HUNTER’S MOON (Chapter One)
Nick’s Tavern is in the worst part of town. The front door opens onto a back alley and the back door dead-ends inside another building. The Fire Code wasn’t in effect when the building was built. Nick’s has been there that long. My Dad remembers going there after work for a schooner of beer— twenty-four full ounces—and a plate of cheese. A buck bought both in the 40s. It was big enough for lunch for two or dinner for one. They don’t do cheese plates anymore. Pity.
One time I went around the back of the building just to see what was on the other side. It’s an upholstery shop. Big frigging deal.
Most of the buildings that surround Nick’s are vacant now. Multi-colored graffiti scars plywood-covered windows. God only knows the last time someone cleaned the trash from the sidewalks.
I’m known as Bob to my clientele. That’s not my real name. I’m the kind of person you would expect to find at Nick’s. Call me a businessman who works the wrong side of the street. All sorts of people have need of my services: high class, low class, quiet suburban mothers, good church-going men. At one time or another all of them give into their primal instincts and call me. I meet them here at Nick’s to talk details.
I’m not a hooker or a drug dealer. Too many risks, not enough money. There are no drug deals at Nick’s. You’d get bounced on your ear if you even thought about it.
I’m an assassin. A killer-for-hire. If you have the money, I’ll do the job. I like puppies, kids and Christmas, but I don’t give a shit about your story—or your problems. I’m the person you call when you want the job done right the first time with no sullying of your name. Yes, I am that good. I apprenticed in the Family.
Oh, there’s one other thing I should mention. I’m also a werewolf.
Yeah, I know. Big joke. Ha. Ha. I never believed in “creatures of the night” like vampires, werewolves, or mummies. They’re the stuff of schlock movies and Stephen King novels. I’m not.
The door to the bar opened and the figure silhouetted in the doorway almost made me laugh out loud. I stifled the laugh with a snort of air. Then I let my face go blank again. Talk about stereotyping. The woman wore an expensive black pantsuit, odd enough in a low-class part of town. But the part I liked was that she wore a dark wig-and-scarf get-up like something you’d see in the 60s, and huge round black sunglasses. Oh yeah, she’ll blend right in with the steel workers and biker babes. Sheesh.
My client had arrived—and she was early. No big deal. We’d only set the appointment a few hours ago. I hadn’t even unpacked from my last job. The quicker we finished, the better I’d like it.
The woman in the doorway was forced to take off the sunglasses to look around the darkened bar. I got a look at her face. Nothing special. Deep, green eyes looked out from a relatively plain face. She stood about 5’5”. I felt like I recognized her, but she was like me—a blender. She could probably get dolled up and look pretty but she would never be stunning. She was a woman that a man would fall in love with for her mind or personality. Or maybe her body, which was on the good side of average. She was probably a size ten—Maybe a twelve. She carried it well and comfortably. The suit spoke of money. Good. She could probably afford me. The rest of the get-up spoke of nerves.
She scanned the bar, looking for someone she had never met. You can’t mistake the look. The person just stands there, hoping that someone will wave or pick them out. I let her feel uncomfortable for a moment, just long enough to size her up. She wasn’t a plant or a cop. Nobody can fake that level of nervousness. She wasn’t wringing her hands, but close.
I was sitting in the back booth—my usual table. I looked around the bar while I counted slowly to ten. It’s a comfortable, familiar place. A Family hang-out. See, it hasn’t been too long since the Mob ran this town. Nick’s was one of the neutral taverns. Not upper-class. Nick didn’t run “no hoitsytoitsy gentlemen’s club.” His words, not mine. Nick’s son Jocko runs the place now. Yeah, really. Nick actually named him Jocko. Poor guy.
The bar looks old. Not elegant old, just old. Dark wood covers the floors and walls and surrounds a real marble-topped bar. Remnants of old sweat and stale cigarette smoke cling to every surface. You can’t see through the nicotine haze on the windows. Jocko doesn’t do windows.
I finished counting, raised my hand, and caught her eye. She walked toward me, both hands clutching her purse like someone was going to lift it. A pleasant jingling reached my ears. Jewelry of some sort. When she reached the booth she looked at me, surprised. Apparently I wasn’t what she expected.
I don’t wear an eyepatch or have a swarthy mustache. I even have all of my teeth. I look absolutely ordinary. Collar-length black hair, blue-grey eyes the color of gun metal, and a build that shows I work out but not to excess. I was dressed in a blue cotton long-sleeved business shirt with the sleeves rolled up, grey slacks and black sneakers that look like dress shoes as long as I keep them polished. The jacket that matched the slacks was folded on the bench next to me. I look like I could be a lawyer, a writer, or a mechanic. I don’t look like someone that would as soon shoot you as look at you. That’s the idea. I gave her my best mercenary look; cold, uncaring. I wouldn’t want her to think that I was just some guy hitting on her. She looked away, rattled.
Her scent blew me away. I notice smells more since the change. Nice term—“change”. Her scent was stronger than it should be, but not perfume. This was just her. The woman smelled sweet and musky, with overtones of something tangy. I learned from Babs that means she’s afraid. Fear reminds me, although Babs said I’m nuts, of hot and sour soup. Every emotion has its own particular scent. And lies! When someone lies, it smells like black pepper. I don’t mind; it helps me interview clients.
Most scents are soft and not particularly noticeable. They rise off a person’s skin like ghostly presences, only to disappear into unseen breezes. I have to concentrate to catch a person’s real scent.
My client slid into the opposite side of the booth. I didn’t stand. She didn’t expect me to. Good thing. She sat with her back to the room. Another good indication that she wasn’t a cop. Cops, like crooks, have a thing about having a wall at their back. Nobody can hit you from behind or pull your own gun on you.
“Um,” she began when I just stared at her without saying anything. “Are you Bob?”
I nodded but still made no sound. It unnerved her and amused me. She was having a hard time looking at my face, whereas I looked straight into her eyes.
“I’m hoping you might be able to help me,” she tried again. It required no comment, so I didn’t make one.
My nose tingled. The client smelled like blood; like prey. But that’s true of most people. Especially near the full moon. I never used to think much about the moon phases. Now I plan my life by them.
People didn’t used to smell like food. Some days it pisses me off. But I didn’t get a choice in the matter. A hit went bad. The woman I was stalking stalked me back. I wasn’t prepared for a being with superhuman speed and strength. She ripped my throat out of my body and left me for dead. I should have died. She said so later. Guess I was too damn stubborn to die.
The wash of emotions from the client overpowered my nose. I could handle the fear and the blood. I was used to them. I don’t meet with clients until after I’ve had a large rare steak for lunch. But this lady smelled of heat and sex. Heat, not sun—heat and something that I couldn’t place that reminded me of a forest. Warm, dewy, sweet, salty. It was a safe, comforting smell unlike anything I’ve ever been in contact with. It was a smell that I wanted to soak into my pores. Breathe in, roll in. I had to blink and sneeze to clear my senses. Then I returned to staring quietly at her.
She couldn’t meet my eyes but kept scanning the room. Her fingers tapped restlessly on the table, then on her lap, then on the table again while she bit at her lips as if looking for something to say or do. The hot and sour smell of fear, the burnt metal of frustration overwhelmed me as if they were my own. That was new. My muscles tensed against my will. Suddenly she stopped fidgeting, took a deep breath and looked right at me.
“Would you please say something?” she asked in frustration. “I’m drowning here.”
That won her a quick smile. “Would you like something to drink? It’s not much cooler in here than outside. That dark suit has to be hot.”
She looked at her outfit and had the good grace to blush. “It’s a little trite, isn’t it? I didn’t even think about the heat. I was trying to be inconspicuous.” She smiled a bit as if she felt my amusement the way I was feeling her emotions, but she smelled embarrassed. A dry smell, like heat rising off desert sand, mixed with other things I didn’t recognize yet. I don’t know a lot of the emotions yet. Babs told me that I’d get the hang of identifying them. I’m in no hurry.
I didn’t believe it at first. Didn’t want to. But Babs followed me around for three days, and taped me with a camcorder. I avoided her like I avoid everyone, but she filmed enough to prove that she was telling the truth. Babs was a sadistic bitch about it, too. She made sure she immortalized all of the most embarrassing moments of a dog in living color. Pissed me off. I stopped returning her calls after that.
“I don’t exactly blend in, do I?” The words brought me out of my musing.
Lying to save her feelings would be diplomatic, but I try to save lies for important things. “Not really.”
I raised my hand to signal Jocko. He moved out from behind the bar, wiping his meaty hands on a snow white bar rag. Jocko’s a big 6’8”. He looks beefy but it’s mostly muscle—he was a pro wrestler for a few years. Jocko wears his waist-length black hair in a ponytail because of state health regs. A scar cuts his left eyebrow in half. He’s second-generation Italian but he looks Native-American because of the hair.
Jocko smells like bad habits. Whiskey and cigarettes and sweat. He walked slowly toward the table—almost lethargically. Jocko moves slow because he threw his back out in the ring years ago and since there isn’t any worker’s comp insurance in wrestling he came home to run the family business. But he’s hardly a cripple. Jocko can still throw a man through the front window if he puts his mind to it. Everybody knows it. Like me, he doesn’t talk much. He just stood at the table waiting for our order.
“Draft for me.” I turned to the client with a questioning look.
“Um—rum and Coke, I guess.” Jocko started to walk away. She raised her voice a little bit to add, “Captain Morgan, please.” He nodded without turning or stopping. “And Diet?” a little louder still. Anyone that didn’t know Jocko would presume he hadn’t heard her. I knew he heard her and that he was chuckling softly under his breath. The mild orange smell of amusement drifted to me. A rum and Coke is not the same thing at all as a Morgan and Diet. Not to a bartender.
She glanced at me. “Do you think he heard me?”
“He heard. Now, what can I do for you?”
“I want you to kill someone,” she said calmly. “I can afford to pay whatever the cost.”
Well, that was direct! I shut my mouth again, closed my eyes and reached my hand up to rub the bridge of my nose. It eased the tension behind my eyes.
“Is something wrong?”
There’s a certain code in my profession. The client doesn’t actually ask and I don’t actually admit what I do for a living. It’s just sort of understood. Money is discussed but only because both parties know what transaction is being, well, transacted.
I lowered my voice. “I would appreciate it if you could be a little more discreet about our business here.”
That stopped her cold. She suddenly realized what she had said, and that she had said it in a normal tone, in a place of business. Her face flushed and her jaw worked noiselessly. The blend from the combination of emotions made me giddy.
“That was stupid, wasn’t it?”
“Well, that sort of depends whether you want to spend the next twenty or so years in prison. It’s called ‘accessory before the fact’.”
She shrugged. “Actually, for the job I’m proposing, I’d never see the inside of a prison.”
“That might be a little overconfident,” I replied, “There’s always the chance of getting a very good investigator. I always make it clear to clients that there is risk involved. I’m good. I’m very good. But there is always a risk.”
She shook her head. “You couldn’t know since I haven’t explained. But it’s not an issue.”
I believed her and I didn’t know why. No black pepper smell of deceit, maybe. I shrugged my shoulders. “Fine. You’ve been warned.” I drew a breath and began my list of conditions. “I’ll need the name of the mark, a photograph, and home and work addresses. I work alone. I will choose the time and place of the job. Not you. If you want it public, I’ll pick the time. You can pick the method if you want. If you don’t specify, it could be by a variety of methods. I vary them to fit the situation and the mark. I don’t do extras like rape or torture for the same money. There will be an additional charge for that kind of thing.”
She listened intently and without comment. When I mentioned rape and torture, she grimaced slightly. I could feel her disapproval beat at me like heat from a furnace. I shook off the feeling and proceeded on.
“If the mark meets his end without my assistance, there are no refunds. I require payment in advance. Cash only, small bills. If the money is marked or traceable you will forfeit your life at a future time of my choosing. Don’t presume that I can’t find you. I can.”
She nodded, as if she had heard my speech a million times. She leaned forward, eyes intent on my face—focused. Good. I like it when people listen.
Jocko arrived with the drinks so I stopped speaking. He put them on the table, then looked at me. “That’ll be four-fifty.”
I motioned for him to ask the lady. He turned his attention to her and she opened her little purse quickly. She extracted a ten dollar bill and held it out to him. “Keep it.”
Jocko pursed his lips in approval and moved off silently.
“Go on,” she said.
I tried to remember where I left off. I hate to get interrupted mid-stream. “If the police somehow get wind of me through you, I will make sure that you never live to testify. If there are family members involved and they get in the way, I will remove them. I don’t charge for removal of witnesses. That’s for my benefit, not yours. However, if there are potential witnesses that you do not wish removed, make sure they are kept out of the line of fire until after the job is complete. I won’t be held responsible for mistaken identity, so if the photograph is not absolutely clear, or up-to-date, there could be a mistake.”
The client sipped her drink as I spoke. It’s a long spiel. Now’s the only time I ask questions like whether she needed proof that the job had been accomplished. She smiled. “No, I think I’ll know.” That meant that it was someone close to her; possibly a husband or boyfriend. Her amusement smelled sweeter, more like tangerines than oranges.
When I finished, my beer was almost gone. “Do you have any questions?” I asked.
She had a mouthful of complimentary peanuts and she didn’t respond immediately. Jocko puts out peanuts to increase drink sales. It works, so I don’t indulge.
“No,” she said when she’d swallowed, “That about covers it. When do I have to get the cash to you? And how much?”
“How much depends on who. Public figure or private? Who is the mark?”
She spread her hands out, showing her chest to perfection. It was a nice view but, “I don’t understand.”
“I’m the target. The mark. Whatever.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“I’m hiring you to kill me. The time and place don’t matter. But soon. How much will it cost?”
Alarms started ringing in my head. “There are a lot less expensive ways to do yourself in,”
She nodded her head once. “Probably. But this is the method I choose. Is there a problem?”
There was something wrong with this situation. I couldn’t think of what specifically was bugging me. I really don’t want to know a person’s story but I was missing something. Something important. I needed to dig.
I leaned back in my seat. “Who are you and why do you need to die?”
Her eyes shifted. Yeah, there was something there all right. “Does it matter?”
“Normally, no,” I admitted, “But this is a first for me and it’s making me nervous. So, give. Why do you need to die in such a way that it doesn’t look like a suicide?”
Intense emotions washed through my nose, blending and then splitting. I couldn’t identify them all. I’m still new at this shit. I suppose a little part of me is annoyed that I haven’t picked them up faster. It’s been almost a year. But I’m not curious enough to contact Babs.
“I don’t need to die. I want to. But you’d need to hear my story and you told me on the phone that you didn’t want to hear it. I’m a nobody. No one special. Just take the money and do the job.” Her eyes were bright, too bright, and her voice too intense. I didn’t like it.
“What’s your name?” In any event, I’d need it if she turned out to be the mark.
“Wh—” she began and then corrected herself. “Oh, that’s right you need the name. Quentin. Sue Quentin.”
Sue Quentin. That name rang a bell. I leaned forward and put my arms on the table. “Take off the wig,” I ordered.
She looked around her nervously. Yeah, it probably wouldn’t do to have her reveal herself in full view of everyone. That sort of thing is remembered.
“Fine,” I crooked a finger and slid out of the booth. “Follow me.” She stood and followed me down a hallway to the bathrooms. It was dark but my eyes are exceptionally good—funny thing. I knocked on both doors and waited. No response. I turned around to face her. “Take it off.”
She slid the black wig with attached scarf from her head. Underneath were medium-brown permed ringlets that reached her shoulders. The hair changed the shape of her face. Even in the dim light of the hallway I instantly recognized her. The disguise was better than I’d credited. With the wig, I hadn’t had more than a vague recognition. Fortunately, no one else in the bar would probably make her, either. I knew her but couldn’t imagine why she would want to die.
I shook my head. “Huh-uh. No way. You’re a very visible lady. I’d have to wait until the heat surrounding you dies down.”
She stood very still, eyes closed. The hot blanket of sorrow pressed on me and tightened my throat. A single tear traced silver down her left cheek. “How long?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
I turned and walked back into the room, not able to answer right away. I had to get away from that distress. She got under my skin way too easily. That alone made me nervous. Some instinct told me if I didn’t run from her, she was going to change my whole life. I didn’t want this job.
I slid back into the booth. She followed me a couple minutes later, in control again. The wig was back in place and she had wiped the tear from her face. She looked relatively calm but her hands trembled a little. She folded them in front of her and held herself stiffly, as if hanging onto her control by her fingertips.
I’m not moved by tears. I’ve turned down jobs before. But she’d asked a question and I could at least give her an answer. “I don’t know,” I replied. “With all the publicity—a year, maybe more.”
Her gaze was steady on me but the unshed tears made her eyes shine. “So I can count on that? A year from now you’ll do the job?”
I held up my hands in front of me. “Whoa, lady. I didn’t say that. I said, ‘a year, maybe more’. I can’t judge that. You could be in the papers again next week and it would start all over. I don’t predict the future. No. I can’t take the job.”
“If you only understood,” she began.
“Stop.” She did. “You were right the first time, Ms. Quentin. I don’t want to know. I don’t care to know your story. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a social worker.” Except this time, I did want to know and I couldn’t explain why.
Her eyes went cold for a moment, almost as though she could sense my thoughts. “Fine. How much?”
I felt my brow wrinkle. “For what?”
“To listen.” She leaned forward a bit. “You’re absolutely right. You’re not a psychologist or a social worker. You’re a mercenary. How much will it cost me for you to listen to my story?” Her anger bit at my nose. It smelled like coffee burning.
“It won’t change anything,” I said. “I don’t want the job.”
“So don’t take it. There are other people out there with less scruples. I just want an ear. I just want you to shut up and listen to my story.” Her voice tightened as she spoke—colder, harsher, more brittle. She was blinking back tears again. “You don’t have to care. Just make the right noises in the right places. How much for a couple of hours?”
“It’s not scruples that would stop me from taking the job, lady. It’s self-preservation. Too many people know your name. Investigators would work a lot harder because you’re newsworthy. And I’m not for rent on an hourly basis.”
That was supposed to be it. The end. I don’t know why I said the next. “But, fine. If you want to buy my ear for the night, it’s for sale. A thousand up front and I’ll let you know how much more when the story’s over.” I half-stood and half-slid out of the booth. “Let’s go.”
She looked startled. “Just like that?”
There I go again—being impulsive. I should walk out. My gut told me I should run. I’ve learned to trust my wolf instincts even when I don’t understand them. And yet, I shrugged and smiled tightly at her. I had nothing better to do right now. I had no reason to fear this person. No logical reason, anyway. Money’s money. It’s just another job.
“Just like that. You’re driving. But I have to make a call first. So finish your drink, go to the john or whatever. I’ll meet you out front in a couple of minutes. What are you driving?”
Her eyes got wider. I could smell the hot tang of fear, the soured milk smell of disbelief and rising under both, the lighter smell of hope. She had been expecting me to walk out. Probably thought I was playing a cruel joke. Not a chance. For once I’d be able to indulge my curiosity. In my position, the less I know about a client or a mark the better. Except this time I wanted to know more. Maybe I’d find out how many people had walked out on her in the past. Or why she wanted to die. Maybe I’d walk out too. We’d see.
HUNTER’S MOON Copyright © 2003 by Cathy L. Clamp and C.T. Adams