact, it looked rather shabby, but it had a charm. If one looked carefully, you could see the evidence of old smoke damage on the walls. 


A high tempo experimental jazz band was playing, and playing well. The audience was small today, but they were enthusiastic, having clearly found a high calibre three piece band who were as yet unknown. 


Jette could see the pleased smile of the owner, Dick Young, an elderly black man with grey hair and a friendly face, who was tapping his foot excitedly to the beat with a couple of his elderly friends. 


And over to the side, the "Floozy", a beautiful cat like blonde, acting drunk, and looking adoringly into the eyes of some heavy set man with a boxers nose who looked suspiciously like a crook. Partly because two bodyguards were keeping a close eye on him from across the floor. 

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Caroline ordered a beer from the bartender, and joined Dick Young and his friends. They were closer to her age than anyone else in the joint, after all. “Nice band. They’re good.” She meant it. Like a lot of genius intellects, she had a real appreciation for music. Music was math, after all. Math with soul. And she had a lot of respect for people who could just wing it the way the band on stage was doing. “Just a matter of time before someone picks them up.” She smiled slightly. “Nice to meet you. I’m Caroline.”

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"They sure are" smiled Dick, full of warmth. He had taken over this joint after it was burned down, along with some of his friends as co investors. There were a fair few ex-cops here, some of whom had actually developed freindship with ex-criminals who also frequented the joint. Dick was an ex cop himself, and between his experience on the streets and in the Bad Beat, he knew a lot of rumours. 


"I'm Dick. Dick Young" he said, offering his hand to Caroline. "Always nice to see some young folks in here. Most of us have gout and arthritis!" he winked, and his friends grunted their empathy with both conditions. 


"You came on a good night, Caroline. Now, the Bad Beat always got taste in music, but tonight you got jackpot!" he said, pausing to applause as the band finished another number. 


"You a Jazz fan or you just come here to drink?" he asked. 

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Caroline shook her head slightly. “Sadly, I’m working.” Familiar faces dotted the club. They didn’t all know her, of course, but she knew them. Mickey Malone, Thumbs Branson, Cookie Vasquez, and a few others. Both sides of the law were in here. For the first time in a while, Caroline felt something approaching safe outside her apartment. “Though…” She took a swallow of beer. “Nothing wrong with a good drink, am I right?” She let out a chuckle. With the grey in her hair, she was young? Ha. “But like I said, I’m working.” She indicated “Delilah” with her eyes. “See the woman over there? My client is curious about her. The money’s good, so I thought I’d drop by. See who knows her and who she knows. Didn’t know I’d get such good jazz in the bargain, but I’m not complaining.”

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"Working?" replied an inquisitive yet slightly cautious Dick Young. 


He poured her a stiff whisky. Very stiff. Dick ran a Jazz bar, and knew a lady who loved her booze when he saw one. 


"Nothing wrong with a drink. Nothing at all. As long as you are the right type of drunk. The ones who laugh, or fall asleep, or even fall over and lie in a gutter muttering at the stars. As long as you ain't the type who pulls out her fists, or a gun" he added. 


"That woman there is bad news. Honey trap. I've seen her fleecing men for money every week. Sometimes more. And even the odd woman. I don't think she's too particular about age, gender, or anything else but the size of the wallet" he explained. 


"Now your turn...who are you and who you working for, if you don't mind me asking?" he asked, as the band started up a staccato beat. 


"I don't want no trouble here. Ive got a bar to run. So I'd rather you enjoyed the show that started asking the wrong questions to the wrong people..." he added, again, with genuine warmth. 

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Caroline took a sip of the whisky and blinked. “Whew, that’s the good stuff.” She took another, beer forgotten. “Nah, I’m a weepy drunk. Somebody wants to fight me I’ll fight them, sure, but that’s always true.” She put the whisky down very carefully, like it was a bomb. “I knew she was trouble just by looking at her, but that is not good news for my client.” She eyed the glass like it was going to disappear at any second. “Of course I don’t mind you asking about my client. Questions are free. Answers, now those always have a price attached. And it’s not always money.” She tore her eyes away from the glass of great whisky and put them on Dick Young. “My clients are confidential. My reputation is worth more to me than one client, after all. That said, I can tell you my client is one of her victims. And my client would very much like no longer to be so. My client also wouldn’t mind if she and her pals got hurt along the way.” Hell with it. She let that sink in as she took another sip of that fine, fine liquor. “Fortunately, I do mind.”

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"Weepy drunk works" smiled Dick, sympathetically. "I've shed a few tears myself over some smooth jazz. But tonights band got a more frantic beat. Lets keep it excited but not violent" he said, as a suitably frantic and violent drum solo kicked in, terminating in some more applause. 


"I don't owe that woman anything, bar the promise that she isn't getting her teeth knocked out in my club" he conceded. "And I don't owe you or your client anything either, I suppose. But I'm a kind hearted drunk" he said, taking another guzzle of whiskey. On this, his friends agreed. Dick was a good sort. 


"I'm not going to clean up Bedlam. I don't think anyone is. But I can maybe wipe up the odd stain. And you seem like a good hearted girl, even if I can't trust you quite yet. So ask me what you want, like you said - asking costs nothing. And maybe ill even answer. And maybe  the answers will even help!" he laughed warmly. 


Jovially, he poured her another drink. 

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Caroline nodded, but didn’t pick up her refill. “Fair enough. I won’t start any fights in here, not even with her. I’m not looking to cause trouble. Just don’t expect to back off if it comes to me.” She didn’t so much drop being amiable, as let the hardass PI peek out. “Questions are simple enough. One, who is she? I have the name Delilah, but somehow I doubt it’s the one on her birth certificate. Two, who’s her accomplice? I’m sure she’s talented, but somebody’s got to take the photos.” She almost visibly thought @@$% it, and tossed back her refill in one go. “That’s enough of that while I’m working, but thanks. If I can put a stop to this without anyone losing any teeth, I’ll do it. Otherwise I’ll pass my info onto my client, and you know how easy it is to find a cold hearted thug in this town.”

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"Delilah, can't say I know an awful lot about her. But I keep my eyes open, even if they are old!" he chuckled, as did his three friends. They were all grizzled retired cops, amicable and wise, and getting to that stage of life where even well maintained bodies start failing. They had no problems with a hardass PI. 


"She's a honey trap. I don't know if she works for herself, or got some shady dude behind her. Skilled pickpocket. Gets hey flies drunk, gets them staring at her, then pilfers their wallets. Seems to prefer crooks to cops, and frankly, if she relieves a few crooks of a few dollars in my club, I ain't gonna cause problems" he chuckled again. 


"But she also goes home with some of the suckers. And I'm guessing, seeing as half of them are fat broken nosed thugs in their fifties, with all the charm of a haemarrhoid, it ain't out of love" again, to laughter. 


"Ill tell you what I guess, though. Lady like that, don't last long unless you she has some muscle as back up. Sooner or later its gonna get ugly and shes gonna end up dead in a gutter. Or worse. I'm not just talking about that .22 in her handbag, either. She must have someone got her back...."


He paused. "And she never seems to like the Jazz. That's her worst crime!" he smiled. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

“Any of those fat broken nosed thugs in here tonight?” Caroline could talk to Delilah directly, but she preferred to save that for the very last option. “Or anyone you know who’d fit the bill as her bodyguard?” She was getting slightly annoyed and a little impatient. She couldn’t quite tell if ol’ Dick was giving her the runaround or he truly didn’t know anything.

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Dick Young gave a sly and subtle finger to one of the drunkards in the back, pouring whisky down his neck. He looked like a big guy, fat and, yes, broken nosed. But there was something tough about him. 


"That guy. Keeps his eyes on her at all time. Not as drunk as he seems. I dont know if he is her minder or her stalker. Or something else. But the last few weeks he hasn't kept his eyes off her. Now, be careful. I know tough guys and I know tough guys. This guy is the latter. Ex-military. Ex-cop. Ex-something. But he knows how to handle himself. Which figures. He would be a good bodyguard. Even if he does drink too much..."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Caroline nodded. “Oh yeah? Thanks, Dick.” She slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re a bad guy. Think I’ll have a word with him.” She picked up her (freshly remembered) beer and made her way across the club. “Hey you! Where you been?” She did not block the man’s view of Delilah, inside sidling up next to him. “I’ve been looking for you all night.” A little charm, first. A quick hug and a peck on the cheek. Even in this town, men (especially the real tough guys) tended to…underestimate a woman. Especially one who was a little drunk and didn’t seem too bright to begin with. “Can you believe this band? They’re amaaaaaazing.”

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The man tensed as Caroline worked her charm. He didn't really know how to respond. 


"Don't make a scene" he growled. His eyes wobbled between Delilah and Caroline, oscillating rapidly. He didn't really know what to do. He wasn't exactly rude, more brusque. Or blunt. Or, arguably, befuddled. 


He eventually decided he needed to turn to face her. 


"I couldn't really say about the band" he said, voice deep and low. Now she was near, Caroline could see he had more than a couple of war scars. He had eyes that were older than his age, he twitched a little. Dick had thought he was ex-military, and that looked pretty spot on. 


"I'm just doing my job" he said, again unclear on what to do. If he had an M-16 and a target, he would be much more comfortable. "Making sure the lady is ok" he said, again, lacking any subtle social skills. He was hardly a covert agent. But if it camed to blunt force, he would probably be more effective. He looked disciplined and fit, anyway, and Caroline was pretty sure he was packing under his jacket. 

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