Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and fifty.
Tonight we present Mulligan Smith in Trial and Error
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Talk Nerdy 2 Me
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age - three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Mulligan Smith, PI, finds himself matching wits with an apparent psychic.
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Mulligan straightened his tie and shifted his weight to his left hip in an effort to make the joyless wooden chair more bearable.
The courtroom’s air conditioning was running at a blast that had the smattering of retirees in the gallery whispering complaints about frostbite, but the private investigator considered the inside of his black wool suit an oven. Smith had hated formal wear since his mother had first forced him into a double-breasted vest for his sixth grade Christmas pageant.
Glibert March, the defense attorney, was a suspenders snapper, and his slow pacing around his desktop’s worth of handwritten notes had given Mulligan plenty of time to bake.
It was little help that the faux-wood-paneled room had had a printed sign taped to the door insisting on no outside food or beverages. The cherry slurpee the detective had abandoned, he reflected, would have brought down his temperature as well as help wet his increasingly arid throat.
Finally, rocking back on his heels, the white-haired lawyer asked, “is it true that you hold a vendetta against psychics, sir?”
Smith shrugged. “Well, it’s true that I’ve run across a few, and that it doesn’t usually end well for them, but it’s mostly just that occasionally I get lucky and stumble across work that isn't a husband with loose pants or an insurance fraud gig. I don’t have anything against kleptomaniacs either, unless they steal something.”
The red and white elastics holding up March’s pants were made taut by their owner’s thumbs.
“My understanding is that your client has given mine a full apology? Mrs. Helms certainly doesn’t seem to think he’s guilty.”
Wilbur Underwood, the defendant and a man with a mall Santa’s smile and beard, nodded emphatically at his counsel.
“My client,” answered Mulligan, “is under the mistaken impression that her dead mother is upset with her for having caused a fuss. She refuses to say where she got the notion, but I don’t think it takes a telepath to guess.”
March smirked and asked, “isn’t it also true that she feels you did nothing and refuses to settle your invoice? Could it simply be the case that you’re bitter at the loss of a paycheck?”
“We’re here in a criminal court because Capital City’s finest deemed it necessary to get Mr. Underwood off the street and away from the old ladies he was bilking. Do I like Wilbur? No, but it has little to do with the meals I’ll be missing and more to do with his lying, cheating, robbery, misrepresentation, and extortion.”
The pseudo-Santa snorted an outraged, “Ho!”
“Save it for the Ramones, pal,” answered Smith. “Let me be clear as to why I’m here: We’re talking about a grown man who loafs around his half-million-dollar condo until lonely people with emotional issues punch their credit card numbers into his automatic billing system and his phone rings. Maybe they miss a dead loved one, maybe they’re fretting over their own mortality, maybe they’re just lonely - whatever the case, they give Underwood a call and he answers with that soft burr of a grandpa voice.
“I can almost forgive him for the solitary folks - he’s getting paid, sure, but at least he’s keeping them company for the money. Even the usual ‘did you have a loved one who died of cancer? Was there an ‘E’ in their name?’ stuff is relatively harmless, if expensive.
“No, it’s the house setup that gets me. His ‘vision walks’ in which he asks the poor schmuck to picture their home.
“We’re at the front door,’ he says, ‘push it open. I’m in your mind with you, but to keep our connection strong you should tell me what you see. What are the things that matter most to you here - how do you see them? WHERE do you see them?’
“Ten minutes later they’re telling him about how sad Grandma’s string of pearls makes them, or how they still worry about the fight they had over the jade family heirloom they once had appraised on the Antiques Roadshow.”
“You’re well aware that it’s part of his technique,” answered March, “he asks it of nearly all his clients.”
“Yeah, and I wonder how annoyed he gets if all they focus on are family albums? Probably not as annoyed as the people who discover, a few weeks after they’ve hopefully forgotten the details of their session, that they’ve suffered a strangely precise B&E - and wouldn’t you know it, the object of their anxiety is no longer there. Is that how you allegedly better your client’s lives, Mr. Underwood?”
There was a legal scrimmage then, between the prosecutor, the judge, and the now red faced March. Mulligan regretted that it meant more time in the suit, but, before he could inquire about locating a turkey baster, the low murmuring broke up and details were deemed stricken from the record.
Again calm, the defense lawyer rolled back in his loafers and continued his interrogation.
His tone, however, had gained a hint of righteousness.
“You're telling me you've come in here in your twenty dollar suit to shake down this poor man on the basis of a series of unfortunate coincidences?
“Wilbur’s generosity is well known throughout his neighbourhood. When he hired me on I was invited to a party in his home that seemed brimming with good cheer and friends who he had only helped better. ”
The lawyer’s voice grew hushed and thick. “You do not trust his line of work? Fine, but you cannot deny that it brings a certain whimsy and warmth to the lives of those he touches. A little something more - you might even say, a little something otherworldly?”
The private investigator’s eyes briefly widened, and he asked, “you seriously believe in him, don’t you?”
“Listen, I don’t care what Underwood does to make himself feel better, but I believe you when you tell me that he holds parties after ‘allegedly’ doing things like pawning Mrs. Helms’ dead sister’s earrings.
“You implied I was wasting my client’s money during the weeks I was following Underwood on his errands - well, let me tell you about an incident I witnessed just before things really hit the fan.”
“I don’t think -” began March, but Mulligan interrupted:
“It involves a Horizon Blue 1960 Corvette convertible.”
Smith paused then, yet his inquisitor simply raised his left brow and sent his thumbs in search of his released suspenders.
The detective tugged at his tie and began. “I had trailed Wilbur to a Whole Foods, which was weird for a bunch of reasons, including that it was on the far side of town from where he usually bought groceries, and that he rarely seemed to cook anything beyond those oven mini-pizzas anyhow.
“Wilbur is an eatin’ out kinda guy.
“Anyhow, it was maybe 8:30PM and a beautiful evening; warm with a hint of a breeze, and exactly the sort of night a classic car nut waits for to cruise with the top down.
“Even though the lot was mostly empty the Corvette was parked way back from the lights to keep it safe from being dinged by a rushing soccer mom’s minivan. Fifteen minutes after our arrival, Mr. Corvette returns with a bag in one hand and his keys in the other.
“From a few rows behind him, Grampy Underwood steps forward shouting, ‘sir, sir!’
“The shopper turns, but Wilbur gives him a worried look and rushes right past.
“As the mock psychic hustles around the ‘vette’s trunk a hooligan of maybe eighteen suddenly jumps up wearing full action-flick-burglar duds, balaclava included, and sprints away while trying to tuck a lock jimmy into his pants.
“Nothing’s actually happened of course, but the owner says, ‘wow, you’ve saved me from a world of despair.’
“‘Sometimes I get certain - feelings -’ replies Underwood, already starting into his patter.
“The whole arrangement cost him a hundred bucks, a free reading for a store clerk he knew, and a bit of internet research. I know because I was a half-block back when Underwood originally picked the masked kid up, and later on I had to offer twice as much to get the little bugger to narc on him.
”What I really want to know, though, is how long it took Wilbur to mention he needed a lawyer, and how big a discount he talked you into for supposedly saving your roadster, Mr. March?”
It would be the end of the detective’s testimony, but the remainder of the trial did not go well for Underwood.
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