Friday, November 20, 2009

The Moontown Palooka: Chapter Two

It was the kind of October morning where God himself seemed to shrug, roll over, and pull the blankets over his head. A bitter rain streaked down the windows of the train and everyone rode without acknowledging each other. The car was filled with a steady beat of coughs and sniffles with a chorus of shrieking angels every time the train rounded a corner. Every gaze was avoided with a glance out the window, an inspection of the ceiling, or a hat pulled low to grab a few more moments of shut-eye before work. Longstreet had tipped his hat forward but knew he was going to have to get off the train soon. The shrieking began again and he returned his hat to the top of his head.

Longstreet leaned forward and stood. He grabbed one of the overhead straps and made his way to the door of the train and waited. As the car slowed, he noticed the car filling with silence. He began to feel eyes on him, and caught the hint of whispers once the brakes finished their siren song. Someone was getting off at Radwill Avenue. He exited the train with a chuckle. The diner was four blocks from his train stop but he always told the cops his walk couldn’t have been stranger if blood started oozing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. Sure enough, this morning he found himself staring at a scattering of crimson puddles as he made his way off the platform.

“Welcome to Moontown,” he sighed. At this time of day, the neighborhood didn’t look much different than any others in Chicago. The first block was a mix of brownstones, storefronts, and the occasional thick concrete of a bank or other official building. There were no signs saying where it stopped or started but even Zielski said he could feel the energy shift. When you stepped into Moontown you were entering something that couldn’t be explained by the cops, the church, or the colleges.

By the second block, the differences began. They were almost imperceptible; out of the corner of the eye or something slithering into the shadow of a doorway. The foreign patter of other ethnic neighborhoods was replaced by the sounds of chanting drifting from open windows. The corner stores had small talismans and jars filled with eye of newt next to the olives. Longstreet walked past the red velvet-lined doors of the Sanguine Club and could almost hear the skin of the gargoyle perched above the door scrape together as it turned to look at him. This was usually how far most folks that were interested in a night of living dangerously made it. There were plenty of nightclubs near the train stop that featured a menagerie of ghouls, goblins, and harmless denizens the rich could gawk at. Most of the people that lived in Moontown despised the area, but ‘Lugosi’s Row’, as it had come to be called, brought a lot of money into the area. Even vampires had to pay the electric bill, and if it had to put on a cape and hypnotize a debutante that was out with her girlfriends, so be it. Lugosi’s Row was also doing its small part to make people less afraid of the mystic energies that had seeped into the world once again.

The third block was where things got more obvious. There was a dispatch center for the Queen Bee Cab Company on the corner of Radwill and Maynard. Whenever Longstreet walked past it, his step always seemed to quicken. There were four cabs inside. Each was covered in the distinct yellow and black stripes of the company. Each was also manned by a Tenant staring glass-eyed and forward. Longstreet always had this strange feeling that one day one of the cabs was going to gun forward and run someone down. Maybe it would be him, maybe someone else. The Queen Bees were one of the first companies to try to make money off of magic, but that didn’t make what they did any less disturbing.

Longstreet breathed a sigh of relief as he crossed Maynard Street and put the cab company behind him. He was entering the heart of Moontown now, where imps fluttered by on the street and sorcery was sold on the street corner. Longstreet made his way past a window proclaiming “Suits Pressed” with “Hexes Removed” underneath in smaller lettering. The mediums that had their shops here were the real deal, unlike the 50/50 split of grifters to genuine articles on Lugosi’s Row. Of course, that meant making your way past the werewolf passed out in the doorway, or wondering if there was a spook drifting through the room that would be willing to sell your secrets to be put to rest.

Halfway down the block, wedged between the Comfy Coffin Motel and Paulo’s Grocery and Exorcism, was a simple, single worded sign. It was more of a command than an explanation of what the purpose of the establishment was. EAT, it said, and Longstreet would obey. He stopped at Paulo’s for a newspaper and entered the door underneath EAT. The diner was sparsely populated at this point in the day. Moontown didn’t sleep, but many of its residents avoided the sun for reasons ranging from the trivial to the fatal. Last night was a full moon, and he heard some of the night shift cops telling stories when he came in last night. There was a winged thing hunched over the counter, gibbering with a golem that smoked its cigarette precisely once every seventeen seconds.

“I know, I know,” said the golem as its iron arms squeaked, “but he made me. I just wish he’d shut up already about his cold, black heart and his thirst for icy revenge.”

The thing grunted something in reply, and a plate levitated from the kitchen to the counter in front of him. There was a small claw sticking out from between two slices.

“No, he always gets this way whenever a broad dumps him,” said the golem, creaking its arm again for a perfect puff.

Longstreet made his way to the back booth. He slumped along the dirty velvet back and let his head rest on the back of the booth for a moment. He had made it back to his office last night just in time for Zielski’s phone call summoning him to the precinct. He didn’t feel like driving anymore and took the train over. The cops on duty ran him through his story pretty hard but at least Zielski let him grab a nap in his office. All he wanted to do was go to the office, pull the shade, and crawl under his desk. But Longstreet knew that Louise would be chatting his ear off as soon as he stepped in the door.

The waitress appeared, covered in cobwebs.

“Why don’t you conjure some coffee for me?” Longstreet asked. The waitress rolled her eyes and did his bidding. He unfolded the paper and began to read.

It was October 7, 1936. The headline was about an inquisition into the disappearance of Al Capone from a Federal prison in Florida. Apparently, Al vanished into thin air from his cell one day. Longstreet scanned the article and shook his head. Big Al was rumored to be the founder of the Guild and the man responsible for bringing sorcery to the crime families. The Guild had started out in Chicago, and some people insisted they had been around for much longer than they had been public. The families that refused to join the Guild were wiped out with a combination of spells, guns, and treachery.

The second article that caught his eye was an editorial from an elf from Boston urging readers to give suffrage to ‘immigrants to this realm’. Longstreet had heard a few cities let nonhumans vote but most politicians were concerned that someone would whistle up a batch of Tenants to shamble down to the polls. Of course, most of the politicians were already working with the Guilds one way or the other. The new graft was charm spells before big speeches and specters spying on rivals. Boston was a perfect example of it. The Goodly Folke were running the South End like New Arcadia, and the Guild boys in the North End were getting upset. Longstreet was glad he only had to deal with the Guild in Chicago. There were a few Folke around but none of them were as organized as the Dagda family in Southie.

The waitress returned with his coffee. “The usual,” he muttered and didn’t look up from the paper. He flipped the pages of the paper with his right hand and wiggled the fingers of his left hand. The spoon on the table lifted into the air and dipped itself into the coffee. The sugar and creamer on the end of the table lifted as well and dropped their contents into the cup. The brief spiral of motion slowed and within a moment, Longstreet had a perfect cup of coffee.

A plate clattered on the table as Longstreet continued to read. The Cubs were petitioning the league to allow Byron Louis to be raised from the dead. Louis was their first-baseman and best hitter. He had died in a car crash shortly after the season ended but had remained remarkably intact. Pro sports had been gun shy when it came to sorcery since Black Magic Monday, when the world saw magic for the first time. He wondered what it must have been like to watch Oscar Rodriguez turn into a werewolf and kill Joe Louis in the ring. He even had the copy of the paper framed in the office. It was the first time regular folks had concrete proof that something had changed in the world. It had been five years since Black Magic Monday, but people were finally realizing they could make money off magic just like anything else. Longstreet had gone to a couple of fights between vampires and gargoyles and they were interesting but nothing noteworthy. The paper even had an editorial cartoon about unicorn races replacing horse races.

Longstreet finished his coffee and laid his money on the table, leaving his food and the paper. He smiled at the waitress and left the diner, tracing back along his path earlier in the morning. He turned down Maynard Street and watched one of the Queen Bee cabs roll out of the dispatch. It was still raining and he wished he had brought the paper with him. He continued for two blocks until he reached DeHut Avenue and the small office building on the corner. It was a modest building with a sparse lobby and no doorman. He walked up two flights of stairs to the third floor of the four story building. He tried the elevator once and didn’t like it. The owner had replaced the cranky mechanism with a levitation spell. The stairs emptied onto a short hallway with four doors, two on each side. As he crossed the hall, a woman bobbed into the elevator opening.

“No, three, I said three…” she stammered as she floated past.

Longstreet made his way to a frosted glass door with the words “Longstreet Investigatons” stenciled on the glass. He put his hand on the door knob and paused. He had forgotten to pick up some gum for Louise. She was definitely not going to be happy.

He entered the office and put his hat on the hat rack next to the door. There was a small metal desk with a typewriter perfectly centered on top. Next to the typewriter was a large stack of paper, a cup of pencils, and an ashtray. The desk was a well-placed barrier to the door to the inner office. The door featured another frosted glass door with “Arthur Longstreet, Owner and Operator” stenciled on it. Other than Longstreet, the office was empty.

Longstreet put his gun in the desk and draped his coat on the hatrack.

“Good morning, Louise,” he said.

After a moment, the typewriter sprang to life.

Good morning, Boss, it typed, glad to see you made it in before noon today.