Illustration of a lobster on a yellow background

The Palace of the Sea

Author’s Note
This story was part of a writing challenge I created for some friends. I thought it would be fun for everyone to pick a genre and see what they could do with only 1,000 words. My genre was “mystery, thriller”; in retrospect, the only mystery here is trying to decipher what I was thinking.

A 1,000-word challenge written Sept. 11, 2004

Detective Johnson stood beside the open door of his dilapidated, dark blue station wagon and lit up a cigarette. Three officers were down on the pavement restraining a bleeding man in a dirty white T-shirt and boxers. Multiple squad cars lined the rest of the street as additional officers were hastily marking off the area, fighting back a small throng of news reporters. A fire engine roared to life several blocks away as the small mobile home behind Johnson continued burning. With a puff of his cigarette, Johnson left his car running and approached the man in the T-shirt. His head was bandaged as he sat on the ground hunched over, hands cuffed behind his back, staring at the fire.

“I’ll only be a moment,” Johnson spoke to an officer, kneeling down to the other man’s level and slapping him on the shoulder. “Nice mess you’re in here, Cracker Jack. Something tells me the strings will be a lot harder to pull this time, so I suggest you be a real boy and give me truth.”

Johnson drew a small business card from his overcoat and put it to the man’s face.

“Le Palais de la Mer, it’s a restaurant. Whoever contacted old Mrs. Nim also gave her this. Now she’s dead, just like the other four ladies. What I need is a name.”

Jack looked up slowly, his shaven head glinting dully from the dried blood that had run down his face and into his goatee. “Those who want to live shouldn’t dine with the sharks.” He smiled with the few teeth he still possessed, then promptly spit on Johnson’s overcoat. The detective sighed and pulled the brim of his hat down a bit.

“I was sort of hoping you’d do that.” Johnson flicked his burning cigarette at the other man’s chest, eliciting a surprised cry, and in the same instant hoisted him off the ground, slamming his body atop the hood of his car, completely winding him.

“What the – stop right there!” shouted a surprised officer, fumbling for his gun. Johnson was already around to the open driver’s side and ducked in just as the first shot was fired.

“Hang on,” he shouted, accelerating in reverse. The police officer yelled frantically for backup and then started running. Johnson braked hard, sending Jack rolling diagonally over the hood and up against the windshield. He stuck his arm out the window, clamped a pair of cuffs to Jack’s ankle, and tightened the other end around the antenna. Switching the car into drive, he floored it. The officer skidded off to the side just in time to watch the station wagon cough and sputter clouds of exhaust into the night sky as it rolled away.

Ingrid watched nervously through the end of her wine glass as she finished its remnants, peering at the far end of the restaurant. A rather lanky man in an ill-fitting black tuxedo and a bad toupee came up beside her, whispered in her ear, and offered a small business card.

“Monsieur Buchet has considered your dilemma.”

“Unlock the door. Now.”

Detective Johnson was presently in the alley behind Le Palais de la Mer, threatening a short, bearded, partially bald janitor, dressed in blue overalls and a dirty vest.

“But ah can’t jest—” he started, trying to wriggle free from Johnson’s steel grip. Jack “The Crack” was propped up next to an open dumpster, his handcuffs now securely bound to those at his ankles. He was spewing forth every obscenity possible.

Johnson glanced at the man’s name tag through the hazy alley light and tightened his grip, pushing him harder against the brick wall.

“Listen, Bubba, this restaurant’s got some shady practices that are getting lots of innocent women killed. I’m on the side of justice here, but I’ll lose the surprise going through the front. If you’ve got any love for your mother, you’ll open this door.”

Billy and Stu smiled reassuringly to Ingrid as they rose from the table. Both wore impeccable white tuxedoes, red bow ties, and black ’80s sunglasses.

“We’ll be in touch,” said Billy.

“Quite soon,” said Stu.

Just then, the doors to the kitchen swung open as several chefs ran out frantically, one of them exclaiming, “Security! He’s got a gun! There’s a madman in the kitchen!”

Stu and Billy exchanged looks of concern and high-tailed it to the nearest exit, right as Detective Johnson came following behind the chefs, dragging Jack along the floor by the handcuffs like a sack of potatoes.

“Name!” he screamed, scanning the dining room as a dozen or more guests leapt up from their seats, knocking over tables in a mass panic. Glasses shattered, women screamed, the jazz band died. Jack twisted around on the carpet and spotted a rather lanky man reaching for something beneath the reception stand.

“Pierre!” he cried out, and pointed. Johnson connected the line of sight, then dived behind a table as a wave of gunfire exploded. He rolled behind another, trailed by a ceaseless blaze of bullets that ravaged the table and tablecloth, shattering more glass and spewing chunks of ceramic plate everywhere. There was a brief pause, then a nearly inaudible click.

Johnson sprang up from the floor and leveled his gun.

“Freeze!” he cried, as Pierre tossed his machine gun aside, bolting for the exit. Johnson abandoned his black water pistol and started to run. Seeing that Pierre was about to take cover in the frantic crowd, Johnson grabbed two skewers off a service tray and stabbed them through a platter of boiled lobsters. He swung around, knocked over a few glasses of wine, and skimmed his makeshift shish kebabs over a candelabra.

“Hey Pierre!” he yelled. Foolishly, the other man turned from halfway across the room, just as Johnson launched both flaming skewers spinning through the air and straight into his chest. Pierre gasped wordlessly as he caught fire, then promptly fell over dead.

“Adieu,” Johnson muttered, and poured himself some bubbly.

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