Stanley Price awoke to the smell of corruption.
His cracked window had allowed a breeze to flow into the room. It was from the south and wafted over the tide pools near his one room house, or shit-shack, as he liked to call it, on the beach of Port Aransas, Texas.
Price squinted at his alarm clock and found it was almost noon. It had been ages since he’d had to set that alarm. Ages since he’d had any real work after leaving Houston’s Finest under questionable circumstances.
He ran a hand over the nightstand and found what was left of his rot gut booze in a glass he’d quit washing a long time ago.
Price took the last swallow and felt it land in his empty stomach like a lead weight.
He pulled himself up from the sweaty sheets. He took a deep breath of the foul air. He found himself fixated for moment on his stained underwear and wondered if his monthly stipends for water and electricity would continue. Just the insane thought of having enough assets for any type of nuclear power made him laugh, and the laugh made him cough. He swallowed a warm lump of phlegm and frowned and stood up.
Price felt a slight dizziness that passed quickly. He rubbed the cracked, mucous sleep from the corners of his eyes and went and sat at the rickety table he’d found discarded down the beach about a year ago. He wished he’d saved enough tokens for a cup of black coffee. His emaciated frame should have wanted food as well, but he’d learned to bypass the hunger urges along with his sex drive and his dignity.
“Shit,” Price croaked through a parched throat. “All this high tech crap running the world and I don’t even have water to drink or to wash my filthy clothes with.”
The knock on the door passed through his mind like a shadow. He dismissed it to the hot breeze from the Gulf, or his own imagination.
When the knock came a second time, Price went to the night stand and took out his Smith and Wesson .38 Special. He cracked the cylinder and counted three shells. “Might stop one of the Goon Cyborg Squad for a minute,” he thought and then sighed, knowing they always traveled in groups of three. “They must have found out about the illegal rot gut,” Price guessed. He grinned cynically and walked to the door.
The afternoon heat was already filling the ramshackle residence. Price’s sour body odor competed with the tide pool stench. “I hope they take a deep breath,” he said to himself as he stood against the door and looked out the grimy peephole. “I’ll be damned,” Price declared out loud. “That you, Mendez?”
* * * *
“When you gonna’ get out of this puke-hole, Price?”
Angel Mendez— profiteer, pirate, boot-legger, pimp . . . you name it, and he’d do it or get it.
Angel moved back and forth across the Mexico-U.S. border without constraint.
His connections went from El Presidente in Mexico City, to the Texas Governor, and even, some believed, as far as The White House.
But he’d never personally killed a soul intentionally or by accident.
Price stared at the athletic build and privileged smile of Mendez and felt a short-lived jealousy. “You’re sitting at one of the three pieces of what passes for furniture in this ‘puke-hole’, and you have to ask why I’m still here, Mendez?” Price sat the Smith and Wesson down on the table. “No dinero, amigo.”
Mendez crinkled his nose and commented, “Not enough for air freshener, that’s for sure.”
Price scowled then let out a strained laugh. Mendez did the same.
“What if I told you I got a job for you, Price,” Mendez said through his waning amusement.
Price’s chuckles ceased. He ran thin fingers over the .38’s smooth handle. “I’d say you are out of touch. Loco in la cabeza.” Price closed his eyes for a moment against the rising temperature in the room. When he opened them, Price noticed Mendez’s white, silk, shirt was already soaked through with perspiration. Price grinned. If nothing else, they had sweat in common. “In case it’s slipped your mind, Mendez, Houston P.D. blackballed me. If I get caught doing anything other than cleaning shithouses, I will be put away for the remainder of my already miserable life.” Price expelled a heavy sigh. “Hell, Mendez, the monthly allotment they give me was almost nullified. It ain’t much, but it keeps me in water and ramen noodles and an occasional cup of coffee.” He paused then added with a sneer, “And what prohibited, rot gut whiskey I can get from some of your associates.”
“You must know something or you wouldn’t get that.”
Price shook his head. “I still got a few connections, Mendez. Not many, but a few who feel a little pity for me.”
“No one seems to know what you did anyway, Price. Something involving the premature disposal of a certain congresswoman’s son, right?’
Price raised his eyes to Mendez and gave him a hard look. “I also learned how to keep my mouth shut.”
Mendez grinned and nodded. “Sure, sure.” He pulled a flash drive from his shirt pocket and slid it across the table toward Price. “Take a look, amigo. See if this offer is worth your time.”
Price got up and ambled over to his rumpled, sweat-stained bed. He bent down and grabbed something from under it, walked back to the table and laid a beat up lap top on it. He glanced at Mendez and informed him, “I don’t have much power left in the lithium cell. And I don’t get my measly five hundred token allotment until the first of next month.” Price flipped the lap top open and added. “I’ve been without purified water almost a week now, and I’m damned tired of desalinating from the Gulf with the shit equipment I pieced together with duct tape and rubber bands, so this better be good and not of waste of time and battery power.”
* * * *
“How in Christ did they escape from the Goon Cyborg Squad?”
Price handed the flash drive back to Mendez then powered down the lap top and closed the lid.
Mendez frowned. “It was that prick Jennings,” he advised and shrugged his shoulders. “You know, that guy who won some kind of big prize for research back in the day.”
Mendez snapped his fingers. “Yeah. That’s him.”
Price chuckled. “Yeah, some prize all right . . . .Just the fucking Nobel Prize for his work on Cyborgs.”
“Anyway, Jennings didn’t install a termination date on any of them.”
“Doesn’t sound like something a brainiac like Jennings would overlook.”
“He didn’t do it on purpose,” Mendez explained. “Jennings was going to extort cash from Universal Pictures. They still own the copyright for their Famous Monster series. He just assumed they were the consortium who was behind his manufacturing the Cyborg versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man.”
Price couldn’t help but laugh. “Who in the hell would want to have those things built then?”
“You can ask,” Mendez advised. “But I can’t tell you.”
“Can you let me in on why?”
“Sure, amigo. Last Halloween there was a supertechtronics convention at the Houston Pavilion. This company, who’s name must be withheld,” Mendez continued after clearing his throat, “thought they could liven things up and get some customers for their new hydro-converter system by putting on a show with some of Universal’s Famous Monsters.” Mendez smiled. “Heard it went over big too, until the monsters got away, that is.”
“The Goon Cyborg Squad didn’t catch any of them?” Price asked.
“Actually, they did. All but one. And that’s where you come in. The company that hired Jennings wants you to find the one that got away.”
“Just find it, right?”
Mendez shook his head. “No way. That’s not your expertise, Price.”
Price let out a long sigh. “I don’t do that anymore, Mendez.”
“Pays 1.5 million tokens, Price.”
“How much!?” Price asked. “My ears are a bit clogged with dirt, Mendez. I thought you said 1.5 million. That can’t be right.”
“Well, I get fifteen per cent for hiring you,” Mendez informed. “But that still leaves you a hefty pay day, Price.”
“Why so much?”
“It’s dangerous. Very dangerous.”
Price glanced around the one room dwelling. His eyes lingered on the wobbly table and nightstand, and on the decrepit bed. The hot air in the room suddenly seemed more foul and cloying. He brought his attention back to Mendez. “For the sake of argument, let’s say I took the job. Please tell me it was the Mummy that got away. It’s not the most dexterous of that group. I can probably take care of him with no problem.”
Mendez chuckled. “You wish,” he said. “No, it was the Wolf Man they couldn’t catch.”
“That’s right. Already been twelve murders that Houston P.D. can verify. Who knows how many there’s been in the Forbidden Districts.”
Price felt his stomach tighten. It had been so long since he had hunted anybody down, much less killed them, he wasn’t certain he’d have the confidence for the job anymore. Besides, this was the Wolf Man, and a Cyborg version at that. That combination of machine and flesh had to be deadly.
“I don’t know, Mendez. It’s been awhile, and, in case you didn’t notice, I’m not in the best of physical condition anymore.”
Mendez’s face went blank for a moment. A slow grin spread over it as he stated, “Look at you, Price. Sitting at a wobbly table in your shit-stained skivvies, living in a dilapidated beach house and trying to squeeze out an existence on five hundred tokens a month . . . and not certain how long you can depend on that pitiful allotment either.”
Price flushed. He picked up the .38 and aimed it Mendez. “Maybe I’ll just shoot you, amigo. I can sell that stylish wardrobe of yours on the black market, and I’ll just bet you’ve got a flash drive embedded with a lot of tokens on your body somewhere. Knowing you, you had a scrotal pocket implanted.”
“Nobody likes to play with someone else’s balls, Price,” Mendez said with a big grin. He reached across the table and pushed the gun to one side. “I know you better, Price. You’re not a murderer. You’re a cleaner.”
Price smirked and put the gun back down on the table.
“So, why don’t you put on whatever filthy clothes you have, Price, and come with me to one of my condos on Padre Island,” Mendez offered. “I’ll let you live there for free until you get paid.”
“You mean if I live long enough to get paid.”
Mendez stood up and wiped away the perspiration rolling down his face. “I got faith in you,” he announced. He stared at Price for a minute. “I’ll even throw in some new clothes and a few cases of cigarettes. Can’t get smokes here in the states anymore. At least not without risking incarceration.”
“Hell, amigo, let me get dressed then.”
As they drove away in Mendez’s Hydro Lincoln Town Car, Price asked, “By the way, what happened to Jennings? You said he was going to blackmail Universal.”
Mendez opened the ashtray. He pulled a pack of Marlboroughs from the center console and handed them to Price. “The company that had hired him locked Jennings in a room with the Dracula Cyborg,” Mendez said and took a cigarette that Price offered from the pack. He pushed the car’s lighter in and added. “By the time the sun went down, Jennings was begging them to let him out.” Mendez puffed fire onto his cigarette’s end and passed the lighter to Price. “Jennings was then more than happy to terminate the creatures that had been recovered,” Mendez said through a cloud of swirling smoke. “Coarse they blew his brains out after he had neutralized the Famous Monsters Cyborgs.”
“Nobel Prize brains,” Price noted with a visible shudder. He took a long drag of his cigarette and laid his head back and let the smoke curl slowly out of his nose.
* * * *
The black and white glossy Price held was of Lon Chaney Jr.
Price sat in the idling hunk of junk Toyota Mendez had acquired for him. It was one of the early hydro models and had rank exhaust fumes seeping through cracks in the floorboards. Price thought it smelled like a cross between the inside of a dry cleaners and about a thousand wet dogs. But even in the area of Houston where his search had led him, Price had to keep the vehicle running. A gang could appear at any moment. To them, the broken down Toyota would be a piece of paradise.
Looking at the photo again, Price couldn’t help but laugh at what Mendez had said.
“Guy’s name is Larry Talbot,” Mendez had informed when he handed Price a box of photos. Mendez pulled out the one of Lon Chaney Jr. and said in all seriousness. “This is him here, Price. Looks nice enough until the full moon cycle,” Mendez added and then handed Price a photo of the fully transformed beast.
“You dumb shit,” Price had interjected. “Didn’t you ever see any of these old movies?”
Mendez had flushed but held back his anger. “I don’t have time for any of that bullshit.” He pointed a finger at Price. “And don’t call me dumb. A shit maybe, but not a dumb one.”
Price chuckled again and cracked his windows. The June heat mixed with the exhaust fumes was too much, even if such an action was not a good idea in one of the Forbidden District neighborhoods.
He had figured this is where the Wolfman, a.k.a. Larry Talbot, would hide. It’s where Price would have.
“So Jennings had gone the gambit on the Cyborg Universal Monsters,” Price thought to himself. “Even had the Wolfman transform back and forth between wolf and human. Quite a trick. Jennings must have used some type of flexible but sound metal alloy frame.”
Price then wondered with amusement if Dracula had been able to turn into a bat.
About that time, it started to rain. Price then noticed a figure huddled in a raincoat standing by a corner that led to an alleyway. Whoever it was, Price speculated they must have been smothering what with that thick raincoat pulled up all the way to their chin.
Price pulled his .38 Special from the glove compartment. There were five rounds in the chamber now. Silver bullets supplied by Mendez, but they would kill a normal citizen just as well as any other.
The rain came down harder. Price switched on the wipers. Only the driver’s side were functional. “Figures,” he thought and noticed through the rolling drops on the passenger side windshield that the figure was now gone.
Price leaned forward to wipe away fog that was forming on the inside of the windshield. A crash exploded by his ear. He fell unconscious through a burst of shattered glass.
* * * *
“They must be paying you a great deal.”
The voice entered Price’s head like a far away echo, like a distant sigh heard in a seashell.
Price squinted against his returning vision. He put his hand on the back of his head and felt something wet and sticky. He moaned as an escalating ache began to spread.
Price took in his surroundings. He was propped up in the corner of a small room. There were lines of shelving that had been pulled down. Deteriorating cardboard boxes and shreds of plastic littered the floor. He guessed the space had once been a store room of some kind. There was a dank and rotten odor about the place, and also that distinctive smell left behind by birds that had once roosted there.
The room was murky. What little light that made it in from outside was dim at best because of the overcast day. But even so, Price could see the silhouette crouched nearby, and the wet raincoat lying beside it on the cement floor.
The form lifted its head and the shadowy lines of the jowl-faced Lon Chaney Jr. emerged through the gloom.
Price instinctively went for his gun, fumbling around his belt.
Chaney, or Talbot if you will, held up the .38. “Looking for this?” he asked Price.
Price felt his stomach tighten. His mind flashed back to the one hundred thousand down-payment he had left in the wall safe of Mendez’s beach house. He cursed himself for not taking the money and getting the hell out of dodge when he had had the chance. But the total payment was too tempting. It would have come close to setting Price up for life.
But now . . .
“Price, isn’t it?” Chaney asked.
Price frowned. “How’d you find me?” he inquired. “Hell, how’d you even know about me?”
Chaney touched his nose and said with amusement, “Wolf Man? Heightened senses?”
“More like I got ratted out,” Price suggested. “It’s hard for even the Wolf Man to smell out a contract.”
“These photos,” Chaney said and pointed to the box Mendez had given Price. Along with the perpetrator’s personal images were the brutal crime scene shots. “Did I really kill all those people?” Chaney swallowed with audible hardness. “Really mutilate them like that?”
Price frowned against the pain in his head. “You’re the Wolf Man, aren’t you? Think you’d talk them to death or something?”
Chaney’s look of abject despair was like a slap to Price’s face. Chaney pulled the photos from the box and crumpled them in his hands. He grimaced and wept and screamed, “No! I wouldn’t!” He slung the photos across the room. He walked over to Price and knelt down. Chaney’s face was wet with tears. “I don’t even remember being born,” he sobbed. “Where did I come from? Why can’t I remember anything? Why am I a werewolf?”
Price glanced at the revolver Chaney had laid down just across from him. He shoved Chaney, catching the big Cyborg off guard. Chaney lost his balance and fell sideways. Price scrambled across the floor and grabbed the .38. He had a bead on Chaney as the man was trying to stand.
The explosion reverberated like thunder in the small room.
Chaney hit the floor. He turned over slowly and tried to push himself up, but the silver bullet did its work swiftly. He crumpled into a ball and screamed in agony. He had transformed about half of his body when he died.
The heavy smell of cordite merged with the dank, decayed stench of the room.
Price tried to swallow the lump of fear caught in his throat as he stared at the flattened snout, the incomplete emergence of vicious teeth, and the wiry, scattered patches of dark fur on the form spread out on the cold, concrete floor.
* * * *
“I knew I could count on you, Price.”
Mendez’s voice broke through the curtain of tranquilizer sleep Price had been shrouded in for two days. The event with Chaney had unnerved him.
“Huh?” Price rose up from the living room couch in the beach condo. No way he was going to sleep into a confined space like a bedroom anytime soon.
Price swung his bare legs over the side of the couch. He rubbed his eyes.
“You bring the rest of the contract money?” he asked though a yawn.
Mendez cleared his throat. “Not exactly,” he said and stood away from an open doorway. “She did.”
Price saw a middle-aged woman dressed in a frumpy suit enter. The clothes looked too tight on her puffy frame.
“Excuse me?” Price asked. “Who is this, Mendez?”
The woman answered before Mendez could. “We never met officially, Mr. Price. I’m Robert Dutton’s mother.” The woman smiled a haunted smile. Now that Price looked closer, she also appeared pale and sickly.
And then the recollection hit him.
“Congresswoman Dutton?” Price inquired through a sudden nausea.
She shook her head yes and handed Mendez a small envelope. “The balance is in the envelope, Mr. Mendez.” She then stared hatefully at Price. “I only wish my son were here to see this.”
“Hey, just a second,” Price shouted as she walked out the door. Mendez closed it before Price could slip on his discarded trousers lying on the floor by the couch. “What does she have to do with all of this, Mendez?” he asked with one leg in and one leg out of his pants.
“Sit back down, amigo,” Mendez said flatly.
“But I need to explain to her about her son,” Price said nervously as he continued to try and get dressed. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The drug dealer I was supposed to take out tried to hide in the toilet. The bullet went through him and into the next stall. How was I to know…”
Mendez opened the front door again. A tall man walked in. He glanced around the condo as if he were confused.
Mendez pulled open the curtains covering a large bay window. Moonlight flooded the condo. The tall stranger immediately gravitated to the window. He stood as if in rapture and stared at a spectral full moon suspended above the Gulf of Mexico.
Price recognized the man then.
“Was it you, Mendez, or Dutton’s mother who tipped off Chaney?” Price asked as he slid his hand under the couch cushion, searching for the weapon he had hidden there.
Mendez smiled and held up Price’s .38 Special. “Looking for this, amigo?”
Price felt a sinking feeling embrace him. “Didn’t figure Chaney would turn out to be so guilt ridden did you? Thought I would be just another statistic. Thought Dutton would get her pound of flesh in the bargain, right?”
“I could not say no to 1.5 million, Price.” Mendez slid the gun inside his waist band. “I knew you could find Chaney. You always were a good bloodhound. Better than any Cyborg.” Mendez shrugged. “It worked out for the congresswoman, the company that had hired Jennings, and me.” He grinned weakly. “Not so good for you though, Price.”
“So what now?’ Price asked, glancing at the man by the window. “How the hell does a Benicio Del Toro Cyborg fit in?” Price raised his eyebrows. “He is a Cyborg isn’t he?”
“Sure he is. The company thought it would be fun to have both of Universal’s Wolfmen at the supertechtronics convention” Mendez chuckled and stated, “Now it is you who forget movie stars and their roles, amigo.”
“Wait a minute,” Price said with a sense of escalating dread. “Del Toro was in the remake of The Wolf Man. Universal released it back in the early 2000’s. I . . .”
The Benicio Del Toro Cyborg turned away from the window. His facial features were already beginning to alter. “Why does it fascinate me so?” he asked and turned back and looked once more at the moon. “I want to dance with it, make love to it.” He twisted back around. The terrible visage of his face sent a shiver through Price. “The moon, she is a cold and distant maiden.” Hair began to sprout over his arms and face. “She is … unkind.”
Price glanced back at Mendez just in time to see Mendez exit and close the door behind him.
Price should have been terrified then, but a strange and unexpected calm enveloped him instead. He sat back on the couch not even bothering with his half-dressed condition. He pulled a cigarette from its pack on the end table by the couch, lit it, and took a long drag.
“I didn’t recognize the movie role,” Price said to an absent Mendez as he let the smoke curl slowly out of his mouth and nostrils, “because I hate fucking remakes.”
A baleful howl filled the room as Price crushed out the cigarette in the ashtray on the end table.
His throat was torn away before he could expel the warm cloud of smoke dwelling in his lungs.