Friday, October 30, 2009

The Moontown Palooka: Chapter One

The only thing visible from the highway was an elbow shaped sign curiously poking out of the underbrush. The first chill of October had settled in at the beginning of the week and the trees on the side of the road had quickly shed their leaves. The headlights had flashed past the sign quickly and Longstreet might have missed the turn-off completely if he hadn’t been here dozens of times before. He eased the wheel right and his Ford wound onto the dirt road that peeled from the pavement. The branches loomed over the road like teeth. The lights of the car shot straight down its throat. After a few moments of bouncing around, Longstreet saw a building sticking out of the forest like something lodged in its back. The Rook’s Nook Motor Lodge was a long, low building with a few cars parked along one side. Longstreet pulled the Ford into an open area near the office.

Longstreet let the engine idle for a moment and rubbed his eyes. The Ford was getting on in years and he hated to admit he almost took one of the brand new ’37s in trade for the Oliver case. He shut the engine off and looked down the line at the cars parked in the darkness. Most of them were nondescript. Dark colors, no markings. In the middle of the pack there was a cream-colored Duisenberg. Longstreet chuckled to himself. Someone was new to the game out here.

Longstreet got out of the car and stretched his legs. He was wearing a calm grey suit and had even remembered to shave today. Longstreet’s tie was a dark red gash down his torso. He crunched around on the gravel for a bit, watching his breath seep out his mouth like fog. He leaned his lanky frame back a bit and reached into his coat pocket for a handkerchief. He removed his thin glasses and breathed on each lens quickly, rubbing one for a few moments with the hankie. He held the glasses up to the moon for inspection. The disk fit perfectly into one lens. As he replaced the glasses and his hankie, his fingers brushed against the pistol he carried in a shoulder holster. Longstreet sighed, pulled his hat from the passenger seat, and began crunching his way toward the office. He was glad his client wanted to meet him at the Rook’s Nook tonight. Moontown never slept, but full moons were especially busy. Louise was going to give him an earful when he made it back to the office.

The motel office was at the head of the building. The interior was lit by a bare bulb and decorated in a hunting lodge motif. The room was as big as an afterthought. There was a long two man saw opposite of the entrance that ran the length of the wall. A dusty counter split the room in half. Longstreet noticed a bell but no register book. On the other side of the counter the clerk stood with his back to the door, motionless. There was a bear in the corner that almost mugged Longstreet as he entered. It was a good setup for this kind of place. You’d come in, pay your money, and leave. No sense hanging out in an overgrown broom closest with Benny the Bear reading the newspaper over your shoulder.

Longstreet rang the bell and plopped his hat on his head. He heard the clerk shuffle his feet and watched him turn around. The clerk’s right eye was milky and the right side of his face was pulled taut against his skull. A few stubborn shrubs of hair poked out from his scalp. His mouth opened and closed slowly, like he was chewing on something that he wasn’t sure that he liked tasting. Longstreet set his hands on the counter. The clerk’s mouth stopped.

“In or out?” the clerk rasped.

“In,” said Longstreet.

“Business or romance?”

“Business,” said Longstreet. He thought about pointing out the similarities between the two in this place, but figured the clerk wouldn’t get it.

“Blonde or redhead?”


The clerk’s mouth began moving again. “Four,” the clerk said finally, and slowly turned away. Longstreet tipped his hat and left the office. He liked the Nook for these sorts of meetings. It was close enough to Chicago that people weren’t scared to drive out to it but far enough away that the cops would never bother anyone. The fact the clerk was dead meant he shouldn't hit you up for an extra kickback to keep his mouth shut.

The clerk was what was known as a Tenant in Moontown. From what Longstreet could see, he was a fairly cheap one. Tenants were dead bodies that had spirits bound to them. Cheap ones like the clerk were used as an alternate for menial jobs. Sadly, it was one of the reasons for the Depression. Most employers would take a dead man harvesting their field over a family of Okies. On the one hand, Tenants were the first thing to make it out of Moontown and into the real world, but regular people hated and feared them. Folks were put off by the idea of dead bodies building homes and driving cabs. They had taken jobs away from people that could use it. Once you paid for a Tenant you worked it until it fell apart. No sick days, no vacations. Longstreet didn’t mind them as long as they were the ones that were preserved. The really cheap ones rotted after a while.

Number four had a light on in the window and the Duisenberg parked out front. Longstreet set his hat back on his head and sighed. He knew Zastrow relied on the kindness of strangers but a purchase like this turned his stomach. Veronica Zastrow was the type of woman that women wanted to kill and that men would die for. Somewhere, there was an old man with long green that bought her that car. Of course, there are five other just like him and if he asked her, she could probably put a name to each piece of glitter she wore. He ducked his head under the canopy and tipped his hat forward. He knocked and stood in silence for a moment.

Veronica opened the door. Mahogany lips were pursed together and shining blue eyes glanced past the detective. Blonde hair spilled onto her shoulders like falling stars. While he’d never admit it to Louise, Longstreet found himself catching his breath.

“Were you followed?” she whispered.

“Of course,” Longstreet said as he leaned on the door frame. “I would have been here earlier but I had to take the streamers and bells of my car.”

Veronica frowned perfectly. “Do you ever have repeat business, Mr. Longstreet?”

“Folks always need people to spook, spy, and dig ditches,” Longstreet said as he entered. “The fact that I’m crazy enough to go into Moontown gives me an edge over other dicks in town.”

“Please sit,” she said as she locked the door behind him. The room was decorated in autumn colors and had a leaf-print comforter on the bed. The only other furniture in the room was a nightstand with a chipped top. At least one of the three drawers looked like it was original. A heavy glass ashtray sat on top, next to a particularly deep slash in the finish. Veronica had left a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray. It was pristine and white, just like the lady that smoked it.

“I’ve seen Ron with another gal,” Longstreet began as he removed his glasses. Veronica sank to the bed. Longstreet handed her the glasses.

“Put these on and I’ll walk you through it,” he said. Veronica looked at the glasses blankly.

“You don’t have any pictures?”

“I have a photographic memory and the glasses record what I see. They’re less obvious than a camera.”

“I can’t put them on,” Veronica said suddenly. “I-I don’t want to see him with that girl…”

“His wife,” Longstreet said as he took his glasses back, “That girl is his wife. It must break your heart.”

Veronica’s lip quivered but she didn’t cry. “She killed him, Longstreet. He hasn’t called me in a week.”

“Now, now, precious,” Longstreet said, patting her hand, “who’s the detective here? I hardly think there’s any foul play. Maybe he still loved his wife.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Veronica said. “It must just be my suspicious nature.”
Veronica put her hand over his. Longstreet could feel his palm begin to sweat.
“Being suspicious is what keeps me in business.”

“I’m impressed with your services so far,” Veronica said with a slight smile. Longstreet didn’t like the way it made him feel.

“I’m not sure I have what you want for sale,” he said.

“All I want is someone to look out for me. Every guy in Chicago is married, a crook, or some kind of demon.”

“I don’t think I can afford your rates, Veronica,” Longstreet said. His mouth was dry. She was leaning closer to him.

“And why is it you get to use my first name and I don’t even know yours?”

“I only tell my first name to special people.”

“Those being?” She was turning up the heat and he was melting fast.

“The cops, my mother, and intimate friends.”

“Intimate?” Closer.

“Arthur.” Closer.

Veronica’s eyes flashed with delight. She licked her lips. At this distance, they reminded him of the apple plucked right out of innocence. Longstreet swallowed hard and knew what he had to do.

Just before he kissed her, he drove his fist into her midsection as hard as he could. Veronica let out a mournful groan and curled up on the bed. There was a pretty blue knife in her left hand. Longstreet stood quickly and drew his pistol. He leveled the gun at her.

“Alright, take it off,” he said. She looked up at him and almost frosted his hat with her glance.

“Your charm, sister,” Longstreet said. “Slowly.”

She set the knife on the bed and reached for the ring on her finger. She gave it a contemptuous yank. Veronica melted away and was replaced by a pouting man in his mid-thirties. He was wearing an unbuttoned shirt and wrinkled slacks. His hair was poorly combed and he looked like someone had just taken away his balloon.

“Ron,” said Longstreet, “so good to see you. Now toss the knife to the floor.”

“How did you know?” Ron asked. He half-pouted, half-sneered.

“I am a detective,” said Longstreet as the knife clattered off the bed. “I’ll admit, when you hired me I was puzzled,” began Longstreet as he sat on the edge of the nightstand. “High class women don’t chase around a sugar daddy. But the money was good and I figured I’d humor you. Maybe one of your other boyfriends decided to clear old Ron out. But I also checked up on Veronica. She’d been playing footsie with a lot of the rich and lonely and probably built up quite a nest egg. I’m sure you wanted to dip in to your retirement fund but didn’t want to tip anyone off to your con. So you pull me out of Moontown, and get me to start checking around. You off me here, maybe start a fire that the Tenant can’t stop and the cops don’t take it any further. Just another dick killed in the line of duty and another good time girl in her new car off to spend her roll. You leave town with your money and I never have to darken anyone’s doorstep again.”

“So why did you meet me here?”

“I had to be sure. I wasn’t going to the cops with that story. I almost bought your act. It was practically perfect. You made two mistakes. First was your refusal to use my glasses. You weren’t sure if it would interfere with your illusion spell.”

“And my other mistake?”

Longstreet plucked the cigarette out of the ashtray. It was still smoking.

“That’s an amazing brand of lipstick that doesn’t rub off onto a cigarette.”