I'd never even heard of the place. The sea-side town was barely even a blip on the radar, and it stood at the farthest reaches of the county's border. Kixville was, to put it lightly, a rather quaint, run-down little town. So run-down that, if I hadn't received a phone call from the place, I would've guessed at first glance it was vacant. The buildings all looked to be centuries old – the kind that required serious renovation, merely for safety reasons. The type of buildings that stood crooked, decrepit and overgrown with weeds.
Yes, this was a town unlike any other I'd ever seen.
"Yar, this be the last stop," the bus driver croaked. Quite a curious figure, he was. Didn't quite strike me as the 'bus-driving' type. He craned his neck to look out the doors as they slowly creaked open. "Shiver me timbers! Ye best be holdin' onta yer britches out there, lad. Mother Nature be cookin' up a storm!" he pointed out. How very astute of him.
"Thank you. Take care," I answered cordially, stepping gingerly off the bus with my hat securely fastened on my head.
Clearly, the bus driver had not been exaggerating. The former pitter-patter of raindrops had transformed into a raging downpour not to be reckoned with. The storm buffeted my face relentlessly. The thunder and lightning that cracked overhead was enough of a jumpstart to get me moving again and remind me what I was there for.
Midnight was fast approaching. According to the wrinkly old map I'd picked up – which was in just as horrible shape as Kixville itself – the Town Hall was due east, just after I crossed the bridge. "No use dillydallying now," I muttered to myself, stuffing the map back in my jacket and marching off, preparing myself for the meeting to come.
/ / /
"So. Ya decided to show up, eh?" His tone was jesting, but we both knew this was a serious matter.
It was quite a challenge getting a good look at the fella in a storm like this, but whoever he was, he was clearly a tall individual – definitely over six foot, by my estimation. He had a burly, strong-set disposition... But that may have just been my comparative lack of height. The dark figure towered over me, his face shrouded by a deep hood. I was, however, able to identify a pair of small, round, fuzzy ears jutting out through the hood and a rather crooked jaw. The jaw looked like it had formerly been broken in a rumble of sorts, and his yellow-tinted canines gleamed through a toothy grin. Whatever the reason for his disfigured face, things obviously hadn't healed properly.
Based upon my brisk physical character analysis, I deduced one thing. Bear... I thought. Not a type to be messed with. A glimpse of two strong, furry paws confirmed my hypothesis, their claws digging into the wet soil where he stood.
To appear weak in front of a character such as this would have been a costly mistake; and yet, to put up such a brawny facade that I would appear fake – or worse, threatening – could have been catastrophic. Undoubtedly, I had to tread lightly.
"What did you call me here for?"
"Sure don't waste no time, do ya, Mr. Coons," the figure chuckled. The mood of his laughter sent chills down my very spine. "Very well. Can ya keep secrets, Mr. Coons?"
I frowned but assumed the darkness of the evening would mask my response. "Depends."
The six-foot bear shook his head disappointedly. "Not good enough, Coons. I need yer word on it." He clearly meant business.
I was, to say the least, slightly impressed with his tactical speech. He was making it impossible for me to feel in control. This bear was certainly no fool – he knew what he wanted, and he knew just how to get it. "Fine," I sneered. "You have my word. I won't breathe a word of this meeting to a single soul."
"How can I be sure?" the creature was obviously not convinced. But I couldn't tell what it was he wanted.
"I'm a man of my word, you can be sure." The lamest excuse ever, and we both knew it. What was there to say? I was beginning to question the wisdom in ever coming to Kixville in the first place.
He chuckled once again. "10,000 bells oughta seal the deal," he decided with such calm that it made me nervous. He was clearly aware of his grip on the situation.
"10 grand?" I gasped, letting out a faint, nervous chuckle of my own. "You must be joking...! How can I be sure I can trust you?"
"You callin' me a liar, Coons?" the bear growled, irritated. I froze stiff when I suddenly felt another presence behind me, a sharp object pointed threateningly into my back.
Realization hit me like a bag of bricks. How could I have been so naïve?! I scolded myself. They're going to rob me right here, right now, and send me on my merry way...
"I'll use that cash as a place holder," the shrouded character elaborated. "Once the job's complete, I'll return the bells to ya – with the fifty grand I'll owe ya fer gettin' things done. Wouldn't want ya wimpin' out on me now, would I." The figure smiled deviously again, the scowl on his face just moments beforehand completely gone.
I gulped nervously, struggling to hold onto any scrap of authority I could muster. There was no choice now but to trust him. "A-Alright, fine," I muttered grudgingly, fidgeting anxiously against the point of – what I deduced to be – the knife. "10,000 bells exactly. Just tell your friend here to back off." I clutched a small money bag of ten thousand bells in my quivering hand and held it out as an offering.
"Excellent." He whisked the money bag out of my grasp and peeked inside, nodding his approval. I was overcome by a wave of relief as I felt the person behind me back off – no more knife. Just to be safe, I pulled down on my hat. It was floppy – soaking wet. I'm sure I looked more than a little disheveled to whoever else might have been standing around at the time.
"Now here lies my predicament," the hooded bear continued. He spoke with a less defensive voice now, seeming to release his guard some. Once he knew I was trustworthy, that is (or gullible enough to give in). "A while back, my pals an' I had some plans goin' for us. Now, I'll admit – they weren't exactly the legal-est of plans, but they were plans. They got to be done, with all the time an' effort spent plannin'. An' you wanna know the funny part?"
I answered with intent silence – the kind of silence that said I was listening.
"Our comrade suddenly went missin'. In the nick a time, too! It was just the darnedest thing..."
"And you want me to track this man down for you," I finished for him. It was amazing, really, how much more tender his tone had become. He spoke as if I was part of 'the gang'.
"I thought he was jus' wimpin' out or somethin'... But it's been almost three weeks. It's diconcertin'."
This was going to be a tough case... Not only were the clients difficult, but evidence would be slim. And the worst part?
This case had the potential to spoil my golden reputation.
Sure, it might be the job to get me back on the map – but certainly not the map I wanted to be on. I'd get stuck doing the dirty work for illegal, low-life clients. And that wasn't the kind of work I was looking for. "...And what if I say no?"
"Then we'll just pretend this meetin' never happened."
There it was again – a blade against my back. I shivered, pulling down more on my hat. Unusually enough, I was actually beginning to feel a tad woozy. Not really of my nature to get dizzy like that. "You got me," I surrendered, still shivering. There was no point in playing the part of the strong and stubborn when the other man already knew he had you beat. "I'm on the job."
"Perfect." There was that crooked, toothy grin again. "Here's a number to reach me at, if there's concerns an' questions at all." He handed me a small piece of paper. I couldn't make out the chicken scratch – the night was too dark, and the writing too messy. I stuck the paper in my inside pocket, hoping the pocket was still dry – although I felt soaked to the bone as it was.
Something possessed me for an instant, in a rare moment of unawareness, and I reached out to grasp my new client's shoulder to keep him from walking off just yet. I immediately recoiled, frightened by the scowl across his face when he turned back around. "You... didn't give me your name."
The scowl transformed into a sketchy smile of sorts, and he merely answered, "Call me Mr. G, and jus' leave it at that." And, with a whip of lightning and a crack of thunder, he was off. Just like that.
/ / /
I stumbled clumsily along, trying to make my way back to the bus stop. I was frazzled, woozy, and out of it. Way out of it. It wasn't long before I diagnosed myself feverish. I was feeling incognizant and my vision was fading... It may have been a result of the raging storm, or the intense amount of emotional stress I'd just suffered – or a strange mix of both.
Whatever the cause, I ended up passed out. I fell to my knees before losing my balance and landing face-first in the muddy soil, all the while clutching my hat to my skull as if life depended on it.
Being feverish was a strange sensation, indeed.