*Today begins a week-long Choose Your Own Adventure story* Be sure to vote at the end!
Max and the Argentinian Death Penguin, Part 1: The Past Comes Knocking
Deep in a part of the city where it was always night and the primary pass-time was trying to get out of that part of the city, Maxine Cho adjusted the Open sign for the tenth time and stared out the small window of her basement-level shop. She sighed. “So, Bonkers, where are all the desperate souls?”
Bonkers, the beagle curled up in a chair, was asleep so he didn’t answer – but he still managed to thump his tail a couple times at the mention of his name.
“Yeah,” Max said. “I don’t know either.” She perched up on her tip-toes and looked out the window again, the sidewalk and passing feet blurred by the buzzing neon ‘Fortune Teller’ sign in her window. She gave up and went to the back room to get a bottle of bourbon. As she made a highball for herself and one for Bonkers, she started to call out, “Hey, Reginald, you want a—“ when she was interrupted by the ding of the front door opening.
She smiled, slugged down one of the drinks and then, as she swept in to the front room, proclaimed in a very grand, very generic, very fake Asian accent, “Ah, welcome weary traveler! I sense you seek answers to, ah shit.” The accent vanished almost as quickly as the smile. “Agent Paulson. What do you want?”
In the doorway stood Agent Paulson and someone she didn’t know – both dressed in standard issue, non-descript suits, ideal for blending in – unless you happen to be in a fortune-teller’s parlor in the bad part of the worse part of the city.
“Hello, Max,” Agent Paulson said, not unkindly. “Good to see you again. Looks like you’re doing well for yourself.” Max didn’t answer. “Hello, Bonkers.” Bonkers, who was awake now, also didn’t answer. He turned back to Max. “Always nice to see your little dog.”
She nodded at the agent behind Paulson. “Who’s yours?”
He stepped forward. “Miss Cho,” he said with a voice that spoke to a long family history of being sticklers for the rules. “We’re here because we need something you have.”
“Yes. The ancient artifact known as the Argentinian Death Totem of The Nightmare Blood Cult. Aka, the Giggling Penguin.”
“Never heard of it.”
Paulson smiled. “You like it here, Max? Like running your little fortune-telling scam for not enough money? Working out of this office that’s hotter than the interior of a volcano?”
“Scam?” Max said. “This is no scam – I help people. You know the things I’ve seen in my life, Paulson, and it changed me. Gave me sight in to people’s futures. It’s not about money any more, Paulson. It’s about giving to people. Making the world a little better.” There was a pause. “I’m kidding,” Max said. “Of course I hate running this scam. It’s depressing and that buzzing neon sign gives me a headache. But that doesn’t mean I have the Giggling Penguin.”
Paulson replied, “Come on, Max. We know you took it from the Russians after they found it in-“
Both agents’ eyes widened.
“What?” Max shrugged. “Fortune-telling in the bad part of town wasn’t the prudent financial investment I’d expected.”
“You’ve had a few of those. Your little attempt to sell wine that looks like beer and tastes like vodka?”
“That was very successful in its niche market.”
“You were the only one who drank it.”
“One person can be a niche. Look, we’re not here to discuss my delightfully colorful financial history. Most of the things I obtained around the globe in the old days? Pawned. All of it, pawned. Your little penguin with the weird, red eyes? Paid for that horrible neon sign.”
“Which pawn shop?” asked the second agent.
Max snorted and kept looking at Paulson. “Paulson, I like you, but I’ve never liked you. If you know what I mean. I’m not telling you which pawn shop and I’m certainly not telling Agent Little Dog there next to you.”
Bonkers suddenly sat up, sniffing the air and tilting his head. “Max, someone’s coming,” he said. “Three, maybe four people. It’s hard to tell.”
Max glared. “Who’d you bring with you, Paulson?”
“Max,” Paulson said gravely. “Uncle Sam isn’t the only one looking for this thing. You need to trust me.”
Agent Little Dog looked at Max. “Did that dog just talk?”
“Why are you asking her?” Bonkers asked, irritated. “Either you think I didn’t talk and look like a crazy person, or you know I did and are asking her on the premise that I can speak English, but not understand it. Idiot.” He turned to Max. “And I smell highballs. I assume you made me one, too?”
“Someone drank yours.”
“Paulson, what do you mean ‘trust you’? After the times you betrayed me? You’re the bad guy, Paulson. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know that. I’ll take my chances with whoever’s behind the door. Reginald!” she called out. “Is the car gassed up? Bonkers, what can you tell me about the people coming to the door?”
Bonkers sniffed the air intently, and then suddenly twisted up his face. He sneezed dramatically three times. “Gyyuch! Holy sweet whale carcass – one of them’s wearing Axe Body Spray. Yuck. Ugh.” He gagged and hacked up a little nothing.
“Which means,” Max said, “That either it’s 14-year-old boys coming to the door, or it’s someone who knows about Bonkers and is masking their scent behind the most foul stench ever created. Reginald! The car!”
Paulson grew more insistent, “Max, I’m not kidding. I know you think I’m setting you up, but you’ve got to trust me. The people coming will kill you and burn this whole building down to get The Penguin.”
“Well, burning the place down might increase the property value, but –“
Just then, a ghostly apparition appeared through the back wall. A middle-aged man in a Victorian suit with a large moustache and monocle moaned a moan of the damned.
Agent Little Dog cried out. “What is that?!”
“Look on me with woe, stranger!” the spirit cried out in a voice that seemed to come from the bottom of a dark well. “For one hundred and forty years I have been condemned to—“
“Save it, Reginald!” Max barked. “He can hear the speech another time, if there is another time. Does the car have gas?”
“The gasoline demarcation dial of that abomination of a horseless carriage you use is on empty.”
Just then, someone tried to open the door. One of the agents had locked it when they came in. There was a pause, and then a very loud, very determined knock at the door.
Paulson looked at Max. “Max, you’ll never make it out of here. Come out the back with us, we can get to a government safe-house – it’s your only chance.”
Someone from behind the door called out in an incredibly deep voice, “Miss Cho? Miss Cho? You’re in serious danger! I need to see you right away! Government agents are coming for you, but they’re not coming on behalf of the government, Miss Cho! You need to come with me before they get here!”
Max looked at Paulson. Paulson looked back at her, his expression unchanged.
Continue to Part 2: Currying Favor
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