OMG MY BOSS IS A WEREWOLF, I KNOW, RIGHT?
by Derek Paterson
I read the announcement a second time, just to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. It was a handwritten, or I should say scrawled, on a sheet torn from a spiral notebook and taped to the locked office door. It informed me that I was now unemployed, because Mr. Harvey Rottweiler was no longer doing business at this address, and that I should contact my former boss’s accountant to claim any due wages. It was the day before payday and my former boss owed me exactly one hundred and twenty-four bucks and fifty cents. I knew his accountant, Reginald Myers. Squeezing even a single dollar out of that tight-fisted ghoul would take time and energy I just didn’t have.
“Well, isn’t this just dandy,” MaryBeth Archer said. She’d arrived a few seconds after me. “It’s just like that jerk to screw us over. How’m I gonna pay my rent this month?”
I didn’t have any answers. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent either. We were in deep doo doo up to our knees, and no one was going to help us climb out of it.
“I gotta go find another job,” she said. She turned and walked away, not looking back. She went downstairs and vanished around the landing corner. Her footsteps faded and I felt alone. I don’t think she’d even heard my mumbled, “Good luck.” Maybe that was for the best; I’d need all my good luck for myself today.
Standing there like an idiot wasn’t going to get me anything. I followed MaryBeth downstairs and out onto the street. She was already gone, lost in the crowd, the crowd of employed people heading to their jobs, collars turned up, disinterested eyes staring ahead, not even seeing me. I rubbed my hands together and blew on them, trying to put some warmth into my fingers. The coffee shop across the street beckoned to me. The least I could do was treat myself to a hot cup of java before I started my job hunt.
So there I was, sipping my coffee at a window table, watching the world hurry by, when I noticed a bunch of cards stuck to the glass just inside the door. They were “situations vacant” job ads. Put there by people too cheap or too broke to pay for an ad in the newspapers, I guess. Some were sales jobs; the wording was subtle but they mostly suggested I’d need a good pair of shoes since a lot of door-to-door walking was involved. Another was looking to hire people to work in a fish canning factory, protective clothing would be provided, must not be allergic to fish. Had I ever considered a career in cleaning floors? I had not, but right now, with only loose change left in my purse, it sounded pretty good.
Then my eyes alighted on the prize. Wanted, personal secretary. Principal duties, answer telephones, take shorthand, make coffee. Must be good-looking. Apply in person to the following address.
Must be good-looking. I chuckled to myself, wondering what loser had come up with that ad. At least they hadn’t written it like a semi-illiterate child on its first day in school. Capital letters, yes, but neatly formed, with the first letter of each sentence taller than the rest. And perhaps the author had used a ruler to keep his lines straight. Good for him. He was still a loser and very possibly a creep, though.
But who was I kidding, if he was offering real money then I was going to apply to be his personal secretary and I was going to get that job. Unless of course he turned out to have wandering hands, in which case I might be inclined to reject his advances using the medium of my right foot coming into contact with his nether region, if you know what I mean.
Nobody even noticed me pull the card off the glass and slip it into my coat pocket. I finished my coffee and left a small tip, which helped assuage the guilt of stealing the card. I had a vague idea of where the address on the card was, and set off in that general direction. Mama had told me not to talk to strangers but after I managed to lose myself twice, I asked a newspaper seller if he knew the way. Happily for me it turned out he did. While he told me to take a left, and then a right, and then another left, I glanced at the newspaper headlines. MORE BODIES WASHED ASHORE. Guaranteed to bring tourists flocking in. I said thanks and followed his directions.
In due time I found my would-be future employer’s place of business, a run-down office block with a couple of windows on the first floor boarded up, which lent an elegance to the establishment. The offices overlooked a canning factory on the other side of the street, from which the powerfully pungent smell of fish drifted.
I let myself into a small, dark foyer. The elevator gate was closed and a cardboard sign said, USE AT YOUR OWN RISK. Dog-eared cards thumb-tacked to the door frame provided a list of the handful of companies or persons who did business here. Pretty classy. The one I wanted was at the bottom, perhaps symbolically. Richard Kruger, Private Investigations. No job too small. Competitive rates. Someone had thoughtfully added a hand-written notation, 3rd floor. I wondered if I was wasting my time. I wondered if the job had already been filled.
Just as I was thinking this, a girl perhaps my age came down the stairs. She was smart-looking with shiny auburn hair. She seemed upset, as if she’d been crying. She didn’t even look at me as she exited the building. I wondered where she’d come from. I wondered if Richard Kruger, Private Investigations, had allowed his hands to wander where they ought not to.
The old building seemed to muffle all noise, which was something I noticed as I climbed those same stairs to the third floor. From the landing I could see several doors, mostly closed. The door at the end of the hallway lay ajar, allowing a pool of light out to spill out. I approached this door with caution, because I was in a building that muffled all sound, and I didn’t know Richard Kruger. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming here, which was, I now realized, perhaps not wise. Unless I counted the newspaper seller, who hadn’t even given me a second glance. Not exactly a reliable witness when the cops came asking questions, after they found my dismembered corpse. Just when I was contemplating returning downstairs, because Mama’s voice was telling me that maybe I shouldn’t be here if I was thinking those kind of thoughts, his head appeared in the doorway. Somehow he’d heard me. I hadn’t even heard me.
“Are you here about the phones?”
“Not really,” I replied, caught by surprise. I fumbled for the card I’d slipped into my pocket. “If your name’s Kruger, I’m here about the personal secretary position.”
He smiled, revealing large, sharp-looking teeth. “You saw my card in the window.” He stepped back and gestured for me to follow him inside. He didn’t look like a creep, but it’s always hard to tell until they do something creepy. His pinstripe suit hung loosely on him as if it had been cut for someone who was several sizes bigger. Maybe he’d lost weight, or maybe he’d picked it up for a couple of bucks at a thrift store. His shirt looked clean, anyway. His dark hair was slicked back from a high forehead. He wasn’t quite what I’d call handsome. He made me think of a scruffy dog with a squished-up face that takes a liking to you, and you find yourself liking it back because it has a squished-up face and someone’s gotta give the poor mutt a break.
I stepped past him and entered his office, whose walls were unappealing bare brick. The scuffed furniture had seen better days but was still functional. Lettering on the door’s frosted glass panel said, “Parker & Kruger, Private Investigations”, only the “Parker &” had been rubbed away. I wondered what had happened to Parker. The office was partitioned into two halves. The half nearest the door had a desk with a typewriter and a telephone. Another door led into the other half dominated by a larger desk that faced two chairs. So the personal secretary sat out here, while the boss sat in there. The position of the furniture meant the boss couldn’t stare at his secretary’s behind all day long. Little things, but they added up to “tolerable”.
“What’s wrong with the phones?” I asked.
“I keep getting crossed lines when I pick up the receiver. Someone mumbling about a racehorse. The phone company said they’d send someone to check it out. I’m Richard Kruger. Call me Dick. I didn’t catch your name?”
“Jane Montgomery,” I told Dick, trying not to giggle. “I met a girl downstairs in the lobby. She didn’t look too happy. Was that your doing?”
Dick frowned. Maybe he was trying to remember. Or maybe he was thinking up a lie, as men so often do. I was prepared to disbelieve anything that came out of his mouth, but he shrugged and said, “Yeah, maybe. I didn’t mean to upset her.”
Curiouser and curiouser. “What did you say?”
“I just asked her when her baby was due. She got all weepy and got up and left. How was I to know she didn’t know?”
I guessed she must have said or done something to clue him in. Or maybe she was just sensitive about putting on a couple of pounds and being mistaken for a pregnant woman.
“Why don’t you come in and take a seat?”
If he was going to attack me then he would do it in the inner office, with both doors closed. Then again maybe he wasn’t planning on doing that. Maybe he was a nice guy. I have some trust issues. I tried not to let them interfere with the fact I desperately needed money.
“Leave the doors open, will you?” I said.
“Is the smell that bad?” He sniffed the air and I realized he meant the stink from the cannery. The thought that I might end up working over there if I didn’t get this job didn’t fill me with joy. I entered his office and sat down in one of the chairs. He left the doors open.
“I don’t have my resume with me,” I said. “For which I apologize. I came here directly after I saw your job ad.”
He sat down behind his desk and opened drawers and took out a notebook. From inside his jacket he took a pen, which he uncapped. He wrote something in the notebook. My first name, and the date. A promising start. “Well, Jane, maybe you could just tell me about your job experience?”
This I did, starting with my lowly beginnings in retail, selling knock-off clothes to the discerning lady shopper, and advancing to my lofty position as junior office clerk for Mr. Harvey Rottweiler, self-styled entrepreneur and dirty rat. As I spoke, my potential employer wrote more stuff down on his notepad. I thought he was intensely interested in what I was saying, going by his nods and his grunts, but when he shifted position I caught a glimpse of the notepad page. He was doodling what looked like dog heads. So he liked dogs, maybe that was a point in his favor? I wondered what would happen if I started talking about how I planned to do some laundry when I got home, and maybe clean the fridge. Would he even notice?
The building muffled sound, and that was how the man I came to know as Rocco Vincenza was able to make his way up to the office of Richard Kruger, Private Investigations, without my knowing he was there. The first clue I got was when Dick stared at the doorway and bared his teeth. I looked back over my shoulder and there was this big guy, so big his shoulders seemed stuck in the door frame. My legs wanted to start running, but where would they run to? This solid lump of muscle was blocking the only exit. The window wasn’t an option, three floors up.
“Mickey warned you to keep out of his business,” the big guy said in a voice made of coarse gravel, the kind that crunches underfoot and skins your knees when you trip and fall. He pulled out a cannon and pointed it at Dick.
“Do you mind? I’m trying to conduct a job interview here.”
The big guy’s gaze flickered in my direction. I tried to force a hello-I’m-very-pleased-to-meet-you smile but I think I failed. If that cannon fired, I’d be a witness to Dick’s murder, and witnesses don’t get to live long in this town, take it from me. His eyes narrowed and hoo boy, I knew he was thinking: Yep, might as well shoot her while I’m at it. Keep things tidy. Save me some problems later.
He returned his attention to Dick. “This is what happens when you stick your nose where it don’t belong, smart guy.”
That was when things got very loud. I screwed my eyes tight shut and clapped my hands over my ears, but not before I got the impression that the desk had come apart. I mean literally. Like it exploded.
I didn’t want to open my eyes again, but when the ringing in my ears began to subside and the floor stopped shaking, I took a little peek. Dick wasn’t behind his desk any more. It was all bust up, the wood splintered as if a giant buzz-saw had ripped through it. I turned and saw him kneeling over the big guy, who was lying flat on his back, his feet still in the doorway, the rest of him in the outer office. Dick held a gun in his hand, not as big as the big guy’s cannon, but it was no pea shooter. My brain slowly caught up with what had happened. While the big guy was looking at me, Dick had reached into his desk drawer, where he kept his own gun, and he shot the big guy through the desk top. He shot him six times. Even through my terror, I’d counted the number of shots. They’d come very fast, like blamblamblamblamblamblam.
I slowly rose from my chair, waited until I was certain I wasn’t going to fall over, then stepped past Dick and over the big guy and kept going, heading for the door.
“Wait a minute,” he called after me. I stopped with one foot in the hallway. “The cops are going to want to talk to you. Why don’t you rustle us up some coffee while I give them a call? And maybe a ham and cheese sandwich. Plenty of mustard.”
I turned to face him. “How can you think about eating at a time like this? He was going to shoot you. He was probably going to shoot me, too.”
Dick straightened and slipped his gun inside his jacket. “Well, yeah. But that didn’t happen. I’m okay and so are you. He’s the one leaking all over the floor.”
He opened a leather wallet and offered me a twenty dollar bill. “There’s a coffee shop on the corner. Get one for yourself. And a bite. You’re looking a little pale.”
He kept his arm extended, offering me the twenty bucks. I snatched it from his hand. I was angry, I was angry at him, I was angry at the big guy lying on the floor. I was angry at me for taking the twenty bucks.
“Who is he? Why’d he want to shoot you?”
“His name’s Vincenza. Rocco Vincenza. He works for Mickey Ferro. Maybe you heard of him.”
Zing, the mention of that name stung me between the eyes like an angry bee. I didn’t know who Rocco Vincenza was but I sure as heck had heard of Mickey “Iron Man” Ferro. He was head of the rackets in Mean City. The D.A. had been trying to nail him for years but never managed to make the charges stick. Why? Because anyone who turned state’s evidence against Ferro ended up in the City Morgue with a tag on their big toe.
So here was one of his goons, lying dead on the floor of the same room I happened to be in. I did not want to be in that room. I didn’t want to be in the same building. Heck, I didn’t want to be in the same city any more. It occurred to me that the twenty bucks I held in my sweating hand could buy me a train ticket to somewhere, anywhere, except here. I had cousins I could visit in Albuquerque. They’d let me sleep on their couch, help me find another job. Hide me until the cops and Mickey Ferro forgot about me. Which might take some time.
“You might want to sit down,” Dick said. He pulled the chair from behind the secretary’s desk and brought it around to this side. I did want to sit, given as how my legs had turned to jelly. He must have seen how this was affecting me. He patted my shoulder sympathetically. “Take it easy. The coffee can wait.”
He took more money out of the leather wallet and put it into his pocket, which puzzled me. Then he slipped the wallet inside the jacket of Rocco Vincenza, R.I.P. It took me a couple of seconds to figure it out. He was robbing a dead man—the twenty bucks he’d given me had belonged to the big guy. I thought about throwing the bill at his face and storming out of there. Then I thought about keeping it because who would ever know? Sorry Mama, I know you brought me up better than that.
Dick picked up the telephone receiver and said, “Operator? I need to talk to the police. Someone’s been shot.”
I only listened with half an ear while the operator connected him and he talked to the cops, giving his name and address. They asked him some questions. He told them who had been shot and admitted that he’d done the shooting, in self-defense, and he had a witness who would testify to this. He’d turned away so his back was to me. He nudged Rocco Vincenza with his shoe and said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s dead. He took six sizzlers in the chest. Hey, it was him or me, pal. I’m glad it was him.”
I got up and tip-toed out without his noticing. I skipped downstairs and into the lobby and out into the street, half-expecting him to come running after me, but he didn’t, which suited me just fine. I pulled my coat collar up and walked away quickly and didn’t look back. He knew my name, so what, there were plenty of Montgomeries in the phone book, and maybe even a few Janes, but I wasn’t one of them, see? Montgomery was my maiden name, which I’d gone back to using after, you know.
I walked past the coffee shop on the corner and crossed the street just in time to catch a bus heading for Westchester, which was only five minutes from my apartment. I’d pack a small suitcase, head for the train station, buy that ticket and blow this town. Yep, that seemed like a plan.
The bus had only gone about twenty yards or so before it stopped. Something had happened up ahead. Passengers craned their necks to see. I was in a seat near the front, just behind the driver, so I had a pretty good view, although I wished I hadn’t. Someone was lying in the street. People were crowding around her. As the bodies shifted I caught a glimpse of the girl with shiny auburn hair who’d come downstairs after seeing Richard Kruger, Private Investigations. She lay twisted, so her head was turned towards me. I saw she had very nice green eyes. They stared right at me for a couple of seconds, not blinking and not really seeing, before the shifting sea of legs hid her face. A cop pushed the gawkers back, not gently.
The bus driver leaned out his window to talk to someone. I was close enough to hear what they said. A black sedan had come around the corner too fast and hit her. She didn’t stand a chance. And the son of a bitch kept on going! Hopefully the cops would catch him.
Life is full of tragedies. Here was another, and it just happened that I’d briefly come into contact with this person before she checked out. Listen to me, “checked out.” Regular tough guy talk, like in the movies. Except I wasn’t feeling like a tough guy, I wasn’t feeling like a tough anything, because in my heart I knew, somehow, that this was no coincidence. Where had Rocco Vincenza come from? Had he walked? No, mobsters didn’t walk. Someone must have dropped him off. A taxi cab? No, mobsters didn’t take taxi cabs, they drove around in big black sedans. Get it? Black sedans.
Electrical connections kept sparking in my brain as I sat there, ignoring the hubbub of voices puzzling over the hit-and-run. After she left the building, had the girl with auburn hair seen Rocco Vincenza pulling up in his sedan and climbing out? Had they locked gazes for a moment, and had he seen something in her intelligent green eyes that told him she would recognize him again if the cops ever put him in a line-up and asked her to point out the guy she saw on the day Richard Kruger, Private Investigations, was shot to death in his office?
Pure conjecture, Your Honor, no evidence! Except the accused would be placed at the scene of the crime and had known links to a notorious mobster who had every reason to wish Dick Kruger to be deceased. Yeah, Rocco Vincenza would have thought these same thoughts. It was all too easy to imagine him going back outside, leaning into the waiting sedan, pointing to the girl with shiny auburn hair, and telling his driver to make it look like an accident.
I thought back to when I’d left the building and walked quickly along the street. I’d turned my coat collar up and didn’t look back, but didn’t I catch something out the corner of my eye? A car had been sitting further along the street, just past the cannery entrance. A black sedan, with its engine running. Just sitting there, waiting. Waiting for Rocco Vincenza to exit the building after he’d done a number on Richard Kruger, Private Investigations.
Breathing, something I’d never really given much consideration to before that moment, since it was one of those things that just happened on its own without any input from me, became very difficult. Whoever was in that sedan would have seen me come out of the entrance and hurry away. They’d no reason to be suspicious, not yet, but when the cops arrived and the body of Rocco Vincenza was carried out into the meat wagon in a black bag, they would remember me, all right. I thought about the girl with the shiny auburn hair. I wondered if she’d seen it coming. I wondered if I’d see it coming when it was my turn. All the more reason for me to visit my cousins in Albuquerque, you betcha.
The bus would be stuck in traffic until the cops arranged for the girl’s body to be removed. They’d draw a chalk line, take pictures, interview witnesses. There was no telling how long a delay me and my fellow passengers were looking at. When some of them left the bus, I got off with them. Some split up and went in different directions, others stayed together, talking about how dangerous the streets could be and how awful that someone’s life could be taken so easily.
Okay so I made some calculations. It would take me twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes to get home on foot. Maybe I’d strike lucky and find a taxi or happen upon another bus going the right way. But wait. If someone was looking for me then maybe I had to get off the street fast, before they spotted me. Maybe I could just hide out somewhere for a few minutes, until I was sure the coast was clear.
Before I even thought about it, I’d entered some shop, I didn’t even look at the window, I just turned the handle and opened the door and went inside. The little bell above the door tinkled. When I was a little girl, Mama told me that every time a bell rang, an angel got his wings, but now that I was a big girl, I thought maybe she was just making it up.
I noticed how quiet and peaceful it was in here. Dozens of colorful paintings adorned the walls, illuminated by subtle lighting. A little desk stood in front of a beaded curtain covering a doorway that led through to another room. The young woman behind the desk was looking at me. I gave her a smile.
“Can I help you?” she said.
“Yeah, no, I was just looking for….”
Things began to come together. The paintings on the wall weren’t really paintings, they were pictures of tattoos, on arms, on shoulders, on necks, on torsos, on backs, on buttocks. The girl behind the desk wore a black vest that allowed me to see the tattoos that swirled up her arms and disappeared under the vest, then re-appeared at her neck. I’d never seen anything so beautiful before in my life. She wore short black hair and a diamond stud adorned her left nostril. Either she was wearing contact lenses, or her eyes were really gold-flecked. They caught the light and seemed to shine like jewels.
I’d thought about getting a tattoo, once. A girlfriend of mine had got ink done, as they say, when we were at college. A little butterfly, on her ankle. She said it hurt like blazes at the time, but the boys loved it, it made her mysterious and alluring. So alluring in fact that she’d to drop out of college two months before graduation because her bump was showing. But I don’t suppose it’s entirely fair to blame the tattoo for getting her pregnant.
I swallowed hard, remembering the poor girl lying in the street. How could anything so horrible possibly happen? Because the world was full of horrible people who would do that kind of thing to other human beings without giving it a second thought.
The girl behind the desk said, “Have you anything particular in mind?” She had a book open on the desk. The pages were full of tattoo designs. There were butterflies and birds, fairies and dragons, dogs and cats, spiders and skulls. It took me a moment to realize it wasn’t really a book, it was a sketch pad, the kind artists use. The designs were all hand-drawn and colored.
“Did you do these?” I asked, sounding like a rube.
“Sure. See anything you like?”
“I like all of them. You’re very talented.”
“Is this your first?”
“It would be, yes.”
“What’s it for?”
I looked at her blankly, I didn’t realize there had to be a special occasion. She said, “Some people get tats done just for decoration, because it looks cool. Others want to remember an important occasion or person in their life. We get a lot of marines and sailors in here. If you want a heart with a flaming dagger through it, or an anchor, or ‘Mother’, we do those too.” She smiled and so did I, forgetting about everything just for a moment, enjoying how she made me feel at ease. I browsed the book of designs and wondered how I’d look with a black cat on my left shoulder.
The door bell tinkled again and her smile vanished. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know who’d just come in. I collected my thoughts and tried to remain calm, even though my heart was beating like bongo drums. I needed to leave in a manner that didn’t alarm the girl behind the counter, although I could see she was already worried. Because if she did or said anything that made them think she might call the cops, maybe she’d end up like the girl in the street, and it would be my fault.
“Thanks, I’ll think about it, and come back and make an appointment later,” I said, putting on my best friendly face. I sucked in a deep breath and turned around. Two big guys wearing dark coats and hats stared at me as if I was something they put on their sandwiches. By which I mean dead meat. Their eyes were like hard stones, their broad faces were framed with long, bushy sideburns. They could have been twins. Very hairy gorilla twins. Their hands were thrust into their coat pockets and I knew they were clutching guns. If I said or did anything wrong, they would shoot me and the girl dead. I knew this instinctively, just like I knew the sun always rises in the east, lighting up the yellow smog.
“Sorry to keep you gentlemen waiting. Shall we?”
One of them held the door open. The other guy went outside first and I reluctantly followed him. Their sedan was parked at the curb, the back door already open. I got in and slid over. Someone climbed in beside me, rocking the sedan with his weight. The other gorilla got behind the wheel. He looked at me in the rearview mirror and his ice-cold eyes told me what was going to happen. They were going to take me for a ride to some quiet, out-of-the-way spot, and there they would murder me.
Holy heck Mama, how was I going to get out of this mess?
* * *
The black sedan turned into narrower side streets where the traffic thinned. Businesses became fewer, tenement buildings more numerous. These eventually gave way to open areas along the river. The docks loomed, a world of piers and cargo ships and towering cranes and anonymous warehouses. The kind of place that was so busy and noisy 24 hours a day that someone could disappear and nobody would even notice.
My mouth was dry with fear. I wanted to say something clever that would convince the two gorillas I wasn’t worth the price of a bullet. And then it occurred to me that I knew exactly what to say. Whether they would believe me or not was a different matter, but what could I do except try?
“Your buddy is lying dead in Kruger’s office. Kruger was ready for him. He called the cops. They’re gonna be looking for me, right now.”
The driver glanced in the rearview mirror once, without any change of expression. The gorilla beside me didn’t even turn his head. The sedan slowed and turned into a fenced compound. There were six warehouses here, squat old buildings with faded numbers painted over their big doors.
I tried again. “They’re gonna be looking for you, too. You think nobody saw your license plate when you ran that girl over? There are a dozen witnesses. These wheels are hot. You’re gonna be locked up before midnight. You don’t want to make it any worse by killing me. You could claim the girl was an accident, you didn’t mean to hit her. A good lawyer could get you a reduced sentence.”
Not that I wanted that to happen. I wanted these sons of bitches to spend the rest of their miserable lives in jail, eating slop and being beaten by the guards, because they deserved it. But I had to give them something to grasp at, see? I had to throw them a line and hope they had the brains to take hold of it.
“You let me out and drive away, I’ll keep my mouth shut, I swear. I’ll say I never seen you guys before. We never met. I couldn’t pick you out of a line up if my life depended on it. They can beat me with rubber hoses, I’ll never tell.”
The sedan stopped in front of one of the warehouses. The driver sounded his horn three times. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then the big warehouse doors rumbled open. The sedan moved forward. The interior of the warehouse lay in darkness. The doors closed behind us. I looked over my shoulder as the last rectangle of daylight I might ever see grew smaller and smaller. Then vanished completely.
I burped. I think it was nerves.
My eyes slowly became accustomed to the dark. The warehouse wasn’t full of storage racks like I expected. It was pretty much open space, aside from three huts off to one side. They had doors and windows, like offices that had been constructed inside. Five black sedans were parked in a row, facing us, all of them pretty much identical to the one I was sitting in. Off to the other side, an area had been set up with weights and benches and frames so it looked like a gymnasium.
Men were moving around over there. Some were lifting big weights. Others were jumping around as if they were on trampolines, only I didn’t see any trampolines. This was all pretty weird. But it got weirder when one of the hut doors opened and Mickey Ferro stepped out. I recognized him right away. His picture had appeared in the newspapers often enough, usually taken outside a courtroom, where he’d just walked free due to lack of evidence, what with key prosecution witnesses having failed to appear for one reason or another.
As guys went, Ferro was good-looking, nay handsome. Or would have been if not for his eyes. When we were kids, my parents had taken me and my sister to aquarium world. There was a big tank and it had two sharks in it, swimming around, never stopping, their tails swishing from side to side. One had passed so close that I could have reached out and touched it, if not for the thick glass. I’d looked into its unblinking eye and saw only death. It wanted to get to me. It wanted to shatter the glass and swim out of the tank and close its jaws around me while I screamed and thrashed and bled into its eternally hungry maw. Ferro had that exact same look. I didn’t really want to meet him, but the gorilla beside me climbed out, grabbed my arm and dragged me out after him.
Ferro looked me up and down with what I would like to think was some interest, then he said to the gorilla, “Who’s this doll?”
“She says Rocco got plugged by that guy Kruger.”
Ferro lost his power of handsome and became downright ugly over the space of a few seconds. Muscles in his face twitched, out of control. His eyes bugged out as if he had gas. While this was going on, the guys who’d been lifting weights and jumping around stopped what they were doing and turned to face us. As if somehow they’d heard what had been said, never mind that they were too far away to hear anything.
The weirdest thing happened then. As if they were at choir practice, all of them tilted their heads back and howled. The noise was so loud I had to clap my hands over my ears. Ferro was howling, too. I felt I’d stumbled into an insane asylum. What was wrong with these people? Eventually they stopped with the howling. As the last echoes of their unearthly chorus faded, everyone returned to normal, whatever normal was for the insane.
With what seemed to me to be a superhuman effort of will, Ferro got himself under control. His eyes were still shark eyes, but at least he didn’t look as if he was crazy. He focused on me and said, “Is this true?”
I gave a nod.
“May I ask your name?”
“You can call me Jane. I’m terrible at remembering faces. Five minutes from now? I won’t even recall meeting you. I got dropped on my head when I was a kid.”
He grinned. He had shark teeth, too. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke at the warehouse ceiling. “So how come you know Kruger?”
“I don’t. I was applying for a job. Your guy, Rocco? He showed up and pulled a gun. Kruger shot him. Bam. I got out of there as fast as I could walk.” He seemed to be following the narrative with interest. At least he hadn’t ordered me killed yet. I glanced at the gorillas standing on either side of me. “Your friends kindly came after me to offer me protection, which I appreciate. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to go home. So I can pack a suitcase and leave town and never come back again, so help me God.”
Ferro looked from one gorilla to the other. I knew they were talking in the silent, secret language of mobsters, where subtle nuances like nose twitches or a raised eyebrow might spell torture, death, or worse. I didn’t know what worse might entail, but I was sure Ferro could come up with something if he tried really hard.
“I’d kill for a cup of coffee,” I said, before he could give the order to have me executed.
He stared at me some more. I had no idea what he was thinking. Maybe he was going to rip off my clothes and ravish me. Maybe he was going to put a gun to my forehead and pull the trigger. Maybe he wanted a tuna on rye sandwich. Guys are mysterious.
Instead he said, “Yeah okay, c’mon.” and led the way to his office.
It wasn’t much. A table, some chairs, a telephone, a coffee jug. He poured two cups, sat down opposite me and slid a cup over to my side of the table. I took a sip. Bitter. “I don’t suppose you have any cream?”
“You’re a cool one, I’ll say that for you.”
“Don’t let the calm expression fool you, I’m shaking in my shoes.”
“So you just happened to be there?”
“Yep.” I fished into my pocket and put the card I’d liberated from the coffee shop window on the table. “I was answering this job ad. Boy did my timing suck.”
He read it and his eyes narrowed. I didn’t know if this meant he believed me or if he thought I was telling him a tall tale about a big fish I’d nearly caught with a length of string and a rusty nail. “Tell me what happened.”
So I told him what had happened, leaving nothing out, except the twenty bucks I still had in my pocket. I wasn’t giving that up for anything. The whole time, he didn’t stop staring at me. I just got to the part where I was kidnapped by the nice gentlemen who had brought me here, when the office door opened and a guy I hadn’t seen before said, “Hey boss, word just came in. They’re taking Rocco to the City Morgue. That sumbitch did a number on him, all right.”
I sipped my coffee again and wondered what Ferro would do now. See, the gorillas had come after me because they thought I might be a witness to Mr. Rocco Vincenza’s cold-blooded murder of Mr. Richard Kruger, Private Investigations. But Rocco had gone and got himself rubbed out instead, big oops. So I wasn’t really a witness to anything that might harm Rocco (deceased) or his boss, Mickey Ferro. I was about to point this very thing out to Ferro when he said, “I guess we got no reason to keep you here. Hey, Luigi.”
“Yeah boss?” the man at the door said.
“Drive the lady wherever she wants to go. Then get back here, quick as you can. This time we’re gonna send a hit squad to take care of this Kruger guy. Let’s see how fast he dances when we open up with a dozen burp guns.”
“Haha, okay boss. We’ll make him dance, all right.”
I was in the act of rising from my seat when Ferro realized what he’d just said. I expected him to slap his own forehead, accepting responsibility for his own stupidity, but instead he and Luigi shared a look that said, Cancel that drive, this doll ain’t going nowhere.
I sat down again and banged my head on the table a couple of times, hoping to wake up from this nightmare. It didn’t work; all I got was a sore head to add to my troubles.
Ferro stood up. “Take her next door and flush her,” he said.
He left the office, leaving me with Luigi. Now Luigi didn’t look like a bad person. He probably helped little old ladies across busy streets, and was kind to puppies. But today he’d been told to flush me, which I guessed was not a good thing.
He didn’t engage in conversation, he just grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up as if I weighed nothing. I threw my coffee into his eyes, as one does when one is manhandled by ruffians. Luigi blinked a couple of times, then glared at me through the cloud of steam rising from his face. That was a bit disconcerting, I’d expected him to scream and cover his eyes and let go of me so I could make a run for the door, not that I’d get far, but a girl has to try. He slowly wiped the coffee from his face with the back of his hand, then dragged me to the door.
Ferro was talking to the two gorillas who’d brought me to the warehouse. None of them paid me any attention, I was already crossed off their to-do list. Luigi took me past the line of sedans to a back door that he unlocked and opened. He pulled me outside, into the gap between the warehouse and another ugly building that sat between it and the river. It was some kind of factory, I guessed, because it had three tall chimneys from which plumes of smoke drifted, adding to the eternal cloud of smog and enhancing the city’s already sweet bouquet.
Luigi marched along with me in tow until he reached a gap in the chain link fence separating the warehouse from the factory. He peeled the gap wider and pulled me through, ignoring my squeak of protest when my hair got caught for a second. He took me up a flight of steps and banged his big fist on a door. Nothing happened so he did it again. I wondered how long the door could last.
A voice inside shouted, “All right, all right, keep your hat on.”
Bolts got drawn inside and the door swung outwards. A thin-faced guy wearing a cap and dirty overalls glared at me, but mellowed when he recognized Luigi. They didn’t talk, Luigi brushed past him, still not letting go of me. My arm would be covered in bruises later. Never mind that there probably wouldn’t be a later.
The factory stank of oil and sweat and something else I couldn’t identify, something spicy. Machinery clunked and banged, and conveyor belts rumbled. I wished I’d eaten something because I had acid in my stomach. Maybe it was Ferro’s coffee. Or maybe it was fear, trying to kill me before Luigi did. We passed a heap of steel pipes, and some wooden crates with Chinese markings, and a tool bench.
Luigi led me into what looked like a store room, only there was a big round hatch set into the floor, with a grill in its center. The grill’s rusty bars were stained green and orange, as if waste chemicals were regularly poured through the opening. Somewhere down below, water rushed by, dark and uninviting. This side of the factory must overhang the river, I realized. Still holding my arm in that painful, unbreakable grip, Luigi bent over and slid a locking bolt open. He lifted the hatch up with one arm, no small feat because it must have weighed a ton. I guessed he must use the gymnasium a lot. The hinges creaked, which maybe masked the swish of my clothing as I raised the spanner I’d grabbed off the tool bench and slipped into my coat pocket. I brought it down with everything I had, because I knew I’d only get one chance. The noise it made when it connected with Luigi’s skull was sickening, a solid thwunk.
He froze, leaning over the open shaft, seemingly staring down into the water. For a moment I thought he was going to just stand up as if nothing had happened and glare at me again, like with the coffee. But he never did. Gravity tugged at him and he pitched forward, almost taking me with him. I slammed the spanner against his hand and he let go. Maybe I broke his fingers, I don’t know, I didn’t want to hurt him, I just wanted to not follow him down into that dark place.
He was gone in an instant, swallowed by the river, hardly making a splash. I stepped back and leaned against the wall, breathing hard. I had to think, not the easiest thing to do when you’re in a blind panic. Was there some way out of here? If I got outside and waved my arms hard enough, maybe someone would notice me. Ferries and work boats crossed the river all day. Heck, I’d strip down to my undies if that would help catch someone’s attention. Mama always said to put on clean panties every morning. Now I knew why.
I heard voices and footsteps, and knew they must be very close because otherwise the factory din would have masked them. There was a stack of boxes in the corner with just enough space for me to squeeze behind them, which I did. Through gaps between the boxes I saw two men, one of them the thin-faced man who’d opened the door to let Luigi inside. The other guy was bigger, more menacing. He reminded me of the gorilla twins, all hair and muscle.
“That son of a bitch didn’t even close the lid, fer Pete’s sake.”
The bigger guy looked around sharply, as if he expected Luigi to step out of the shadows with his fists bunched. “Shaddup, you want him to hear?”
“Never mind him. What happens to us when the cops come sniffing around and figure out we’re involved? Gimme a hand with this.”
Between them they got the heavy hatch lowered. They slid the locking bolt closed.
I swear I didn’t make any noise, I wasn’t even breathing, but somehow they heard me. They both turned around slowly until they were looking directly at my hiding place.
“Okay, you can come out now,” the thin-faced man said.
* * *
I stood up and hefted the spanner in what I hoped was a threatening manner. “You guys want some of this, come and get it.”
Their suspicions played across their faces like a movie reel. If I was here, then where was Luigi? They glanced at the hatch, then looked at the spanner. I looked at it, too. Thick red blood dripped from the end. It could only be Luigi’s. The sight made me feel queasy. When I turned my attention back to the two men, I felt even queasier.
I don’t know what had happened, I swear to God. It was as if it was suddenly Halloween and they were wearing masks. Hairy masks, with snarling snouts and sharp teeth and big pointy ears. They were pretty authentic-looking, I thought, but why were they wearing them? I wanted to laugh, but that just wasn’t happening. Maybe it was because of their eyes. Their eyes were as dead as Ferro’s had been, shark eyes, black and gleaming and hungry.
Both of them crouched down and took a step towards me. I think the term “menacing” would describe their movements quite accurately. I tried to remember if I’d hit my head somewhere as Luigi dragged me here. That might explain these delusions, because what else could they be?
I kicked one of the boxes at them, hoping to trip them up. The smaller of the pair leaped into the air so the box passed harmlessly under him. He landed on all fours, grinning at me with those unsettlingly large teeth. He raised a hand and I saw he was wearing a furry glove that matched his wolf mask. Boy, when these guys dressed up, they went all the way. I’d heard about private parties where people wore furry suits, which sounded like a lot of fun if you were into that kind of thing, as long as someone remembered to bring drinking straws. But this was something else. This was—I don’t know what it was. Weird didn’t even begin to describe it. Claws sprouted abruptly from the glove’s fingertips, curved and gleaming. I thought that was very clever. Some kind of spring mechanism, activated when the wearer flexed his hand? They must have cost a pretty penny. Maybe they were imported. Maybe that was what was in the crates with the Chinese markings.
I snatched up another box and threw it at him. This time, instead of leaping, he shredded the box in mid-air with a single sweep of his arm. Pieces rained down like confetti at a wedding. Those claws, I realized, weren’t just for show. They were sharp as razors and just as deadly.
Snarling, the bigger guy smashed the other boxes away so I stood fully revealed, my slender protection removed. I still had the spanner but I had this awful feeling it wasn’t going to be enough. They took another step closer. They were both growling. Saliva dribbled from their jaws. It was as if they weren’t just wearing masks and gloves. It was as if they’d somehow turned into animals. Into wolves. Into wolf men. Had Ferro spiked my coffee? That would explain so much.
It would certainly explain why I imagined I saw another wolf man jump out of nowhere and land behind the two that were about to eat me. He slashed at their exposed backs with his claws. They roared in pain and spun to face him, but he was ready for them. He ducked under their claws and slashed open the throat of the bigger guy with a deadly uppercut that sprayed blood onto the ceiling. At the same time he swatted the smaller guy so hard he flew through the air and hit the wall hard.
The bigger guy was on his knees, clutching his terrible throat wound, but it’s hard to clutch anything when you have claws. He pitched forward onto his face. Blood pooled out from underneath him. All I could do was stand there and try not to faint.
The little guy was up again, leaping at the bigger guy. They came together in a blur of flashing claws and fangs. Their snarling was so loud it made my bones vibrate. The little guy got thrown down onto the hatch. He lay there, stunned and bleeding, and the bigger guy stomped on his head, driving it down through the rusty grill. The most awful snapping sound told me the little guy’s neck was broken. The bigger guy stepped back and looked down at the unmoving body. He gave a low, angry growl, as if to say, That’ll teach ya. Then he turned and looked at me.
I raised the spanner, warning him. He bared his teeth at me. I knew that if he wanted to, he could pull the spanner out of my hand and grab me and sink his teeth into my neck before I could do a damn thing about it. I was his prey, to play with or kill as he wished. I was more scared than I’d ever been before in my life. Except maybe for that time in first grade when Jimmy Rollins had trapped me in the toilets and shown me his peener and told me it was a snake.
The last thing I expected was for him to turn away and drop down onto all fours and run off. I sucked in more air. Shock and relief and a dozen other emotions swirled in my head, vying for attention. I badly needed to pee.
The factory noises became noticeable again, machinery was still clanging and banging. It was very likely that other people worked here, although I hadn’t seen them yet. Maybe I should try to find a way out before they came looking for me, too? There was also the possibility that Mickey Ferro would notice Luigi hadn’t returned. He might send someone to check. That someone might be every bit as conversationally stunted as Luigi had been.
I stepped over the bigger body and its growing pool of blood, and started searching. The place was a warren, full of twisty hallways and dark rooms. At the end of one hallway, I found a short flight of steps that led down to a padlocked door. I still had the spanner. I shoved it down behind the padlock, gripped it with both hands, braced my foot against the door, and heaved. The wood splintered, rusted screws popped out, the padlock fell to the floor and the door swung open. Glorious sunlight blinded me.
The river was to my right. That meant the warehouses were around the corner, to my left. A pickup truck that looked as if it hadn’t been washed since it rolled off the production line thirty years ago sat in the shade with its windows rolled down. I didn’t even want to get in it, let alone steal it, but these were desperate times. I looked inside, just in case the owner had left the key in the ignition. No such luck. I pulled down the sun visor but no keys dropped into my waiting hand. Damn it, it always looked so easy in the movies.
A sedan turned onto the road that led to the factory. I panicked and ducked down behind the pickup. Had the driver seen me? I’d no idea. I heard the sedan coming closer. Gravel crunched under its wheels as it slowed to a stop. The engine kept running. A door opened. Footsteps came my way. I hoped they would continue on into the factory. They didn’t.
“Can I offer you a ride?”
I found myself looking up at Dick Kruger’s not-quite-handsome face. He gave me a lop-sided smile.
“What are you doing here?” I stood up, feeling bewildered.
“Looking for you. I’m a private investigator, remember? Finding people is what I do for a living.”
I didn’t understand how he could even have known where to find me. I didn’t understand how he even knew I needed to be found. But that old adage about not checking a horse’s teeth when you’ve just escaped death and you need a ride was made for moments like these. I walked to his car, opened the passenger door and climbed in. The whole time, I was looking at the factory, hoping no one else came out. I didn’t see anyone moving near the warehouses, either.
Dick climbed into the driver’s seat and closed his door.
“Mickey Ferro’s goons took me to a warehouse,” I said.
“I know. I’m sorry you got involved.”
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry? Not as sorry as I am, mister. They were gonna dump me in the river. I would have been tomorrow’s newspaper headline. ‘Dumb redhead answered job ad.’ And you know what else?”
He looked at me, one eyebrow raised.
What was I going to tell him? That crazy guys wearing furry masks and gloves, who thought they were wolf men, had fought and killed each other? That Mickey Ferro and his gang had howled at the sky when they heard their buddy Rocco was dead? If I tried to explain, he’d think I was the crazy one. I needed more time to think about what I’d seen, before I could talk about what I’d seen. Assuming I ever would.
“If I don’t get something to eat soon, I’ll start gnawing my own foot.”
He took the hint and drove out of there.
* * *
The bacon and lettuce sandwich wasn’t half bad. I ate with gusto while Dick watched, amused. He’d driven to a diner some distance away from the warehouse and the factory. On the way, he’d pulled over several times and just waited at the side of the road, patiently watching his rearview mirror, making sure no one was following us, which I appreciated.
Now we were sitting at a table that gave us a good view of the diner’s lot. Dick had parked his sedan around the back so it wasn’t visible from the road. We could also reach it fast, if we had to, via the diner’s rear exit. These little things gave an added sense of security to the moment, because I was still scared. Not so scared I couldn’t eat, but scared.
He told me a little more about Mickey Ferro, in a roundabout way.
“I had a woman come see me last month,” he said. From his serious tone I presumed he didn’t mean he’d paid for sex. I hoped not, anyway; I hadn’t finished my sandwich yet. “She told me her daughter didn’t come home. No call, nothing. No one remembered seeing her after she left work to go home, early Friday evening. Saturday morning, the mother called the cops. They said maybe she’d met some boy. Gone dancing with him. Fallen in love. Decided to elope. Or something,” He looked out the window, his expression thoughtful. “They said they couldn’t file a missing persons report for three days. She’d been missing for almost a week before the mother looked me up.”
“And you found her?”
“Just her shoe.”
I nibbled a delightfully crispy piece of bacon. “Where did you find it?”
“Up in the hills, some ways out of town.”
There was something in the way he was telling me this that didn’t sit right. He was making me ask too many questions instead of just explaining.
“Okay. What were you doing up in the hills?”
“I was following my instincts.”
My brain made crunching noises while it tried to figure that one out. I felt a headache coming on. I had aspirin in my handbag. I took two, washing them down with coffee, and thought of something else.
“How did you know where I was?”
“You wear a distinctive perfume. Orange blossom. I followed the scent to the tattoo parlor. The girl told me you’d been there. And you left with two of the scariest guys she’d ever seen.”
He’d followed the scent.
“So what happened to the girl with the shoe?”
“I think Ferro and his goons grabbed her, took her up into the hills, and murdered her.”
“But you never found her body.”
“I don’t think anyone will ever find it.”
“Why, why would you say that, what makes you so sure?”
“Mickey Ferro and his gang aren’t your regular wise guys. You’ve read the papers. They’ve been making moves on the other gangs. Pushing into their territories. The City Morgue’s filling up with bodies. Most got shot. Some got dumped in the river.”
I shivered inside, remembering Luigi disappearing into the dark waters with hardly a splash. I’d nearly become a headline in the newspapers myself.
“And sometimes they kill for other reasons,” he added.
“What does that mean?”
“They lose control and follow their instincts.”
Again with the instincts. But he meant something different this time. The more I thought about it, the less I liked it. And he was giving me plenty of time to think about it.
“Those guys in the warehouse,” I said, toying with my food.
“They had a gym in there. They were doing weird stuff.” Weird stuff like jumping around, higher and further than guys ought to be able to jump without the aid of trampolines; weird stuff like lifting weights that should have crushed them like insects. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it all sounded, but I knew what I’d seen.
“And in that factory? I saw two, no three, other guys. They….” I waved a hand airily, trying to find the right words. My brain was fluttering, just like my hand. “I thought they were wearing masks.”
Yeah, that was it, I thought they were wearing masks, and gloves. But the facts had begun to settle in my head and sort themselves into some kind of order. As I reviewed them, I had no choice but to arrive at the only logical conclusion.
“They weren’t masks, were they?”
He stared at me. I half-expected him to point and laugh, making me feel like the biggest idiot ever born. But instead he shook his head slowly and said, “They weren’t masks.”
“So I’m supposed to believe there are— There are—” I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word.
“It’s not an easy thing to accept,” he said. “You, me, everyone, we were brought up to think they were just stories, like Santa and the Easter Bunny.”
“Hey, Santa’s real. Don’t ever try to tell me otherwise.”
An amused smile tugged at his lips. “My mistake, I apologize. How fast do you type?”
“Sixty words per minute, what’s that got to do with anything?”
“We never finished your interview.”
“I nearly died and you’re asking me about my typing speed.”
“You didn’t die. Focus on that, it’ll help.”
“You shot a man dead right in front of me. That kind of thing tends to put a girl off working for somebody, know what I mean?”
“It doesn’t happen every day.”
“Can you guarantee it won’t?”
“I can’t guarantee a rock won’t fall out of the sky and hit us either, but it’s kind of a long shot.”
“What’s going to stop Mickey Ferro from coming after me if I stick around?”
He reached over and snatched the last piece of bacon from my plate. If I’d had a fork ready, I would have nailed his hand to the table. He popped it into his mouth and chewed before I could object. Son of a—
“Just before you and me met up at the factory, I found a telephone and called a friend of mine. Well, I say friend. He’s more of a pain in the butt.” He pushed a finger into his mouth and moved it around as if searching for something. I hoped a piece of bacon was stuck between his teeth. “Right now he’s rounding up every cop in the city. They’re going to pay Mickey Ferro’s warehouse a visit. In fact,” he looked at his wristwatch, “I bet they’re there right now.”
“Does this ‘friend’ have a name?”
“Sure he does. Fred Mulgrew.”
I finished my coffee and dabbed my lips with my napkin. “You just happen to know the District Attorney?” I’d seen Mulgrew’s mug shot in the newspapers as often as Mickey Ferro’s. He was determined to clamp down on the rackets. This was not a popular decision with certain notable citizens, who’d tried, and failed, to rub the D.A. out on several occasions.
“Let’s say our paths have crossed a few times. Actually he doesn’t like me very much, I’m not exactly on his Christmas card list. But he has his uses.”
“He’s going to arrest Ferro?”
“And his entire gang, now he knows where they’re hanging out.”
“What’s the charge?”
“Kidnapping and attempted murder seem like a safe bet.”
Suddenly that delicious bacon and lettuce sandwich didn’t want to stay in my stomach. “You want me to be a witness?”
“Believe me, I’d much rather you weren’t. But that’s just how things played out. You got involved. Mulgrew wants to talk to you. He’ll need a signed statement to kick things off.”
“He’s out of his mind, and so are you. I’m blowing town. I’d appreciate your dropping me off at the train station. If it’s out of your way, I’ll call a cab.”
“They’ll follow your trail and they’ll catch up with you, no matter where you run to. That’s not the answer. The answer is putting Ferro behind bars.”
“Don’t try to kid me. He can still issue orders from a jail cell.”
“He’ll have nobody to issue orders to. His gang will pick someone else as their leader. That’s how it works. They’ll find another place. Mark out a new territory. Start over.”
“How do you even know this?”
Stupid question. I already knew how he knew this. Or I thought I did. The problem was, my suspicions were so out there even I didn’t believe them. And yet part of me did.
I remembered the two wolf guys who were going to eat me, like I was Little Red Riding Hood.
I remembered the third wolf guy who’d jumped out of nowhere and saved me, then disappeared.
I remembered finding my way out of the factory.
I remembered Dick conveniently showing up in his sedan.
He’d followed the scent.
“What I’m saying is, maybe you’d be safer staying in town.”
“Mulgrew might want to put you in the witness protection program. That’s your choice. Once they lock Ferro up and throw the key away, you might be able to return to some semblance of normality, as they say.”
“Right now that sounds real nice.”
“Or you can hang out with me and rely upon me to put a bullet into any son of a bitch who so much as looks at you the wrong way.”
I sat back and thought about his offer. It was by no means a clear-cut decision. If I gave the D.A. what he wanted, Ferro would become a guest of the Federal penitentiary system. But despite what Dick said, Ferro still might reach out from inside his cell and snuff me out like a candle flame. Maybe changing my name and becoming someone else wasn’t such a bad idea. But would that be enough to throw the hunters off my scent? Dick had sniffed me out over an impossible distance. So might they. Yes, that sounds crazy. But I’d come to believe it might also be true.
“Hang out with you, how? Would I have to move in with you?”
He smiled again. “You strike me as the type who might find fault with my personal habits. If I wanted that gig, I’d be married. I’ll sleep in my car, out in the street. Until things get settled. So I know you’re okay.”
He could have said he’d sleep on my couch. Instead he wanted me to know he’d keep his distance, which was very thoughtful. And he had—if I wasn’t nuts, if I wasn’t imagining a whole bunch of things—already saved my life.
“You need to use the can?”
“Nah, I’m good.” My bladder was in control of itself again now that the threat of immediate death had been removed.
He slid out of his seat and stood. He peeled a ten from his wallet and left it on the table. I wondered if it was some of the money he’d taken from Rocco Vincenza’s wallet? Probably. Did I really want to work for a guy who robbed dead people? Probably not. But then I remembered I still had the twenty he’d given me, my emergency get-out-of-town fund, and told myself maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental.
I got up and followed him to the door. He held it open for me, such a gentleman, and we walked together to where his sedan was parked. He unlocked and opened the driver’s door—his chivalrous manners evidently only extended so far—and was about to climb in when a shadow fell from the diner’s roof and landed on him.
I’d seen Dick pause an instant before he was attacked. His head had tilted slightly, as if he’d sensed something wasn’t quite right. Had his nostrils flared? I wasn’t sure, and there was no time to be sure because the huge bundle of dark fur was on top of him, trying to bite his throat out.
Dick somehow got his arm between the slavering jaws and his neck, stopping his attacker from killing him right there and then. He slipped his hand inside his jacket and pulled out his gun, but a furry paw swatted it out of his hand. Black shark eyes swiveled to fix on me for a split-second. I recognized those eyes. I didn’t know how Ferro had got away when the cops raided his warehouse and I didn’t know how he’d found us. But he was doing his damnedest to kill Dick and once he did that, he’d kill me too. He was here for both of us.
We were round the back of the diner. No one was here except us and a row of silent garbage bins. I couldn’t call for help—no one would hear me. Even if they did, and came running, what could they possibly do? We’d be dead by then and Ferro would be gone before anyone even saw him.
Well, that sure narrowed down my options. I didn’t really have any: I was going to die in a few seconds, nothing was more certain. What did I have to lose? I looked around for Dick’s gun and saw where it had fallen. I dived headlong and hit the asphalt hard, rolling into the bins. The impact left me breathless. My stupid numb sausage fingers found the gun, snatched it up and turned it the right way round so I wouldn’t blow my own head off.
I hoped Dick had reloaded since he shot Rocco Vincenza. I curled my finger around the trigger and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. I pulled harder, and the gun suddenly bucked in my hand. The noise shocked me, it was as if someone had rung church bells in my ears.
Dick was thrown back against the diner’s fire door. Ferro’s head whipped round and he bared his big teeth at me, angry that I’d taken his prey from him, even though that hadn’t been my intention. He jumped up onto the sedan’s roof and crouched, ready to leap at me, claws extended. His fangs were as long as my fingers and promised a terrible death.
I should have cowered in fear, or screamed and thrown up my arms to protect myself, or all of the above. But that didn’t happen. Instead of screaming, I pulled the trigger again.
The leaping furry monster that was Mickey Ferro missed me and slammed into the bins, bowling them over. I scrambled away until my back was hard against Dick’s sedan. I pointed the shaking gun at Ferro, intending to shoot him again, but he was a dark, unmoving shape underneath the pile of refuge sacks that had spilled from the bins. A dark shape that leaked bright red blood onto the asphalt.
People came running out the diner then. They’d heard the shots. They stood back and watched as Dick helped me to stand. I looked him up and down, searching for the gunshot wound I must have inflicted. But he wasn’t bleeding, as far as I could tell, aside from the patchwork of scratches on his cheek and neck. He shook his head, telling me not now, it could wait. He took his gun from my trembling hands and slipped it back into his armpit holster.
“What’s going on?” the diner manager asked.
“Some crazy damn dog attacked us,” Dick said. He showed them the scratches and pointed at the bins. They peered at the furry mass lying under the garbage heap, and I did, too. I imagined that was what I saw lying there—not a man, not Mickey Ferro, but a big dog. No one said otherwise. The power of suggestion. Or maybe they just didn’t want to appear stupid. “I didn’t want to shoot it. It didn’t give me much choice.”
The manager whistled. “Look at the size of the thing. I never seen that animal around here before.”
“We need to get you to the hospital,” I said, loud enough for everybody to hear. “It might have had rabies for all we know.”
I held out my hand. Dick gave me his keys. He got into the passenger seat and I climbed behind the wheel. I rolled down my window and said to the manager, “Maybe you should call the health department and get them to take it away?”
He nodded, good idea. I think he was happy we weren’t going to sue.
I drove around onto the diner lot and peeled out onto the road.
“You think fast,” Dick said.
“I thought I’d killed you!” It came out as a sob. I was under stress.
He rubbed his chest and grunted with pain. “If we were in a movie, I’d pull my shirt open and show you my bullet-proof vest. Let’s skip that scene, it hurts too much. How are you feeling?” He inspected my hands, which had been badly scraped when I hit the asphalt. “Maybe I should be driving.”
“He’s dead, right? I mean he’s not going to get up again and come after us?”
“You plugged him through the heart. He’s not getting up again. Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
“Are you kidding? I never shot a gun before in my life.”
I was seeing black spots before my eyes. I pulled over and stopped. A very sensible thing to do. I put my head on the wheel and sucked in deep breaths. Air had never tasted so good.
“No? Yes? I don’t know. Maybe you’re right, maybe you should be driving.”
“Slide over.” He got out and came around to my side. I moved into the passenger seat. I tried to come to terms with what I’d done. I’d killed Mickey Ferro. I’d had to do it, I had no choice. He would have killed me if I hadn’t. He would have eaten me if I hadn’t.
Dick checked the mirrors and pulled out into the stream of traffic.
“Tell me I’m not going crazy,” I said.
“You’re not going crazy.”
“I mean, he was a wolf man, right? Mickey Ferro was a wolf man and he tried to kill us.”
“Thank you.” To say I felt relieved would have been an understatement. It washed through me like a flood, carrying away all my doubts and pains.
Well, not all of them.
“Mulgrew’s going to be plenty mad,” Dick said. His tone suggested he might like that.
I couldn’t have cared less about the D.A. I seriously thought about taking up smoking then because I needed something to calm my nerves.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Anywhere you like.”
I thought about that. “It’s over, isn’t it?”
“Sure. Expect some formalities with the paperwork. But Ferro’s dead and his gang’s either under arrest or they’re running in all directions. You’re in the clear, toots.”
“Then I want to go home.”
“Okay.” He didn’t ask me for directions. Maybe he was following his nose. There was a scary thought.
We drove through the mean streets, which had just got a lot meaner, and I thought about Albuquerque, although there was no real urgency for me to leave town now that Ferro was dead.
“I can start you off at fifty-five bucks per week,” he said.
“You’ll get one day’s vacation per month. But you gotta work on Christmas Day.”
“What?” I didn’t even know if I was part of this conversation.
“You’d be surprised how many clients come knocking at Christmas. It’s always a bad time of year. What do you say, Miss Montgomery? You’ll be paid in advance, of course. Minus the twenty dollars I gave you.”
“You don’t want the job?”
“The twenty bucks just about covers the inconvenience I’ve suffered, all of which is your fault.”
He looked genuinely surprised. “My fault, how?”
“You didn’t include a warning with your ad. ‘Danger, job applicants may be shot.’“
“In my defense, I didn’t expect that to happen.”
“But it did happen. I’m lucky my hair hasn’t turned gray.” I was also lucky I wasn’t dead, but didn’t bother mentioning this. Some things are so obvious they don’t need to be stated.
“Okay, okay, let’s forget about the twenty. When you came to me looking for a job, you looked pretty desperate.”
“I was, and I am,” I admitted. I had rent to pay and I needed to eat, just like everybody else. Could I really afford to pass this up?
“You like cats?”
I glanced at him. He wasn’t smiling. “Sure, who doesn’t?”
“You’d be surprised. There’s a lady, she lost her cat. She wants me to find it.”
I gave him my best disbelieving look. In return, he gave me a shrug.
“It means a lot to her. I said I’d look for it.”
“You’re telling me this because you think I’ll want to work for a guy who cares about a lost cat, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m trying to say that most jobs don’t involve guys like Rocco Vincenza walking in off the street. They’re just ordinary jobs. Don’t let that one thing throw you. It gets really boring sometimes. That’s one thing I can guarantee.”
“Who’s Parker?” I asked, and saw his eyes narrow.
I wasn’t sure if he was going to answer. But then he took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and said, “Parker was my partner. It’s a long story that involves his stealing everything that was in my safe and running off with my wife. Happy now?”
“I’m a long way from happy, but I could use the money.”
I recognized the streets. We were almost home. A minute later he pulled up in front of my apartment building. I opened my door and got out. He leaned over so he could still talk to me.
“So, you want the job?”
“I kind of do,” I said, even as a voice in my head made a disappointed Augh! sound.
He offered me his hand. I took it, hiding my reluctance, and we shook. His hand was warm. The back felt oddly hairy. I wished I was wearing gloves. “Welcome to the firm, Jane.”
“How about we go see the D.A. together, in the morning? On the clock, of course.”
“Great. I’ll give him a call. Pick you up at nine?”
“Make it ten.”
He grinned, and nodded. “Ten it is.” I watched him drive away.
So there it was. This morning I’d found myself out of a job. Now I was working for Richard Kruger, Private Investigations.
A man with a squished-up face and hairy hands, who had secrets.
OMG MY BOSS IS A WEREWOLF, I KNOW, RIGHT?
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