He stared directly into her emerald green eyes as he set her plate in front of her. By God, she was beautiful. Her smile was almost everything to him, just seeing her smile would turn a bad day completely around. Her pale skin was as soft as her voice which he compared to summer rains.
A pity, he thought to himself, that she has to die, for in her salad, disguised as lettuce leaves were the leaves of a plant, unknown to her, called the deadly nightshade. It was as nightmarish as it sounds.
Almost cherry-like, but similar instructors to the tomato, he disguised the fruit as blueberries. The dressing on the salad was made from the root of the plant, which he harvested at the end of the vegetation period, when the toxins would be the highest.
He watched with a false, realistic smile as she bit into her salad, closing her eyes to savor the sweet flavor of the toxic fruit. Symptoms wouldn't start immediately, but they wouldn't take long.
Once her symptoms started, she knew she'd been poisoned. First came the sweats and hallucinations, then the shortness of breath and trouble breathing, followed by paralysis and moments later, death.
After she had died, he got up and went outside through the back door into the cool night air. He inhaled deeply, the fresh air filling his lungs, then exhaled. He grabbed his shovel from the tool shed, and stabbed the ground.
Yeah right, Marc thought to himself. In this town? It was almost comical.
Killing by using toxins from a plant wasn't exactly unheard of. Marc's first suspicions pointed at The Green Hand.
Were they operating in New York now? Their main domains are London and Delhi. Did Tony Valencia get in too deep with them? And why?
What was the connection with the other three women? Isabella? And the missing boy? He thanked Sam and left. He went to the nearest payphone.
"Operator? Connect me to Joseph Zeo's office."
Meanwhile, Molly found herself at 48th and Broadway, arching one elegantly brow as she took in a series of lurid signs at Cobbs Corner.
Perched above McGinnis mart was the Tango Palace, with signs trumpeting "Beautiful Girls to Dance With!"
"My word." Molly murmured grimly to herself, the scent of roast beef wafting over her from the street level delicatessen in McGinnis. Yesterday seemed far away, when her only option for entertainment a dull night at the opera. Now, in less than twelve hours she had become embroiled in quite the case.
Most of her morning had been spent looking into the background of one Angela McKinnon, the second of the missing girls trumpeted across the newspaper Marc had shown her. Joseph had mentioned she was a taxi dancer, but they had little information to go on as to exactly where.
Luckily, Molly was able to press the reporter for more details, and after connecting several loose ends, was able to track Angela's last known employment to this... glowing establishment.
She checked her wristwatch and eyeballed the building again, debating her options. She could pose as a young New York hopeful looking for employment, but she thought that was unlikely given her obviously tailored wardrobe. Girls didn't become taxi dancers because they made good money after all.
Presently, she decided to try the back entrance. It was nearly 3pm, which meant the girls would be arriving soon to shimmy into their costumes and get ready for a night of dancing with the dregs of New York societé.
In the back alley, near a spindly staircase, Molly delicately arranged her coat about herself and waited, smoking a cigarette. Fortune was in her cards, as she had only been there for ten minutes or so when a petite brunette rounded the corner, head down. Her hair was in pin curls under a kerchief, and she moved towards the back entrance to the Tango Palace at a resolute pace, if not an enthusiastic one.
"Excuse me, Miss... do you work here?" Molly asked with a dazzling smile in her direction. The woman stopped short, looking Molly up and down suspiciously.
"You lost?" she asked. "This isn't the kind of a place for a girl like you."
Molly laughed charmingly. "No, I believe I'm exactly where I need to be." She stepped forward, offering the girl a smoke. After a moment, she accepted.
"You see, I'm looking for someone. Or at least, looking to find out what happened to someone. Angela McKinnon, you're acquainted I presume?"
Understanding flaired in the girls eyes, but the downturned corners of her mouth didn't budge.
"Oh yes, she skipped out of here. Good riddance - damned Corner Girls bring the place down, get the police looking closer than they should, making everything harder. Hard enough to make tips without the billy clubs poking around."
Molly cocked her head. "A... Corner girl?"
The dancer huffed in amusement. "Yeah, the type of dancer who will slip into a dark corner if you know what I mean. Anyway, lady, none of us have heard from her, and I gotta get upstairs. It's not my business, see."
"Yes, well, I'd like to make it your business." Molly stepped forward, smoothly pressing several crisp bills into the girls hand. "A tip, you see. For a little help. I'd like to look around, ask some questions. You'll help me, won't you...?" she paused, waiting for the girl to say her name.
She looked down at the money in her hand, and back up at Molly with surprise. "Ah... Diana. And... sure I guess I could let you in. Just keep a low profile, okay?"
A few hours later, Molly let herself back down the staircase, shaking the scents of cheap perfume, sweat and smoke off her coat.
"Lord have mercy." she said, flagging a cab on the corner. "What a place."
However, her search had turned up some interesting facts, and some names. She had spoken to almost all the girls in the horseshoe pit, greasing details about Angela and her suitors from each with bills, smiles and in one rather offensive exchange, her sapphire necklace.
She gave the driver the address of Zeo's office, ready to share her findings.
As Molly opened the door to Joseph’s office she thought she entered a war zone. The room seemed to be filled with pea soup fog from London. The young socialite coughed as she examined documents fallen onto the unswept floor, ashes and three dozen cigarette butts scattered next to a toppled ashtray.
On the far wall, Joseph busied himself with sticking more news clippings onto the chalkboard, with names, dates and information meticulously written, a stark contrast to his messy surroundings.
“Drilling me dead!” Molly tsked as she stepped over the ashtray, “I need to bring my maid over the next time I visit!”
“Good to see you Molly,” Joseph slurred without looking at her, his mind ten thousand miles away.
Molly noticed both Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes cigarette butts in another ashtray, this time on the table, with one stick still burning. How many ashtrays does a gumshoe office need? “I see that Marc is here,” Molly look around, expecting the excitable detective to pop out from smog, “where is he?”
Just then, Marc pushed through the front door, holding greasy paper bags in both his hands, a Lucky Strike clenched between his teeth.
“Hello Molly,” Marc put down the ‘food’ and exhaled, adding more smoke to the already misty surroundings, “you’re just in time for dinner, you like burgers?”
Molly shook her head and went to open a window, hoping no one would mistaken this place to be on fire and call the marshal. “What have we got here?” Molly returned to chalkboard, arching one exquisite eyebrow.
Marc attacked a burger and spoke between chews, “Joseph and I had worked on putting the cases together all afternoon.” He then filled Molly in about the poisoned foreman by the dock last night, as well as more details on Joseph’s findings. Molly added her bit to the puzzle, and Joseph added in more information onto the wall as Molly spoke.
Finally, Joseph stepped back from the wall and took a long draw on his Chesterfield. Six capitalized names, some with a photograph and some with news clipping, lined up horizontally across the board:
Mateo Hernandez, taxi dancer at Roseland dance hall [Missing since 4th September]
Betty Lebedev, lounge singer [Missing since 10th September]
Angela McKinnon, taxi dancer at Tango Palace [Missing since mid-September]
Isabella Valente, violinist [Missing between 17th-21st September]
Tony Valencia, business man [Missing since 22nd September]
Frederick Giovanni, dock foreman, [Death by poison on 25th September]
The first three names were bundled together in a chalk circle. Interesting facts and possible leads were added underneath each name. A red string ran between Isabella & Tony, with Guy Mauve’s name beneath them, connected with two additional red strings, making a triangle. A yellow string lead from Tony to Giovanni’s name, and below Giavanni, the fraction ‘Green Hand’ was written in green chalk, with a large question mark etched next to it.
“This is peculiar indeed,” Joseph concluded, “Our first three missing persons seemed to be from similar backgrounds: grass root, paid per job, entertainment services — the forgotten clan. Then suddenly we have a rising musician, and her powerful lover, both went missing in the past week.”
“Is it possible that perhaps we are looking at two separate crimes,” Marc queried, “Maybe the two sides are not linked after all?”
“We cannot answer that at this point,” Joseph stated.
“Well, at least we have our next lead, the Green Hand. They do have a chapter in New York City.”
“Yes, a direction that’s worth investigating,” Joseph replied, “plus Guy has invited us to dinner at a bistro near his home. He’s spilling.”
Marc looked at the burger he almost finished, “and you tell me that now?”
Joseph realised he did it again but gave a blank face. Awkward silence.
“I’m sure Marc can eat a proper meal after his greasy appetiser,” Molly winced at the oily paper bags, an I’m-not-touching-that-for-dinner expression on her face, “and Guy’s story is far from done. I just hope he won’t become the seventh name on your chart. The board is running out of room.”
Joseph looked up Guy’s number and dialled.
Guy Mauve wiped his mouth after finishing with his soup. He noticed that only Molly Maltese seemed to be enjoying her meal. The other two detectives, Mr. Zeo and Marc Lacrimosa seemed pretty full and were rather more interested in what he just said.
"So you see, gentlemen, it was all very politically motivated at the end of the day." Guy cleared his throat. "Tony or who ever he was working for, were after young affluent and quite well-known figures in the entertainment industry to be used and trafficked for the pleasure of very high profile individuals, New York politicians mainly and those who revolve around them. I could tell they were a very dangerous bunch early on, and since many of them enjoyed the company of younger men as well as younger women, it seems I was approached by Tony for that very same reason."
"And is that when you broke it off?" Joseph inquired.
"Exactly, and I warned Isabella of what she was getting herself into... but it seems to me she knew very well what she was doing. At least that's what it seemed like to me."
"And what made you stop?" Marc was interested.
"Mr. Lacrimosa, asking a young man with a very promising career why turned down being a glorified prostitute is rather an awkward question wouldn't you say?"
"Nothing awkward when investigating such serious crimes." Marc spoke plainly.
"Well..." Guy thought for a while. "It's not that I did not want the fastest way to fame and success, but I did want to get there safely and in one piece... seems from how things unfolded, my inner voice guided me well to the right path. Would you say Ms. Maltese?"
"Oh rather..." Molly confirmed with a polite nod.
There was still another lead to follow; The Green Hand New York branch. This was something surprising to Marc, who despite having a positive standing with them, was under the impression they mainly operated in England and India. But if the Sicilians can operate casinos in Cuba, then why not?
"Welcome, Marc, come in, come in!" The Guardian General said, standing up. "I've heard a great deal about you, I'm pleased to meet you."
"Likewise," Marc said as he extended his hand, shaking the Guardian General's hand. Marc introduced Joseph, Molly and Guy.
"We're looking into the disappearance-"
"Oh I know exactly why you're here." The Guardian General said. "The disappearances. 5 people, if I recall, three young, beautiful girls, a young boy, and a Tony Valencia."
Marc sat back in his chair, exchanging glances with Joseph.
"All will be answered," The Guardian General assured. "But first, you must do something for us."
"People's lives are in danger," Joseph interrupted. "You honestly, expect favors from us?"
"Not from all of you, just him. " Guardian General said, pointing at Marc.
"Marc, isn't it true we've taught you the secret to pugilism?"
Pugilism is just another word for boxing, but in truth, they did teach him. Marc learned to fight and kill in the army, but The Green Hand taught him to be efficient. To fight with less rage and aggression, and and to channel to, number one, intimidate, and number two, defend.
He led the group out of his office and through a maze of corridors, then down three flights of stairs. As they approached a door, they could hear crowds of people yelling.
Guardian General opened the door to the arena in time to see a large, bald man, punch another man in the face. The two men fought like wild animals, punching and kicking each other. Blood was spilled, and bones broke. The larger man was victorious. His opponent was smaller. He wouldn't die, but he would be in a world of pain for the next month or so.
"Defeat our champion." The Guardian General said "And you'll get all the answers you want.".
Before long, Marc found himself in the arena, shirt, shoes and socks off, for a bare knuckle boxing match.
The champion was a huge man, easily standing at six and a half feet, towering over Marc's five foot and 10 inches.
Marc raised his hands in the fighting position to block the champions first swing. A left hook was followed by a right hook, Marc blocking and dodging both.
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