Outside the dingy second-floor window of the Maxwell Special Investigations office, Bayside City drags itself through another sweltering summer day. The street is quiet. As quiet, at least, as the ubiquitous municipal dynamism allows it to be.
Mark leans back at his desk and stretches. The rattling fan half-heartedly stirs the sluggish air. It’s not a day for people to be out stirring up mischief. Too bad, what with the rent coming due.
It’s July, 1940.
His spine hardly aches anymore. Mark had been mildly surprised to wake up at all, much less in a clean white bed in St Lucy’s Hospital. He had wondered if it had all been a terrible dream. But then Stacey had noticed he was awake, and began gushing about panicking when he didn’t show in the morning and hearing about the earthquake and searching everywhere and how dare he scare her like that and the doctors didn’t know if you’d ever wake up and who was that mysterious Greek lady she saw sitting by his bed? She’d saved all the newspapers during the time you’d been in the coma. Eventually she gave you enough peace to read about the freak earthquake downtown that demolished a couple city blocks and left the rest of the city untouched.
But the casts are now finally off and it’s time to get back to work.
If only there was anything happening to investigate.
Stacey bursts in, nervously fanning herself, bringing in lunch. She’d insisted, saying Mark should be resting that leg. She’d taken to looking in on him frequently during the day, as if he were going to suddenly disappear or something.
“I brought Chinese, I hope that’s okay. Everything okay here? Any calls? Well I’m right outside if you need anything.” She turns to go.
“Oh wait. I just saw the weirdest thing. Some guy out there was carrying a trenchcoat. That wasn’t the weird thing, though. It just reminded me. Last night I was out with Jake and there was this guy walking down the street. I mean, it was like the hottest night all year, but this one guy was in this big black trenchcoat and hat, and was wearing these weird red glasses—you know, the lenses were tinted red—and like a necklace with a pendant with a bunch of circly things on it. It was red, too. The pendant. And I thought, who would be out at night like that at night in this heat wearing that kind of weird getup? Weird. He was kind of looking around, too, like he was nervous about being caught or something. Anyway. look at me, rattling on like an idiot. Are you okay? Anything else I can get you?”
Mark thinks to himself: _Black coat? Red glasses? Red pendant? Is this an imposter, or am I sleepwalking with a slightly different get-up?
Well, makes no difference to me.
Nope; doesn’t matter at all. I can take it, or leave it.
I can …_
“Stacy, where were you and … Jake … when you saw this guy?”
“Oh, we were downtown, on our way to the Ruby Lounge. You know it? It’s on 14th Avenue, across from the Murray building. Say, you don’t think he was up to something dastardly, do you?”
“Could be. Someone sneaking around is probably up to something.” I know I am when I’m sneaking around. “Dunno about ‘dastardly’, though. Notice anything in the papers about him?”
“Nope. Can’t say I read anything about him in the papers.
“No, wait. I thought he looked familiar. There was a picture of a guy like that on the Tower Times a couple days ago. You know, that tabloid rag? Trenchcoat, dark glasses, necklace thingamajig. Huh. Didn’t read it, just saw it on the newsstand.
“Anyway, anything I can get you, you let me know, okay?”
Mark does some digging after hours. Turns out they keep back copies of that particular rag at the Public Library for some reason. Your tax dollars at work.
It doesn’t take long to find. “Mystery Man Abduction/Sabotage Plot Foiled.” The article goes on to explain how this mysterious figure disrupted power to the Murray building and set the building on fire, threatening hundreds of innocent citizens, while attempting to kidnap a millionaire child heiress in a plot by the Italian Fascist Mafia funded by Mussolini and the Masonic Templars of Rome. The picture doesn’t look much like Mark in his other form: the man in it is wearing dark glasses (presumably red in the black-and-white picture) and is much broader of build than Mark. The pendant doesn’t look much like the Spirit Sign except for having circle patterns in it.
That night Mark heads down to the Ruby Lounge. People come and go, looking for a good time and generally finding it. The man isn’t immediately apparent.
Mark goes into ‘stake out’ mode. He finds an all-night cafe on the corner where he can see the Ruby Lounge and one of the entrances to the Murray building. The night wears on, people come and go, the waitress gets progressively annoyed as Mark only gets coffee refills.
Around eleven o’clock, Mark notices a man in a black trenchcoat and black fedora walk past the cafe toward the Murray building. The man looks like he’s trying to be inconspicuous and not doing a very good job of it.
Time to go to work. Mark heads out, leaving his usual tip, and nonchalantly tails the fellow, suspecting a clumsy frame-up, or a trap. He begins to follow the black-coated person, who keeps looking around, hesitates when turning a corner, proceeds cautiously past doorways and phone booths, relaxes a little under the street lights, hurries past the darkest places. After about the third time around the block Mark begins to wonder if the man is actually headed anywhere.
Whenever the mysterious man notices a pedestrian, he glances at them, stares a bit, then continues his walk.
Mark continues to follow until he gets to a well-lit corner. He pats down his coat, hoping for a smoke, but unfortunately his earlier tobacco purge had been quite thorough. No smoke shops in the area. Maybe he should invest in some chewing gum…
Mark waits at the corner. The night is cool, at least compared with the days. Something about the dark sky, and the street lights, and the hushed, disconnected noises of the city…it fits like an old glove.
The man comes back into sight, continuing his nocturnal circuit. Near as Mark can tell, behind the rose-colored glasses, he notices Mark and immediately ignores him.
Mark calls out, “Hey, bud. What’s with the get-up?”
The man just about jumps out of his shoes.
“What?!” he spins toward Mark, flinching away just a bit. Then he takes a deep breath.
“Buzz off,” he mutters, and resumes his walk.
Mark walks up to him and puts his hand on the man’s shoulder. “I said, what’s with the get-up?”
“What’s it to you, anyway?” he snarls. The man feels rather beefy under his coat. “Beat it before…Mark?”
The man slides his red sunglasses down his nose and peers over them.
“Hey, Mark Maxwell. How you been? Feels like a month!” Mark recognizes one of the toughs from the Rusty Nail. “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ illegal, Mark. Just so’s you know. Just walkin’.” He keeps glancing up from the conversation, looking into the night shadows.
“I know; just walkin’. But, really, what’s with that get-up? Is that the new style these days, or something?”
“Aw man, would you button it about the costume? It’s embarrassing. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ illegal or anything, just got to meet a guy.” He looks around nervously. “An’ word to the wise, you don’t want to be around if he shows up. I know I don’t. But a job’s a job, you know? I’m hoping he finds one of the others before he finds me, you know what I mean? You’d better amscray if you know what’s good for you. And that’s just friendly advice.”
“A job? Talking to someone is that dangerous? They must have offered you a lot o’ dough for this. Who’d offer a job like that?”
“Well, y’know, Tibia Jones” (a bookie known for a trail of broken legs) "don’t wait forever. I really thought the stupid Hawks would actually win that last doubleheader. They’re due, y’know? But no, still got their crazy losing streak goin’.
“But this job’ll pay him off, and leave some for rent. And maybe I won’t be the guy he finds, and I still get paid. There’s like six guys out there. And you know the job’s for real when it comes from…oh no. I ain’t talking about him. I flap too much about my clientele, I end up with all the chump jobs. Forget it, Mark. No hard feelin’s, but it ain’t worth my skin. The guy I’m lookin’ for is plenty creepy, but sometimes it’s better the devil you don’t know, if you get my drift.”
“Rats. Business has been slow, and this sounded like a cushy gig. Oh, well. Hope you don’t find the guy you’re looking for.”
“If business is that slow, I feel sorry for ya. Hey, maybe I’ll…nah, if he wanted your help he’d ask. Still, if I hear about anybody needin’ a detective, I’ll give you a plug.”
The man wanders off down the dark street, nervously scanning the shadows.
Mark looks for a potential hiding place…there’s an alley nearby. From there, Mark could make his way up the fire escape and along a ledge to the main entrance overhang. People don’t look up all that often, and whoever’s out walking that night should walk right past it.
The next day is fairly uneventful. Stacey leaves early to meet with that Jake guy at the park. Mark hears Mrs McGillicuddy, the landlady, loudly chew out the custodian two floors away. Night falls. It’s time to head out.
Perched over the entrance to the Murray building, Mark looks for the decoy. It doesn’t take long. Here he comes.
The Sigil circles spin and align into the Sign of Thought. The muscle’s mind smells like old motor oil and peanut butter. It squirms in panic until Mark gets a good grip on it.
“Holy catfish!” the thug mutters, eyes wide, trembling. “What’s going on? I feel…I feel…it’s him! He’s…he’s haunting my dreams!” He falls to his knees, covering his head with his arms. “Get away! Get away! Stay out of my dreams!”
Mark picks though the confusion of thoughts. He finds that the job came through an intermediary, but is ultimately funded by the Milkman, a mysterious, feared gang boss. The message is for something nicknamed the Dream Haunter, a terrifying man in black with red eyes and a strange medallion. The message is: “If you ever want to see the elevator girl alive again, be in the skylight study at the Lakes estate at 7:30 tomorrow night.”
Mark thinks: Huh. I never expected to see the elevator girl again, anyway.
Mark looks through this guy’s thoughts for anything he can find on the Milkman. In the thug’s mind, the Milkman is a shadowy crime boss about whom you don’t ask questions. People who cross him have a habit of disappearing. Nobody knows his real name, and he contacts people through intermediaries.
Mark leaves the thug huddled against the building, terrified but trying to comfort himself with the thought of a finder’s bonus.
He then goes and does what research he can on who this “Milkman” is.
The police stations are still open. After the typical stonewalling and verbal antipathy toward the P.I. trade, Mark works the Conversation with one of the loudmouths on the force around to the subject, and gets an earful of how there is no record of anyone named “Milkman”, just that the word makes the gangsters clam up.
At the Rusty Nail, Mark learns that hinting at speculations about the Milkman is a great way to end a conversation and get a table all to yourself.
The Lakes estate is home to a local self-made millionaire industrialist, a leading citizen of Bayside City. Mark walks past the gated grounds in the night, noticing a night watchman on his rounds. There are no lights on this late at night, but there is a greenhouse-like structure on top of the three-story mansion.
Floor plans might be available from the county offices, but it might take Mark some really fast talking to get his hands on them. He seems to remember one of those photo magazines doing a shoot on the estate. Maybe the library has back issues. Too bad it’s closed at this hour of the morning.
Well, tomorrow night is tomorrow night. Or maybe it’s tonight, if it’s morning. Whatever it is, it’s late. Mark heads off to bed.
The next day, Stacey demands to know what’s going on and why Mark is dragging himself in at noon and where is he going off to again anyway. She decides with exasperation that it’s one of those cases, and seriously attacks her nail polishing as Mark walks out to do more investigation.
Ezra Lakes was a entrepreneur during the American Revolution. He made his fortune selling guns to the rebels and supplies to pioneers, and married a young noblewoman fleeing the French Revolution. His family expanded their holdings until they owned a piece of nearly every industry on the eastern seaboard, and then lost just about all of it in the Depression. His descendant Landeau is the family patriarch nowadays, and has gone a long way to restore the family fortune, through a myriad of deals and speculation in every imaginable sector.
The mansion was built back in the 90s outside Ezra’s favorite city. Some say it was on sacred Indian land, some say on a slave market’s boneyard. The layout is fairly conventional, three stories, lots of rooms, with the rooftop greenhouse (which the owners like to call their “skylight”) as the only apparent remarkable feature. It was revamped for modern plumbing and electricity not long ago.
As to the girl, Mark never got her name and has little idea who she might be. Her picture doesn’t seem to appear in any magazine or newspaper articles about the Lakes family from the last few years. Before that, she’d be too young.
The rest of the afternoon, Mark digs into crime patterns. It takes some research, but Mark discovers that compared to other Atlantic cities, Bayside City has noticeably less record of kidnapping and prostitution and more of gambling and gang-on-gang violence, much of which goes unresolved by the police.
It’s getting pretty late in the afternoon—or early in the evening.
Well, here goes nothin’, Mark thinks to himself. Time to set the plan in motion.