(McCarthy Avenue, District X)
Hanna Levy’s toaster has broken. She climbs her building’s stairway to Apartment 104 and knocks at the door. A slender, but muscular man answers and asks what he can do for her. She explains that her toaster has broken and he replies that he thought he detected the aroma of carbonized wheat germ.
Hanna knows Mr. M better than most. She knows his name is Absolon Zebardyn Mercator. She also knows that he can fix just about anything mechanical or electrical, though he doesn’t own a car, a stereo or even a television. She has no idea how he can tell the toast she burned was wheat germ.
Mr. M informs Hanna that he’ll have it working in no time. She looks around his room and sees that he is educated. His apartment has an old record player and is crammed with books, yet he rarely leaves his apartment, except at night. Hanna peers out the window and sees an ambulance parked across the street. She asks if he heard about the shooting. He has. She often hears him coming home in the small hours, stumbling up the stairs, leaving the taste of barrooms on the air. She’d like to tell him about her work, that she has a degree in social history and that she is a researcher for the North American Historical Review, a highly regarded journal. Seeing a fly buzzing around his apartment, she flicks her chameleon-like tongue out and grabs it. She quickly excuses herself. Clearly, the subject of her work never seems to come up.
Mr. M sees her out and tells her that her toaster will be ready in a couple of hours. She says she can bring him a blueberry pie if he likes, and he replies that that would be wonderful. He then returns to the toaster and places his down-turned palms over it. A glimmer of energy bathes the toaster and he places a slice of bread into it. He waits, arms folded as it cooks, despite the power cord being unplugged. He then eats the toast and looks across the street at the investigation being carried out at the Costanza’s.
Two detectives are at the crime scene, investigating the deaths of the Costanza’s. Forensics officers gather evidence, as one of the detectives asks if they’re clear what happened here. Standing beside a chalk outline with a pool of blood around the chest area, the forensics officer explains that they recovered the slug that hit the wounded officer from the ceiling. The trajectory is consistent with a struggle for the weapon, occurring right where he is stood. Back splatter patterns put the male victim right next to the end position of the body when he was shot. “You mean when he shot himself?” the detective asks. The forensics officer replies that it’s for the pathologist to determine. Off the record, his officers could be telling the truth but, if the relatives go for a private prosecution, there are enough consistencies… “Enough to make a case for unlawful killing?” asks the detective. “Enough for some embarrassing headlines,” replies that forensics officer. The detective grabs his colleague, Sam, and tells him they need to speak to the sister.
Downstairs, they chat to Bethany Danziger on the couch. She has a strange feeling about the case and thinks something just isn’t right. She needs some time to think it over. The detective asks where they can reach her and Patricia Hamilton, the Amazing Merwoman, offers her a place. She can stay as long as she needs. Bethany asks if she can speak to the two officers involved. The detective replies that they can arrange something. Officer Kucharsky is currently hospitalized, but he’s recovering well. Sam adds that Officer Ortega is on special duty with the Fed.
Back at the station, Izzy asks Bishop what the deal is. Why are the Feds suddenly interested in local crime problems? Bishop replies with a question, asking what Izzy knows about Daniel Kaufman and Frankie Zapruder. He tells Bishop that, between them, they run most of the rackets around here. That’s no big secret. Bishop says that word is a turf war is brewing. Izzy thinks it’ll just fizzle out, just like always. Bishop’s concern is that this time it could be for real. A gang war, smack in the middle of Manhattan involving mutants. That’s a nightmare! “Right,” replies Izzy, climbing into a squad car. “Mutants slugging it out in Manhattan. That could really damage the tourist trade.”
Their car sets off, with Bishop adamant that this isn’t just about public relations. They need to take them out of circulation before the lid blows; Zapruder, Kaufman and their lieutenants. If they don’t, a lot of innocent bystanders are going to get hurt, local people, citizens. Izzy replies that it can’t be done. They have a virtual firewall of legitimate businesses between them and the dirty money. Clubs, restaurants, imports, you name it. Bishop asks for a tour of who runs what in this town.
Soon, Izzy points to Vid U Like, a video rental shop owned by Frankie. He mentions that he has a car dealership too, but the tour is cut short as they spot a crowd up ahead. They pull to the sidewalk and Izzy steps out, asking what’s going on. A group of people are surrounding a guy named Manfred, complaining about the vermin being bred by the Falcone’s. The whole building is crawling with ‘em. “It just ain’t healthy,” a woman adds, “You hear me, Manfred? My baby gets bitten by one of those rat-things an’ gets rabies or plague or - or mad cow, I’m coming after you. My lawyer coming after you. Gonna sue you for every cent you got.”
Izzy and Bishop step between Manfred and the hostile crowd. Izzy asks if he’s the landlord, but Manfred replies that he’s the manager and he’s not going upstairs again. The creatures ain’t no rats. Izzy and Bishop head to the fifth floor and find the Falcone’s door is littered with graffiti. ‘The Rat Hole,’ is daubed on the wooden door along with ‘Beware of Vermin,’ and ‘Go home.’ Mrs. Falcone allows them in and they find her husband, Arturo, slouching in a chair, with several empty bottles of alcohol littering the carpet. He is quite hirsute and his body is covered with round boils, some covered with bandages and plasters.
Arturo is seemingly oblivious to their presence. His wife explains that it gets worse when he’s drinking. The only job he could get was garbage collector. He lost that when he got into a fight. His colleagues didn’t like the way he smelled. Now, she has to work eight-hour nights, cleaning offices for minimum wage to put food on the table and wine in his fat belly. Her harsh tone softens a little as she adds that it’s not really his fault. He can’t even get disability, as it’s not a recognized medical condition. Bishop asks exactly what his condition is.
Before she can answer, their two children rush through the room playing with toy guns and causing a racket, aiming them at the two cops. Mrs. Falcone slaps Primo across the face, telling him to show how she brings them up right, much to Izzy’s concern. His brother points to Arturo, as his condition becomes all too apparent. He grips the chair arm tightly and grits his teeth. One of the boils on his shoulder begins to quickly increase in size and, in a splurge of green liquid, a creature explodes from his shoulder to the sound of Arturo’s screams of agony. The creature has a hairy back, large red eyes and several long teeth. It looks like a ferocious mutated rat and it immediately moves towards Bishop.
Bishop momentarily steps backwards as the creature begins to climb up his leg. Not knowing exactly what danger the vermin poses, he quickly obliterates it with a blast of energy from his left hand. The blast unfortunately takes out the Falcone’s television set too. “Something you’ve been keeping from me Bishop,” enquires Izzy, rhetorically.
Mrs. Falcone slaps her other son and tells them to get to their rooms. As Arturo recovers in the armchair, Izzy apologizes for the television set. She explains that he wasn’t always like this. She grabs a framed photograph of them on their wedding day. She shows them what he hatched for her, a much cuter butterfly-like creature. Outside, the two cops make their way through the crowd and inform them that this isn’t police business. Izzy suggests they take it to City Hall and Bishop adds that they should try Pest Control.
As they drive off, Izzy mentions that Bishop’s tattoo isn’t just a gang thing then. He’s a mutant. Bishop asks if he has a problem with that, but Izzy is fine with it. He just reminds Bishop that he can’t go around blowing up people’s property. Bishop changes the subject and asks about Izzy. He says that Chief Esposito tells him that he left Cuba in 1980 when Castro kicked out the mutants. Izzy tells him that he was seven years old. His parents chose to leave, and it wasn’t just mutants. It was gays, intellectuals, writers and artists. “Your parents weren’t mutants?” asks Bishop. “They were poets,” replies Izzy. Bishop wants to see where Kaufman does business, so Izzy heads in the direction of Daniel’s Inferno, one of Kaufman’s clubs.
(Patricia Hamilton’s apartment)
Bethany Danziger, sister of the deceased Jake Costanza, looks at the poster that her friend has on her apartment wall. Patricia tells Bethany that it’s rather seedy; not really her kind of thing. Bethany replies that she’d love to see her perform. “One day perhaps, we’ll see.” Bethany then checks out her trophy cabinet. She has so many awards. Patricia explains that she was all set to represent England in the Olympics but, before that, she was disqualified from competition swimming by the Sports Council. “Why?” asks Bethany. Patricia splays her fingers to reveal webbing between each one. “Unfair advantages,” she replies. So, she came to the States, the land of opportunities, and now she performs in a nightclub in a giant fishbowl. Her expression says it all.
Patricia leaves her apartment and heads for work. Mr. M watches from his vantage point; a place where he seems to have a decent view of much that goes on in the area. By the time she reaches Daniel’s Inferno, Izzy and Bishop are positioned in their squad car outside. Izzy knows her, and didn’t think she was the type to work here. Patricia says hi to Lonnie, who sits at the bar and heads to the changing rooms. In the corridor, a young blue-skinned mutant is being strong-armed by two burly men. They brush past Patricia and take him into the back room where their employer, Daniel ‘Shaky’ Kaufman, is seated behind a desk. Another employee, Mr. Punch, stands, arms folded by his side.
“Hello Jazz,” Shaky says, politely. His face though shows he is in no mood for politeness. He breaks another in a long line of matchsticks in half and tells Jazz that he wants to get straight to the point. There’s a new drug on the street; Toad Juice, and he wants Jazz to tell him about it. Jazz says he don’t know nothin’. Shaky knows he sells Toad Juice for Filthy Frankie and repeats his request. He stutters as he speaks, possibly a side-effect of his mutation. Jazz says that he ain’t no squealer, and Shaky asks Mr. Punch to inform their friend why he should start squealing.
Mr. Punch, a large muscular man, covered from head to toe in scars, puts his face to Jazz’s and says that he may have observed that Mr. Kaufman is a little…agitated. He explains that his employer has an erratic metabolism. His body builds up a colossal amount of energy, which he is periodically compelled to release in bursts of extreme violence. Jazz has about thirty seconds. At this point, Shaky slams his fists down on the table, sending the matches flying. He stands and makes his way towards the cowering Jazz, who quickly caves in, saying he’ll start squealing. Shaky turns to Mr. Punch, who says he’s ready when he is. He braces himself and Shaky slams his fist into his torso. He follows this up with a knee to the stomach and a strong right cross, before grabbing Mr. Punch by the shoulders as he tries to catch his breath. Jazz is both petrified and bemused by the display of aggression.
Shaky straightens his long, black hair and thanks Mr. Punch. He seats himself behind his desk and asks Jazz to spill everything he knows about Toad Juice. A chair is made available to Jazz and he begins to tell his tale. He explains that it’s like an urban legend, only for real. He has homey’s who’ve seen this guy.
They call him the Toad Boy. His was so ugly, his old man did a runner the day he was born. The kid’s mom stuck around; loved him like a son, Jazz guesses. The kid grows older and just gets uglier. His mom works her fingers to the bone and he just sits around the house, watching the box all day long. One day, she comes home and can’t take it no more. She’s totally twisted and skitzin’. She hollers at Toad Boy about ruining her life and stuff. The kid is scared stiff,and the mom realizes this, so she gives him a big hug and starts kissing his tears away. Then it hits her. It’s like wham-blam, beam me up Scotty. She’s flying! See, Jazz continues, the kid secretes this stuff that’s like the ultimate high. His tears, his sweat, his spit, everything is loaded with the stuff.
Jazz tells Shaky that from that day his momma don’t work. She don’t go out, she don’t cook and the kid has to send out for pizza to stay alive. His mom is permanently blitzed. Pretty soon, she’s deep in hock. She’s been getting papers from the local bank and, when he says bank, he’s talking about one o’ Frankie Zapruder’s franchises. This bank has a tax on its loans an’ when that tax comes due, you better come through.
Frankie’s goons turn up at their home one day and find Toad Boy playing a video game, with his mom lying beside him, licking the sweat off his arms. They figure this is something Frankie has to see for himself. Frankie arrives with a third goon and one of them tests Toad Boy’s goods. He is soon impressed; his smile literally going from ear to ear.
Jazz says, “Compared to juice, acid is flaccid, crack is wack, shrooms are…er…” Shaky destroys another matchstick and orders him to cut to the chase. Jazz quickly gets back on track. He informs Shaky that Frankie writes off the debt, takes the Toad Boy in, gives him a home and sets up a factory. He collects the kid’s sweat an’ whatever. The secretions are distilled an’ soaked into blotters. It hits the streets as Toad Tabs. Shaky asks what the turnover is. Jazz hears that there’s enough for five hundred to a thousand tabs a day. They go for twenty bucks a hit. Shaky rubs his chin and smiles. “Twenty thousand a day? Gentleman, Kaufman Enterprises is about to acquire a new business.”
(Izzy Ortega’s home, evening)
Izzy relaxes on his bed, writing his journal by the light of a table lamp. He writes that they staked out the Inferno for a while. If there really is a gang war brewing, he saw no sign of it.
Izzy arrives home. His wife, Armena, is in bed and has left him a note to say there’s food in the ice-box. Esteban has done a drawing of him, which he finds stuck to the fridge. He does the usual things. He empties his gun and locks it away before checking on the kids. It’s a superstitious thing with Izzy. It’s fixed in his head that, the one time he forgets, something terrible will happen to them. Armena is reading Donna Tartt’s My Little Friend and asks how his day went. Izzy smiles, and doesn’t tell her much. What’s to say? He watched a woman half-crazed with exhaustion hitting her kids while her husband gave birth to a mutant rat? She reminds him to put it in his journal. It’s a vital part of his therapy, putting down his thoughts, the thoughts he can’t even share with his own wife.
He finishes his journal and gets ready for bed. How it kills him to come home to her, to hear her tell him she loves him and to watch her fall asleep, to see it happen every night. She can’t help it, he supposes. It’s a subconscious mechanism to protect her and keep her safe. A cocoon slowly spreads itself around his mutant wife, covering her from head to toe. Every night he looks at her, and he thinks about how he loves her, and how he hates this. There are a lot of people worse off in District X. The place is full of people who live their lives in pain. He knows he shouldn’t make a big deal of this; it’s such a little thing. He looks at his wife, and places his head in his hands as she drifts away. He just wants to hold her while she sleeps.