‘Nightingale’s Lament’, Laura Gregory

The bird was leaning against my desk when I returned to my office. Gripping my pistol, I came around the corner, but this wasn’t a threat. It was a client: hip cocked against the scarred oak, cigarette trailing smoke, scarlet lips and high cheekbones. A mosaic of feathers etched across their scalp and down their arms. A sheath of red silk enveloped them, sharp collarbones and gaunt chest on display. I holstered the gun. “It’s not office hours.”

They flicked ash from their cigarette. “I work late nights.”

I opened a drawer and dropped a pile of photographs inside. My latest solved case. The mayor’s wife having an affair with her chauffeur, who was also in bed with the mayor’s competition. You’d think the elite would be more discreet, but they got high on power, forgot about people watching from the gutters. I could always use another case, but working with the eldritch patrons of the city came at a cost. Too many poor humans like me ended up dead. First, I needed to know why they were here. I switched on the desk lamp and they folded themselves into the chair opposite, elbows pulled in tight, but legs reaching for miles under the desk.

“My lover, Ardito Cirillo, was killed. I need you to find out who did it.” Their voice was hushed but lyrical, like water tumbling over rocks.

“Police investigate murders. Why don’t you start there?”

“They ruled it a suicide. But I think my boss paid them off. He’s my prime suspect.”

I crossed my arms. “And who is that?”

“Don DiGiovanni. The Mad Wolf.”

Mafia. Biggest boss in town, then. I tripled my fee. “And why would he want your lover dead?”

They shifted in their seat. “He was ambitious, you know? Always had a side hustle going on. He was one of the Don’s men but maybe he stepped outside his place.”

I pushed the ashtray across the desk and watched the light dance up the golden fletching on their arm as they tamped out the cigarette. I could have gone for my own but I’d quit last year. Doctor’s orders. Half a century was too old to be playing with fire.

“What can you tell me about that night?”


“This is going to be one hell of a difficult case then.”

They sighed and something in my chest ached fiercely. “I don’t remember. I get these lapses in memory. Amnesia, like waves in a storm.… I was at the lounge the next night, wondering where he was, he always came to see me sing. Everyone was looking for him, but they would, you know? Put on an act, even if they’d killed him. I’ve seen it before. I went home at dawn, my house is by the bay, edge of a cliff, and he was there at the bottom. Been shoved off. He hated heights, he never would have fallen on his own.”

“Where do you work?”

“The Bacchus Lounge. I’m a singer. They call me The Nightingale. Gale for short.”

“And what are you?”

They held up their hand, looking at the feathers imprinted on their skin and shaking their head softly. “I don’t remember.”

I locked the drawer with the photographs and opened another, taking out my blood pressure pills. I popped one, knowing I was too old, knowing this bird would be the death of me. But I pulled out my notepad to start writing down the facts. “I’ll take the case.”

I didn’t go to The Bacchus Lounge until I’d done my groundwork. My buddy in the force pulled up the report, it did read as a clean suicide. A bit of crumbled rock at the cliff edge with no signs of a struggle. Even the trajectory measured for someone who had leapt, as opposed to being pushed or slipping down. Of course, all those details could be falsified, but what was the cover up?

I had them run The Nightingale too. They’d come into the country six months ago, sponsored by Don DiGiovanni for his nightclub act. Their classification was eldritch—other. No help there.

Sussing out Ardito’s business contacts, I discovered he had investments in a nightclub that wasn’t owned by the Don. That could get him in hot water. But no major debts. Only minor crimes on file. He seemed like he was trying to get clean, go legit. Maybe he’d just wanted out and it earned him a death sentence.

I filled my pistol with silver bullets before heading to the club. Mad Wolf wasn’t a metaphor, blood-in and blood-out involved the lycanthrope strain in this gang. I asked if Ardito was initiated but Gale denied it, too low on the ladder to be part of the pack. Forensic reports confirmed it: blood results were pathetically human. Drug and alcohol free. High cholesterol. I sympathised.

The Bacchus Lounge was in an old train station. The roof centered on a circular dome laced with ironwork. A massive birdcage hung down from the apex, draped in moonlight from above. Tables spread out below, patrons drinking and waiting for the entertainment. A stage was set up with piano and string quartet, absent of performers. I stood in the shadows until the bartender noticed me. Ronny was a vampire contact I’d used in the past. He slipped away from the customers and gestured me backstage, his fangs just peeking out, white flashes in his smooth, dark face. I slipped him a hundred dollar bill and it disappeared in a sleight-of-hand gesture.

“This one’s new, still impressionable. I’ve convinced him you’re a friend of Ardito. He’ll talk but don’t linger long. Don’t want Mad Wolf on my scent. I might bite but I can’t fight off a pack of wolves, alright?”

My target was standing at attention in the hall, gaze vacant as I walked in front of him. Ronny did good work. I reached to shake his hand and it was like we’d been buddies for life. He told me all about Ardito shaking down debtors and his murders of rival gang members; he wasn’t a saint. This could be a retaliatory strike, but a fall from a cliff wasn’t much of a message. Not their style. They’d gunned down an informer on the busiest street at daybreak last week. I didn’t suspect them of being stealthy.

I may just be human, but all prey knows when a predator is going to pounce. I looked back and there he was, the Mad Wolf himself. I was caught, no way around it, but I didn’t have to throw Ronny to the wolves. I released Tony’s hand and the hypnosis left him. He scampered for shelter and I strode towards the Don.

“I’m looking into the death of Ardito. His family hired me.” I didn’t want to put any heat on Gale.

Don DiGiovanni was around my age. His voice was loud but flat. “I know what you and Tony were talking about. I read lips.” So he was deaf; I’d never heard rumour of it. “Ardito had potential. I warned him but…”

A door opened and Gale emerged from their dressing room, this time wearing black silk. It revealed a fine layer of down had emerged to cover their chest. All the feathers along their arms had sprouted barbs that sparkled in sharp metallic glints.

Mad Wolf watched Gale approach. “Lycanthropes aren’t the only creatures controlled by the moon. When I found them, washed ashore on the Sicilian coast, I thought it a gift from the Gods. A golden goose. See how packed it is out there? Every night, they draw a crowd. But now, maybe it’s a curse.” He sighed and jerked his head. Dismissing me.

I caught up with Gale at the door. Their nails, beneath a lacquer of red paint, were long and curved. They glanced down at me and their irises had turned pure black. “I’m starting to remember,” they whispered. “There were others before Ardito. He wasn’t the first to disappear.”

Suddenly Mad Wolf grabbed Gale’s arm, fingertips digging into flesh. “Get onstage, eh? In bocca al lupo.

Gale watched the Don go, their glare piercing his back and their voice a hiss. “Crepi il lupo.

I should have left. Last time the mob warned me off, I’d been pissing blood for days. But the birdcage was on the ground. Gale sashayed through the spotlight and I couldn’t cross without interrupting the show. A pianist started playing as the cage was lifted up. Pale light from the waxing moon fell on Gale and the entire room exhaled their collective breath in a sigh.

When Gale started to sing I suddenly understood why they were suspended above the crowd. It wasn’t just some tawdry burlesque twist. It was for security. As piercing notes of love, loss, yearning and heartache escaped into the air, I wanted to reach them, embrace them, with an urgency I wasn’t sure was intended to protect or punish. And I wasn’t alone. The entire room had come to their feet, some even standing on their chairs, anything to be closer to the song. In his private booth, only Mad Wolf remained seated. He tipped his glass at me and I took that as my final notice. I burst out of the exit with the notes of The Nightingale still infiltrating my ears.

All the clues dried up. I interrogated everyone Ardito had come in contact with his final week. None of my sources could confirm a rival gang hit. No one in Mad Wolf’s pack had a grudge. I grilled his mother so hard on if he had suicidal thoughts, I made her cry. She denied it, her suspicions, like Gale’s, on foul play. I had no answers but I had to end my case. It had been haunting me. The Nightingale had been haunting me. I didn’t dare return to The Bacchus Lounge, so I sent a message through Ronny, who slipped a note in their dressing room.

I waited past midnight. I didn’t trust myself to be enclosed in the office with them. Instead, I stood at the towering window in the landing, the gothic proportions of the building still feeling too small. The moon was full and lit the entire hall. I heard the front door slam below and then delicate steps up the flights of stairs. There was an odd noise, like fabric dragging on the floor. It was the tips of their golden feathers, having fully formed into heavy, lustrous wings. Their hands had fused into black talons. Their face was still human and their eyes were full of sorrow.

“Don’t talk.” I held my hand up, aware of the power of their voice. My other hand clutched my pistol in the holster, if only for cold comfort, because I knew the silver bullets would have no effect. This was no lycanthrope before me. “I can find no proof Ardito was murdered. All evidence points he went willingly.”

Tears seeped out of Gale’s eyes. With no fingertips to catch them, they merely let them fall. I wanted to wipe them away, but I planted my feet on the hardwood.

“I remember…” Gale’s sigh was a melody. They flexed their wings, shimmering in the darkness. “I’ve lost so many others I loved.”

I felt my will breaking, reaching towards them. “Please, be quiet.”

Gale shook their head, sobbing, a wail emerging from their mouth. It was music. It was ecstasy. It was a siren song. I rushed to them but they were running, wings unfolding, until they smashed through the window and out into the moonlight.

My feet raced to follow, leaping off the stone ledge to chase the siren as they soared into the sky.

But I had no wings.

And I solved it too late.

© 2022 Laura Gregory

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