Story by J. D. Brink / Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
Even among the sweaty bodies, the overdose of perfume and cologne, and the stink of cigarettes, I can still smell the Irishman’s pipe smoke. There is something sweet about it, like orange peel and cinnamon. To be honest, it’s a welcome bloom in the wretched bouquet of the Friday night crowd, out to get drunk at the very least, and lucky if they can manage it. That’s why he’s come here, no doubt. He knows how to play the odds, and he likes easy sport. And smoking that stupid pipe of his makes him easy prey—for me.
I follow my nose and my instincts. And with the moon nearly full, I’m at the top of my game.
He’s at the bar, pawing at a flapper in a flowery headband. Some fashions just won’t die, I guess.
That goes for his suit, too. Raincoats and fedoras are all the rage today, not that I’m some department store window clerk. But Red’s still sporting duds from the Old Country: dark green, three-piece suit; a bowler cocked on his high-running forehead; and an ornate, serpentine pipe clenched in his teeth. His ginger beard is trimmed neat, at least. Archaic though his look may be, the flapper is going for it. Poor dame ain’t got the sense to know a predator when she sees one. Not that he’d hurt the girl, but a guy like him… She might wake up and find her granny’s heirlooms are suddenly missing, part of his collection stashed away where hands may never find them.
I slide up on the other side of the girl and grin wolfishly over her shoulder. The Irishman’s smile fades out fast, as does some of his rosy color. The flapper doesn’t notice, she just keeps talking. I can smell the scotch he’s been feeding her.
“Excuse me,” I say, holding my private dick badge over her shoulder. She gets a glimpse at it, then eyeballs the Irishman and slinks away.
“What the hell do you want?” he asks venomously. “I’m trying to have a good time, here.”
“I noticed,” I say, pocketing my credentials. “And you can get right back to stalking divorcées, after you give it over.”
“Give what over?”
I cock a weary eyebrow. “Come on, Red. The Crone sent me. She knows what you found. And I’m not saying it’s fair that she takes it, but fair don’t pay the bills, and I work for a living. Besides, you’ll find another.”
I can tell by the look on his face that he’s sizing me up. He’s wondering if he could he outrun me.
The answer is, no, he couldn’t.
Could he put up a fight? Certainly not. Red’s known for his luck, but it ain’t that good.
Maybe he can bribe me?
“You know, I’ve got deep pockets.” He flashes me an uneasy grin and produces a shiny gold coin from nowhere. He clinks it hard onto the bar with one stubby finger. “Real deep.” A second from the same hand. A third. “How much could the Crone possibly be paying you?”
“Like I said, I work for a living. Can’t claim to be a professional if everyone can just buy you off the job.”
He opens his hand and spills four more onto the counter. The bartender’s taken notice now, as has the big mook standing behind the Irishman. Guy looks like he might be a veteran: shorthair, no neck, chip on his shoulder.
The gleam in Red’s eyes turns sly. “What’s the date today?” he asks. “Fairly bright out there tonight, eh? But the moon, I fear, ain’t full quite yet…”
He stands backward off his stool, stumbling into the neckless soldier-boy. Swooping the bowler from his brow, Red goes into a little dance and spins the hat in his hand. “Gentlemen! And maybe even some of you ladies. This man is bothering me. The gold on the bar goes to whomever can put a collar on this dog. And double it if he has to limp home!”
With that, the Irishman yanks a fistful of coins from his bowler and throws them right at me. The soldier’s fist quickly follows, and someone kicks my left knee out from under me.
The jovial bar scene erupts into a brawl and the Irishman is well gone by the time it’s over.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next day, I meet the Crone for coffee. The shop she frequents is a classy one, boasting its own superior roast. I must admit, they’ve got something special brewing in that pot of joe. The smell of it overpowers even the greasy sizzle of bacon in my sensitive snout.
But there’s something else in the air here, too, and I can’t quite place it…
Selene is seated in the dead center of the place, set up at a circular table barely big enough for two. The Crone, despite her professional moniker, appears to be a young woman in her perpetual twenties. Her luscious black hair curls like an overgrown thorn bush. Her eyes and lips are a powerful shade of violet. And while her black dress covers her pale flesh well, the fit is seductively tight. As fashion goes, she’s starting her own trend with that one.
I plop into the opposite chair and she glances up from stirring her coffee. Her lilac perfume slaps me in the face, but that isn’t the scent I’m most concerned about. Our table is uniquely adorned with a small porcelain vase. Standing tall from within is a sturdy green stem lined with purple flowers. It was their scent I picked up coming in and it stings my nostrils even more than the pot of java.
“Wolfsbane?” I say. “You shouldn’t have.”
Her long fingers cross the table and caress my hand. “I knew it was your time of the month, Lawrence, and didn’t want you to get cranky. Besides, they match my color palette today.”
“How thoughtful.” Aside from being poisonous, the flowers also restrict my talents. Now that I’m so close, it’s like the pollen is invading my body. I taste the stuff and feel like I’ve been brought low by severe allergies.
“That’s a nice shiner you’ve got there,” she goes on. “You look a little worse for wear, today.”
“I am a bit sore,” I admit. “But I’m still on the job.”
She tsks her tongue. “I’m beginning to lose faith in you.”
“Don’t. I always close the deal, Selene, and I’ll close this one. Tonight’s the night.”
“You sure he’s still in town?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
It’s part of the dance, a game we’re far too old for. I know she keeps her own tabs, maybe even some high-level hocus pocus, but she’s not as good as I am. Selene has her specialties, I have mine.
I nod toward a flyer tacked to the café bulletin board. “Street fair tonight, and our boy likes to socialize. He’ll be there.”
“I hope so, Lawrence,” she says, loudly sipping from her cup of joe. “A woman in my profession can ruin a reputation rather easily, even one as good as yours. Speaking of which…” She looks past me. I turn to see a skinny, balding man with his pants hiked up way too far, just coming in. He surveys the place with an anxious, desperate hope in his eyes, crumpling his fedora in sweat hands. “I believe my next appointment has just arrived.”
“Hair tonic or love potion?” I grumble.
“Shoo now,” she says, waving the backs of her fingers at me. “I’ll see you tomorrow, right here, same time. And don’t come in with empty paws, Lawrence.”
On the way out, I grab her new client’s hand, shake the hell out of it, and pretend to recognize him from an insurance seminar. I tell him how good he looks and ask about his wife. He’s thoroughly confused but obviously flattered, and I feign shock when he says he’s never married. I tell him there’ll be lots of costumed nurses and friendly witches on the street tonight, all looking for a sharp-dressed man to have a drink with. “Tonight’s your night,” I tell him, then walk out.
I hope I’ve given his confidence a little boost, just enough to ruin the Crone’s business for today.
— ♦♦♦ —
The cobblestone lanes are full of people tonight, most of them dressed up. The general theme is short capes and harlequin masks, just fun dress-up stuff, though here and there are costume enthusiasts with more originality. I spy a Little Red Riding Hood showing some leg and it makes me smile.
There are strings of colorful lanterns, junk food vendors lining the barricaded streets, and plenty of beer bottles in-hand. I smell pilsners and ale, beef kabobs, grilled sausage and onions, and three flavors of Macy’s most popular perfumes.
This is a stakeout. It may take time, but I’m confident my prey will show up. So I watch from corners for a while, then alternate swimming through the currents, catching tidbits of war stories, ball games, and office gossip. And pickup lines that never work.
I hear someone pitching such a line, and detect the familiar smoke of cinnamon and orange rinds.
The Irishman’s leaning against the brick face of a local bar. Tonight’s suit is a brighter of shade of green than last night. I’m reminded of a movie from a few years back, like he’s a maître d’ from The Wizard of Oz. He’s talking to a woman in emerald tights with a feather in her cap; a real beauty and a tall drink of water. Way too tall for him. She’s giving him the cold shoulder, but he’s choosing to ignore it.
Must not have been completely distracted by her, though. By the time I dart around some laughing partygoers, Red’s on the move.
But no way he’s faster than me. Not tonight.
So the hunt is on.
It only takes me a block and a half to catch up, and it’s easy to tangle his feet without losing my own balance. Red goes down onto the cobblestones. The crowd splashes open like stomping into a shallow puddle, everyone jumping away just enough to let us square away our differences. But it’s still thick enough to keep the local flatfoots from getting a good look. I’ll have time to work, but not much.
The Irishman rolls over rubbing his arms and complaining of pain. I straddle the little man and grab him by his jade-colored necktie.
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” he moans. “It doesn’t belong to her. You call yourself a professional? It’s immoral, Larry. You’re just a mugger for hire.”
I take pause at his words, just for an instant; there may be some truth to what he says, but I’ve already taken the job.
Besides: “Morality is a discussion for the academics. I’m more concerned with professional ethics. There’s a difference,” I say, frisking him with my free hand. “But when you really boil it down, Red, I’m just a simple force of nature. The sheep might be off minding its own business, but it still gets eaten when the wolf comes around. And everybody’s got to eat.”
Hidden in an inside pocket of his sport coat is a tissue carefully folded into a neat little triangle. “This isn’t your hanky, is it?”
The worry in his eyes answers for him.
Someone bumps into me from behind. And they smell like they’ve just rolled out of the gutter.
At first, I assume it’s just an accident of the busy street fair. Until a pair of cold hands fumble their way around me, and two more try to grab me by the rain coat. I spin and blindly shove back whoever it is behind me.
The stench of death hits my nose and I start to feel hazy again. Two slack-jawed yokels are too close for comfort. They look like they’ve stepped right out of a travel brochure, dressed in loud Hawaiians shirts and flowery leis. Must have been a boring trip, though; their eyes stare off into nothingness, their faces are expressionless, and they obviously haven’t bathed in a very long time.
No, it’s worse than that. Their skin is too pale, eyes too milky to just be drunk, and their stink too horrible for them to still be living. Wherever they’re coming from, it was a lot rougher trip than just the Pacific. They’re coming from the far side of the River Styx. And yet, they’ve come prepared. Entwined among the random pansy blossoms around their necks are some familiar, purple flowers: wolfsbane.
“Selene!” I shout, shoving one dead man away by the face.
The Irishman slips free and takes off. Three more dead Hawaiian tourists break from the throng and limp after him.
The streets are too densely packed for him to get far. Red’s slippery, but not that slippery.
My two dancing partners clumsily try to grapple with me. This being my time of the month, as Selene put it, I’m short on patience, and her pulling this stunt has spent all I had. Having two dead guys slap fighting and trying to take a bite out of me would normally send me over the moon, if it weren’t for those damn leis.
One grabs my left arm in both hands and bites down, only the sleeve of my trench coat blunting his teeth. The other seems to want brains for dinner, and his mouth comes too close to my face. I punch him in the stomach but it holds like a dried drum. Stumbling backward to escape proves futile with bystanders clamoring around behind me. One complains when beer spills on his new costume, then a few more scream. They must have suddenly noticed the rotten cannibals in their midst.
Changing directions, I surge forward. One corpse trips and goes down, freeing my right hand for punching the other in the head. He lets go and drops to the ground, but won’t stay there long.
The partygoers are starting to back away now too, opening an arena for the fight. But kicking and punching only delay the dead.
While one is crawling back up, I slip the lei from over his head and toss it over a girl close by. She’s mortified.
I bounce the second zombie into the bystanders and he gets churned away into the movement of the human wall behind him. I’ve got enough space away from the wolfsbane now, and probably only seconds before some flatfoot shows up.
“Ready to see my costume, folks?” I ask the circle of onlookers. They cheer, probably thinking I’m going to strip down and streak the party. Then I show them, and they’re all screaming and surging in the opposite direction.
I’m all fur, claws, and teeth in one-point-five seconds. My clothes are restrictive now, especially these damn leather shoes, but I don’t have time to undress. One slash of my claws opens the belly of the lei-less zombie. His innards are stuffed with flowers, herbs, and talismans. I yank a handful out into the street and he goes back to sleep, permanently. The other zombie is lost in the tumult of panicking partygoers now, and I’m happy to leave it that way.
I scan the cobblestones for my prize, but there’s too much random garbage lying around. Did I drop the tissue, or did the Irishman grab it again before he fled? I could try to find it here, or chase after Red. I’m fairly sure he doesn’t have it, so no real reason to go after him. Other than possibly saving his butt. Do I care that much?
I wriggle out of my jacket and shoes, pop a few buttons off my shirt for comfort, and bound after Red’s scent on all fours. Navigating the rush of people is easy from behind. I either dodge past them or just knock them aside.
Red has run down an alley and found a brick wall. Three color-clad Hawaiians are doing the braindead two-step, closing on him fast. I leap into the alley and pause—no smell of wolfsbane. That’s why these three were holding back, to allow the first two to grab me.
Disassembling them is easy.
The Irishman’s cowering like hell now. His feet keep pedaling backward but that wall ain’t going anywhere. Not such a wise guy now, I want to say, but my jaws can’t form words. I growl instead and close on him real slow.
“I don’t have it!” he yells, eyes so wide they just might burst. He’s got both hands in the air, twinkling his fingers. “You took it! You have it! Please, Lawrence, I don’t have it…” His volume crashes into whimpering.
I sniff him good, my wet nose brushing his bristly cheek while his eyes clench behind their lids.
When he opens them, I’m sitting in front of him like the family dog. Ethics and morals, I want to say. Everything about this deal has suddenly changed.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Crone’s favorite coffee shop isn’t as busy the next day. Seems something’s got the locals spooked and most of them are staying safe at home today.
A waiter in a green tie brings her something special: a little blue bottle. “On the house, ma’am,” he says politely, though she’s too busy watching me come in to pay much attention.
“You look surprised to see me, Selene,” I say, sitting down.
She blinks away her shock and instead puts on her annoying little tease routine. “Not at all, Lawrence. I was hoping you’d show up. Did you bring my item?”
I hesitate. The silence is more uncomfortable for her than for me.
“You mean your friends from Hawaii didn’t bring it back for you last night?” I ask.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You don’t?” I growl. “You mean you didn’t stuff five bodies with Grandma’s secret recipe and send them to cut me off?”
“I asked you a question, Crone.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snaps. She fiddles nervously with the blue bottle on the table. “I suppose I did. It was your fault, Lawrence, you’re the one who gave me doubts.”
“I’m a professional,” I tell her. “And that was some very unprofessional double-play you tried to pull over on me.”
“Well, did you get it or not?”
I place a folded triangle of tissue on the table and hold it down with a rather pointy fingernail. “Where’s the other half of my money?”
She produces a rubber-banded roll of bills from beneath the table. We trade.
“What the hell is this?” she screeches, holding the little green clover between forefinger and thumb. “This only has three leaves! I was told he’d found a four.”
“I did,” says the waiter behind her. The Irishman pulls up a chair and sits down. “But thanks to you, ma’am, it’s lost again. I do have other precious little treasures in my stash, though. Like that.” He gestures toward the small blue bottle in front of her.
She snatches it up, her youthful face beginning to show its true age in anger. She examines it savagely and sticks it too close to her eye, peering inside. Poof, Selene vanishes in a puff of azure smoke, the vapors drawn instantly into the bottle.
I catch it in midair and Red inserts a matching glass stopper into its mouth.
“Genie bottle,” he quips. “I thought she’d like it.”
An old man stares at us over his newspaper with his mouth agape. I send him back to his obituary readings with a mere look.
“So who keeps the Crone?” Red asks.
“Your bottle,” I say, standing to leave, “she’s all yours.”
“And what about sharing some of that cash, Larry?”
“Don’t press your luck.”
“Noir is the New Black” by Paul Starkey
Illustration by John Waltrip