The smell of death hung about the old man, pungent and potent. A subtle mixture of pea soap, talcum powder, and feces; it was like a signal of the man’s advanced years and decaying ability to care for himself. He sat each day on the lonely park bench, muttering to himself of times long since past. Many in the neighborhood knew of the old man, though few knew him personally. His gray flannel jacket and suspender bound pants where as much a part of his being as the wrinkles in his skin and the glazed, milky eyes through which he watched the world move on around him. At his side was one of his sole companions, and old can with a tarnished silver handle in the shape of an eagle’s head. For long hours each day he would sit by himself, gazing ahead seemingly unaware of the existence of a world beyond his little patch of park. The old man’s solitude was hardly ever long lived in those days. As the weather improved and May’s early warmth enticed the mother in the area to shoo their children outside to play, the old man slowly began to grow an audience.
Jimmy Walker was the first of the children to sit beside the old man and listen to him. Jimmy, who would die at the age of sixty five by a heart attack, was often the outcast among the children of the area. He happened, by chance, to find the old man one day as he was chasing ineffectually after one of the squirrels that made its home in the manicured trees of the park. At first he mistook the old man’s talking for a question directed at him. When his responses where unanswered, Jimmy started to move on. He was held back, however, by the sudden shout of “Get down!” that escaped the elderly gentleman’s lips. Jimmy looked around in confusion before realizing that the withered fellow on the bench was engaged in a conversation with some invisible audience, speaking in short and broken sentences of something that happened when he was in the war. Though he was at first impelled to leave the old man be Jimmy found himself fascinated by the progression of the story. The child stood listening for a while before being shaken back to the reality of the park by his mother’s voice, calling clearly for him to return home.
Jimmy returned the next day, cautiously approaching the old man.
“Excuse me sir, do you mind if I listen to your story again?” His voice was timid, but hopeful.
“I suppose it all really began in the second year. We were stationed outside of France awaiting orders from our superiors…” The man’s response was strange, but at the same time a confirmation of Jimmy’s request. The lad made himself comfortable on the grass before the elder and listened with uncommon focus to the story that flowed over the old man’s lips.
Jimmy was the first, but was not alone for long. On the third day he was joined by a young girl by the name of Sarah Cartes. She would be found dead at the age of twenty-seven, face down in a pool of her own blood in a sleazy motel on the outskirts of Boston. The police would never find the murderer. Sarah was curious as to what was captivating Jimmy to such a degree. She silently took a seat on the grass next to him, unknowingly silent out of some strange respect for the speaker. The two children listened attentively for the remainder of the afternoon, not leaving until their mother’s voices filled the air angrily with threats of withheld dessert.
It went on in that fashion for weeks; each day the number of children growing and the old man’s tale captivating them for hours at a time. Their parents began to wonder at the unusual quiet that settled about the park, but where, for a time, content to let the old man entertain the children, seeing it as a reprieve from the usual mayhem. When asked by their parents what the old man spoke about, all they would ever give were elusive answers of “stuff he did,” or “nothing really.” A few adults tried to sit and listen to him speak, but found it hard to understand what the man was saying or trying to describe. More than a few tried to engage their children in other activities during that time, but were met with stubborn refusal to participate or uninterested dismissal of the proposed exercise. One boy, Billy Watson, who would committee suicide at the age of thirty-four after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live, was enrolled in a daytime activity program at the local YMCA. He snuck out of class, hopped a bus, and was found later amongst the rest of the children in the park that evening.
Each day for three months the children would gather around the man like pigeons around and old lady throwing breadcrumbs on the ground. Concern built among the parents, but none could find any real reason to distrust the elderly fellow or his rambling stories of the war and life in better times.
It was at the beginning of August that the children began to return home earlier than usual. Each day their time spent with the man was reduced steadily by half-hour segments. The old man, it seemed, was beginning to wind down his tales. At the same time, his sentences became more disjointed, an obvious struggle preceding each thought. Their form began to break down as well, complex sentences being replaced more and more by simple statements. This didn’t seem to trouble or annoy the children any though. One boy by the name of Marshal Ramones, who would pass in his sleep of natural causes at the ripe age of eighty-seven, would go on to become an award winning writer whose works was composed entirely of stylistically simple sentences. He would credit an amazing story he once heard delivered in that style as his source of inspiration.
Towards the middle of the month the sessions with the old man started dropping below fifteen minutes each, leaving the children to play half heartedly for the remainder of the day. By the twentieth each telling was composed of less than a few paragraphs of disjointed words. During this time there was an incident in which a girl who had a dentist appointment at the time became entire distraught and close to suicidal upon learning that she had missed the old man’s few sentences for that day as a result of traffic. Michelle Lannings, the girl in question, would be killed at twenty-one in a head on collision with another car somewhere south of Detroit.
As of the twenty-seventh, each day’s story consisted of only a few words. Words that the kids could be overheard repeating to themselves for the remainder of the day as if they were religious chants upon whose constant utterances salvation rested.
On the thirtieth, the old man sat before his congregation and, after building up for nearly a half hour, uttered a single word.
Mathew Hamilton, one of the boys present, would later go on to found a cult movement based on the belief that this life is a dream that comes before waking up in the real world, and that all people are born in this world at the age they will live to in the next and age in reverse until they “wake up” in the next life. He would be found dead of an overdose in his beachside mansion at the age of zero.
On the thirty-first, all of the children gathered around the old man and his silver handled cane. They sat with silent attention to the man before them. The old man seemed to regard his captive audience through foggy, unseeing eyes. For a long time he was absolutely still, the faint wheezing of his breath being the only sign of life within him. The sun rose slowly into the sky above the children, passing overhead before starting it’s slow decent towards the distant horizon. All around them the city noise seemed to fade into the background; muted against the sound of each individual breath and anticipating heartbeat. Red and orange light streaked across the sky, blended with deep purples and pinks. Finally the man stirred. His chest swelled outwards as air rushed into his lungs. The children all sat up, caught in rapturous attention. With a rattling of his lungs, the old man exhaled a long sigh. A sigh that seemed, to the children, to carry an immense weight with it. And then the evening fell silent. Slowly, one by one, the children rose without a word and made their ways back to their perspective homes.
None of the children returned to the park the next day. The old man’s body was discovered just after noon by a patrolling police officer. He was found sitting on the bench, vacant eyes staring ahead into nothingness, cane at his side, and mouth hanging ajar. The smell of death hung about him, pungent and potent.
It was raining when she came into my small office on the fifth floor. I could tell right away that this broad was going to be trouble. I glanced up at the lady in the slinky red dress and tipped my hat back with one finger. Trouble was written all up and down her. I barely had time to react as she drew the gun from her dress. How she fit that thing in there was a mystery to me. Barely had time to register that it was a beam of light she fired at me and not a slug of hot lead.
When I come to, I can tell something is wrong. My head throbs and my tail is bent at an odd angle. What is odder is that I have a tail. I scratch my head and discovered that my hat has been torn rather badly, leaving two large holes on either side that my ears fit through nicely. I feel my ears for a moment. They certainly hadn't been so tall and pointed this morning. With a slight groan I pull myself into a sitting position. My shirt is unusually tight for some reason. Things are falling into place. Other things are hanging off my chest uncomfortably. There is something wrong, I can tell. Years of detective work have trained my senses to pick up the most crucial details. It is then that I hear her voice behind me.
"I see you’ve finally woken up, Lu. I've been waiting for this moment for years"
"That voice." Her name hangs in my throbbing head, just out of reach.
"Glad to see you remember me."
"Moxie. Moxie Valentine. I thought you were dead"
"Yeah, well you thought wrong."
My mind is starting to clear. Yeah, it is all coming back to me. Late July, nearly twenty years ago. I had met her by the old docks to finish our business. I had come alone as planned. She hadn't. I could still remember the look on her face when she ordered her men to open fire. I knew that any love we had shared had been a farce. I had drawn my gun and trained it on her. I almost hesitated. Had wished for twenty years I had. The bullet went straight through her heart. Or, at least, I thought it had.
"So, Mox, how did you do it?"
"Don't call me that. You gave up the right to call me that when you shot me."
"As I recall, you shot me first."
I hear her footsteps behind me. She is coming closer. There is a snap as harsh lights come on, flooding the room and revealing my situation. All around me the walls are papered with news clippings. My name appears in almost all of them. Every one of my cases since I quit the force. Twenty years of my history. Good lord! I have breasts!
"What did you do to me Mox?"
"Just a little gift from an old friend"
She is right behind me now. I wait for the blow to the back of the head. She has been waiting twenty years for this; I can't imagine she will wait much longer.
"So Moxie, what's with the little scrap book of my exploits since we parted ways?"
"Well, it took a while for me to recover from that bullet wound, Lu. A long while. So I occupied myself down here. Kept track of the life you were leading. The one I could have lead. If only... If only you hadn't stuck your nose in too far"
That's right Lu, keep her talking. Keep her talking till you find a way out of this mess.
"Listen Moxie. I didn't know you were involved with The Benders. But even if I had, I still would have turned you in. You would have done the same in my position."
"No, Lu. I wouldn't have. I tired. I really tried to keep you out of it. Placed clues for you to find. Red herrings to lead you off the trail. But you just wouldn't quit. We could have had a life together. Could have been happy... But that is all in the past. Twenty years, Lu. Twenty years of a broken heart that just won't mend. Twenty years to get my revenge."
"And just what do you have in mind? Turning me into... into a foxy dame? It's not your style Moxie."
She is standing still now. Laughing to herself. I still haven't seen a way out of this one. The only door in this place must be behind me. With her between me and it. Not even sure I could run given my new center of balance. Maybe I can convince her to let me go. Maybe I can work my charm and remind her why she loved me in the first place.
"No, no that part wasn't my idea. That was the Boss’. She has a thing for you, Lu. Rest assured, my revenge will be much straighter forward."
Her hand sets down on my shoulder. It's now or never Lu. Now or-
I wake up again. My head is throbbing again; this time from the wound whatever she hit me with left. It is brighter here. I open my eyes and close them again. Slowly I open them to a squint. A spot light shines right in my face.
"Sorry bout that Lu. I would have warned you, but then you would have tried to escape."
"You know me too well Mox. You sure we couldn't make it work again?"
"No, Lu. It couldn't work again. Never again."
The light snaps off and I get a good look at my surroundings. The room is small, square. I seem to be at the center, tied to a chair. Moxie is in front of me, standing next to the spotlight. Next to her is a face I never thought I would see again.
"Lykan McGee. Fancy meeting you here"
She smiles, showing off those predatory canines of hers. She was known as the Wolf of New York for a reason.
"Nice to see you remembered me."
"How could I forget a face like that, Doll."
It was all falling into place now. Moxie had tried to kill me the last time I got too close to Lykan. Now she had brought me right to her. I can't help but wonder why they decided to move now. I have been out of the game for years. A has been. A washed up PI barely making his rent on low key adulatory cases and finding missing cats.
"And I could never forget yours either, Jack. You came closer than anyone else to blowing my operation into the open. Dangerously close. But that is all ancient history, isn’t it?"
"Cut to the chase, McGee. I got cases sitting on my desk. Why me, why now?"
"Ah, but that is just it. You do have cases sitting on your desk. But they are hardly worth working on. In fact, you haven't had a real case in years. That is why I decided to go for it now. Nobody will miss you."
I didn't like the sound of this. Back in the day, I had colleagues end up at the bottom of the Hudson because they got to close to New York's Wolf. She had it out for me alright. And there was nothing I could do to save my skin.
"Well, I guess you better get it over with then, huh? What will it be? Cement shoes, like O’Connor? Or will it be an accidental death. Burn my apartment down after falling asleep with a cigarette in my hand?"
Lykan laughed at that one. That was never a good sign.
"Lu, I have no intention of killing you. In fact, just the opposite. You see, I have the hardest time keeping my skilled men. They keep getting it into their heads that they can make it on their own. Obviously I can't just let them leave. Not with everything they know. But it does hurt my operation when I have to bring in fresh blood every couple months."
I can't believe what I hearing. The biggest shark in the north east is offering me a job? I can't even begin to consider it. The thought alone sickens me.
"I would like to hire you on in a permanent capacity as one of my hands. You have skill. Wasted skill. If you could find me, then you can find so many of my enemies. Of course, you couldn't do this as your old self. Which is why I had my associate alter your appearance. So, what do you say?"
"And if I refuse?"
She grins. Oh, that grin. It is enough to melt your insides. I swear she is sizing me up for the proper pan to use later, once the oven is preheated.
"If you refuse, then I let Valentine have her way with you. I understand she has spent a good part of the last fifteen years building up a large collection of rather poisonous reptiles. And their anti-venoms."
Moxie is grinning now too.
"They say the recovery from the black mamba is the most painful part."
I swallow hard. Somehow I knew this wasn't actually a choice on my part.
"So, you want me to do some digging around for you? What’s it pay?"
I am sweating like one of my whisky bottles left out on a hot day. Did I really just ask Lykan, The Wolf, McGee how much she is paying? This is insane. But... Hell. Sane hasn't been working out to hot for me of late.
"The pay is better than you can imagine. Living expenses and enough to keep Moxie occupied with other pursuits."
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