All posts by B.R. Stateham

B.R. Stateham is a sixty-seven year old boy who never grew up. A long-time contributor to Near to the Knuckle, he writes stories featuring a number of different characters who have come to life on these pages. And, come to think of it; some people have actually enjoyed reading them!

The Lovely Irene

So . . . in a nutshell . . . this is what went down. See if you can figure it out.
+++++The body was found sitting upright on a toilet bowl, slumped over onto one of the metal walls of the toilet booth, very much dead . . . obviously . . . due to the blade of a very large knife sticking out of the man’s chest. The guy was in his mid-thirties, an account at a large bank, unmarried, said by friends and relatives both to be a very nice man without an enemy in the world.
+++++Well, you know. There seemed to be something wrong with that picture.
+++++Sitting on the tile floor to the right of the toilet bowl was a large leather briefcase. Unmolested and very heavy. On the small coat rack on the back of the toilet stall’s door was a heavy, but expensive looking trench coat still partially wet from the downpour still raging outside like biblical prophecy. When the body was discovered, about an hour ago, the building’s security officer swore there was a set of wet tracks leading into the men’s room door and straight to the stall the dead man now occupied. Just one set of tracks.
+++++A quick scan of the building’s security cameras clearly showed the deceased stepping out of the elevator and into the building’s lobby. Three different cameras in the lobby show the victim walking across the wide lobby floor, briefcase in one hand, a wet trench coat in the other, and head for the Men’s Room. The guy goes into the restroom. And never comes out. No one else comes and goes into the restroom until, about thirty minutes after the deceased enters, when the security officer making his nightly rounds walks down the hall leading to the restrooms and enters to find the dead man.
+++++Now here’s the interesting twist. No blood. No suspects. No way for a killer to enter and/or exit the scene of the crime without being recorded on the cameras. Maybe this comes as a shock to you, bubba, but stick the blade of a long knife into a man’s chest and there’s blood everywhere. But not this time. Not one drop of blood anywhere . . . including in the dead man.
+++++When our gum chewing little forensics specialist, Joe Wieser, told us about no blood in the body and no blood to be found in the entire men’s room, I had to grin, shove hands into my trousers’ pockets, and turn to one side and stare at my partner. Frank Morales, for you who are uninformed, is a Neanderthal. Well . . . not really a Neanderthal. But the guy looks like what one thinks a modern Neanderthal might look like. A jaw made of bone so thick he could chew reinforced concrete for a snack, no neck to speak up, with the brightest looking carrot colored red hair which absolutely refuses to be combed. His overall body shape is that of a cement block, albeit one that stands about six feet four. Big, tough, and strong. One’s natural inclination is to think someone that good looking had to be as dumb as a rock. But, oh brother, would they ever be wrong.
+++++He eyed me with his dark browns, made a sour looking face, and rumbled like a badly tuned Russian reactor.
+++++“I hate shit like this. Hurts my head. I think I’ll go to car and eat some tacos. Call me if you need me.”
+++++He turned and began walking away. Not toward our car parked out by the curb in the driving rain. But somewhere else. Inside the office building. Grinning, I knew he was heading back to the security office to review the tapes again, I turned and walked back to the men’s room for a second peek.
+++++Now ask yourself this. How the hell does a guy step out of an elevator, walk across an empty lobby of a very large office building at two in the morning of a rainy Sunday, enter a men’s room, and get a heavy looking butcher’s knife rammed into the middle of his chest? By himself. No one is in the men’s room waiting for him. No one enters the men’s room, other than the victim. No one leaves the men’s room after the deed is done. Is this a murder? Or a fairly gruesome suicide? Glancing into the stall I had to hand it to the guy. If this was a suicide, the bastard was committed in ending it if he shoved the knife into his heart all by his lonesome.
+++++But I didn’t think it was suicide. People usually don’t kill themselves like that. Especially a successful, happy go lucky guy like this.
+++++I went over the men’s room again diligently. Looking for something . . . anything . . . maybe Frank and I missed the first time around. Forensics had come and gone, finding nothing out of the ordinary. I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head telling me we were overlooking something. Something small. Something obvious. But something important. But that was the problem. I hadn’t a clue what it could be. Frustrated, I walked out of the men’s room, strolled across the empty lobby with polished black tile floors, and came to a halt in front of the bank of elevators sitting in silence all in a row. Specifically, I stood in front of the one the dead man used just before he checked out. Permanently.
+++++Pushing the ‘up’ button the black doors of the elevator opened with a vague hissing sound and I stepped in. The doors slid closed behind me and everything went silent. Forensics had been all over the elevator. There were about a million different prints lifted off the controls, the hand rail circling the interior of the car, and off the doors themselves. It would take weeks to sort through them all. Turning, I punched in ‘10’ and felt the elevator car lurch into motion and begin its ascent. Why ’10,’ you ask? The tenth floor was where our dead guy worked. Big accounting office. Lots of number crunchers working there. Everybody gone, of course, over the weekend. So why was our man here in the building at two in the morning on a Sunday?
+++++Dunno.
+++++But I began walking the empty hallway of the tenth floor, curiously eyeing all the empty, and locked, offices. The hall lights were turned low. Lots of shadows playing across the walls. Quiet as a monk’s cubby hole. Don’t know what I was looking for. Didn’t expect to find anything. Actually, I was kinda shuffling around like a lost deer, that nagging voice in the back of my head getting louder and louder, and not figuring out what it was that was bothering me. I combed the tenth floor, then descended to the ninth and did the same ambling shuffle, before dropping down to the eighth.
+++++On the eighth I found a couple of items that caught my eye.
+++++The first thing was the shine on the highly polished tile floor. Even in the dim light of the empty floor the shine was instantly visible and just as impressive. This was the Markle Building on Hesston and Seventh Street. Ten floors of solid black and chrome from sidewalk to roofline. Black glass everywhere with long columns of chrome steel in vertical slashes for contrast. A stunning architectural feast to the eyes. The interior floors were black tile. Kept to a glistening polished sheen.
+++++The moment I stepped out of the elevator I noticed the floor. Maintenance had just finished polishing the tile. It was plain as day. There wasn’t a scuffle, or footprint, or even a particle of dust anywhere on the floor from the elevator doors out for maybe twenty or thirty feet. But past the first to set of offices was a door which led into the building’s stairwell. That’s where I observed curiosity number one. The unmistakable wobbly tracks of someone pushing a heavy four wheeled cart over the floor and stopping in front of the stairwell door. You know the kind of cart I’m talking about. The kind where you load up boxes and crates and push it one from place to another. The kind used mostly in office buildings to cart around bags of mail and other things.
+++++In the dim light, I noticed the tracks hugging close to the wall and disappearing off into the dim light. Curious, I followed the tracks and that’s when I saw it. The bright and colorful neon lights of building from across the street flushed through the glass walls of the Markle Building, continued on through the clear glass interior wall of a set of law offices and played across the black tile of the floor in a long, narrow band of multicolored light. And there it was. About the size of a new pencil eraser. A bump of congealed blood.
+++++Kneeling, balancing myself on the balls of my feet in the darkness of the hall, I stared at the lump of blood for a second or two. And then I looked up and at the doorway from where the cart tracks originated from. It a set of double glass doors with large gold lettering splashed across the glass announcing who was inside.

Schumer& Schumer Investments.

+++++And it hit me. That nagging voice. I knew what it was trying to tell me. The dead man’s rain coat. The tapes showed our dead man stepping out of the elevator holding his damp raincoat draped over one arm. A damp raincoat. Not a soaked to the bone, “Yes, I have been swimming in a frackin’ monsoon,” kind of wet coat. Just damp. As if he had already been here for a while before riding the elevator down to this death. Schumer & Schumer’s assigned parking stalls were on the top, and open, floor of the parking garage next door. The investment firm also had its own private entrance which connected their offices directly to the parking building.
+++++Standing up I stepped around the lump of blood and approached the glass doors of the investment firm. Locked. Stepping back, frowning, I jumped slightly when the cellphone inside my sport coat suddenly went off.
+++++“Yes?”
+++++“Get down to the security office, flatfoot. I’ve got something to show you.”
+++++I stretched a half-grin across my lips. Frank calling me a flatfoot was funny. Especially if you ever saw his feet. Flatfoot is also a rub for uniformed police officers. Which we both had been earlier in our careers.
+++++“Got something to tell you as well, dear.” I said, smiling wider. “But do me a favor. Find the building supe and tell him to come up to the eighth floor and unlock the offices of Schumer & Schumer. We need to look inside.”
+++++A couple of minutes later I stepped into the crowded clutter of a small office in the basement used by the building’s security staff.   One wall was filled with computer monitors. One wall filled with shelves full of various video tapes, boxes of digital equipment, and training tapes. A third wall was lined with metal storage cabinets with the names of various security employees on sticky labels on them. There was a desk, an office chair, and more computer screens in the middle of the room. Frank was standing by the wall of computer screens with a remote clicker in one hand, studying a monitor closely.
+++++“Whatta got?” I asked, closing the office door behind me.
+++++“Whatta you got?” he grunted.
+++++I told him about the eighth floor, the cart tracks, the blood sample, and my theory about our dead guy and his rain coat. The big lug for a partner grunted and nodded his head.
+++++“That explains why I haven’t found a tape of our guy returning. I’ve got an image of him leaving Friday night around a quarter to seven. But haven’t a clue as to when he came back to the office. But I did find something else. You’ll want to see it.”
+++++He lifted the clicker in his hand up, aimed it at one monitor, and clicked it. Instantly the images of the lobby from some earlier time began rapidly rewinding.
+++++“Watch.”
+++++I watched.
+++++Frank clicked the clicker in his hand again the rewinding stopped. Images began flowing normally. An empty lobby in the early morning. And then traffic. Lots of traffic. Men and women in work clothes of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians coming in and filling the lobby and going in and out of both the lady’s and men’s restrooms.
+++++“The supe said both restrooms have been extensively remodeled. Workers came in around noon yesterday and didn’t leave until seven p.m last night. Now watch. We’re coming up to when they finished.”
+++++Eyes went back to the monitor. The images begin to move. Everyone was cleaning up and preparing to leave. They did in ones and twos, with everyone gone around 7:23 p.m. At 7:28 p.m. a worker, pushing a heavy looking four wheeled cart in front of him, rolls into the frame and disappears into the men’s room. On the cart was a large cardboard box. Very large. Ten minutes later the figure, still pushing the cart, still with the large box riding along, rolls out of the men’s room and disappears off screen.
+++++“Did you catch it? Both of’em?”
+++++I threw a questioning glance at Frank and then looked back at the screen as he rewound the images again.
+++++“I saw the guy moving the cart a hell of a lot easier. Like whatever he was rolling into the pisser seemed to a lot lighter when he was leaving.”
+++++Frank, twitching the corner of his lips visibly, told me he was silently amusing himself on my near sightedness. So I stepped closer to the monitors and too a second look. The worker goes into the men’s room with box and heavy cart. He’s maybe around five-foot eight. Thin. He’s wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his face. No way to make an identification.   But . . . eyes narrowing . . . I see it. I turn and looking at the lip-twitching sonofabitch.
+++++“A woman?”
+++++Frank nods and then lifts the clicker up and begins fast forwarding through a number of other images.
+++++“Security tapes get replaced every twelve hours. Noon and midnight. Watch this.”
+++++Eyes went back to the monitor. It’s our dead man stepping out of the elevator and walking to his death.   He walks into the rest room and, maybe twenty five seconds later, the door to the restroom moves just a hair. Just barely. Hardly noticeable. Unless, of course, you’re looking for it. Which apparently, Frank had been.
+++++He raises the clicker and freezes the image on the monitor and looks at me. I look at him, shrug, and improvise.
+++++“Only thing I got is this is our killer dressed up as our victim. She makes the image for us to find hoping it’ll throw us off the scent long enough for her to get away.”
+++++The red headed giant grunted, nodded, and folded massive arms across his chest.
+++++“So how did she stop the camera?”
+++++“With the same clicker you have in your hands. She cracks the door open just enough to aim it toward the security office. Apparently it has a long enough range to turn off the recorder. She walks out of the restroom and clicks the recorder back once she’s in the clear.”
+++++“Good. We know how the murder was done. We have a vague idea of a possible suspect. We know why, in a vague sense, the murder went down. But we really know nothing. What did she steal? And why was our account murdered?”
+++++I grinned savagely at the big guy. He frowned, turned toward me, and tilted his head to one side curiously. I’m told Frank has an IQ about two gazillion. But he hates it when someone else comes up with something he missed. Like now.
+++++“Spit it out, Sherlock. I’m all ears.”
+++++“Two things,” I said, still grinning like a malicious elf. “One, did you talk to the security officer on duty tonight? I didn’t. Did you?”
+++++“No,” Frank growled, shaking his head. “The uniforms did. They relayed to me the information he gave them.”
+++++“Not him, my overgrown little Watson. Her. She told the uniforms everything she knew and then left the building. Said she had to get to apartment at a certain time so her baby sitter could go home.”
+++++“So our killer worked the building in the capacity of a hired security guard. Meaning she had keys to get herself into practically ever office in the building. Hey, I like that. Smart. Now, tell me what else that little peanut brain of yours has cooked up. I’m dying to hear it.”
+++++“Schumer & Schumer. What are they known far?” I asked.
+++++“High end investments. Specifically stocks and bonds.” Frank answered, a light bulb suddenly going off in his eyes. “Oh . . . .okay. I see it. The chick comes in and steals a shitload of untraceable bonds. Old bearer’s bonds from way back when. God only knows how much she took. Probably millions.”
+++++Confession time. I’m rich. No, not bragging. Just telling the truth. I’m a rich homicide detective. A few years back a grandfather I didn’t know was still alive walked into my life and handed me an inheritance. Millions of dollars in cash, stocks, bonds and real estate. I’ve been trying to play it smart and invest it ever since. So yeah, I knew Schumer & Schumer quite well.
+++++“We got a killer running around town lugging around with her a sizeable amount of very valuable paper. She can’t fly commercial and go through the security checks with all that paper on her. TSA would ask too many questions. The bonds have coupons which must be personally exchanged at a bank to get the money. They’re stolen. We’ll have every bank and investment firm in turn alerted to be on the lookout for them by tomorrow night. She’s killed someone to get the bonds, so she’s not eager to stick around town any longer than she has to. What’s her only option?”
+++++“She has to bite the bullet and sell them off at a steep discount rate,” Frank said, his lips twitching suddenly in laughter. “If she’s lucky she might get a quarter on a dollar. But the fence has to be a big one. Someone who can handle that amount of money in a few hours. That means her options are equally limited.”
+++++“Not just limited,” I said, smiling as well. “There’s only one guy in town who can come up with that much cash on such a short notice. And that’s where we’re going right now.”
+++++It was a little past midnight when we blasted across town in my white ’65 Shelby Mustang. Where we were going the traffic was light so we drove fast. And the Shelby, being a Shelby, with that small block Ford V8 in it, just purred.
+++++The house was a mansion. A mansion back in deep foliage with a long driveway that curled around in front of the house and disappeared back in the direction we just traveled. There were no lights on in the house. Except for one, to one side, in a wing of the house we knew to be the library. Yes . . . Frank and I have been at the house before on official business. We knew the place quite well. The owner of the house was a fat guy by the name of Lewis Hayden. A procurer of anything stolen which promised a very high pay off. Like, for instance, stolen bearer’s bonds.
+++++We walked around to the library, guns drawn, and peered in through the windows. Sitting in a big chair about the size of something a Nero Wolfe would set in, a maid was sitting three glasses of freshly drawn beer onto a coffee table in front of Lewis. The fat man nodded, mouthed the words, ‘Thank you,’ and the petite little thing walked out and closed the double doors of the library behind her. But there was no one else in the room. Only Lewis . . . and three glasses of beer.
+++++This looked ominous.
+++++But, using the barrel of my weapon to tap on the double French doors, we watched the big man rise out of his comfy chair and lumber over to the doors to open them.
+++++“Ah! Detectives Hahn and Morales. What a lovely surprise. I was told I would be visited soon by the city’s finest. Come in, come in. I took the liberty of having refreshments at the ready in anticipation of your arrival.”
+++++We stepped into the library and followed the round frame of Lewis Hayden back to his behemoth of a chair. Ponderously, he lowered himself into it and reached for one of the large glasses of cold beer.
+++++“Please, gentlemen. Partake. I know you, Sergeant Hahn, to be a devoted aficionado of the hops. This is a rare brew direct from Germany. Not sold here in the States. I’m sure you’ll find it most delicious.”
+++++“Who told you we were coming?” Frank growled, eyeing the dark colored beer before forcing himself to turn his attention back to our host.
+++++“A most delightful young lady for whom I have a most profound admiration for.”
+++++“What’s her name,” I said, turning my head and eyeing the interior doors of the library. The same doors the maid had just exited from.
+++++“Oh, a most delicious irony there, detective. Most delicious indeed.”
+++++“She came here and sold you some old bearer’s bonds. Obtained through a theft, and I might add, committing murder in the process.”
+++++“Really?” Hayden exploded, astonishment on his face. “I was not aware of any such crime, or set of crimes, my dear detective.”
+++++“If you have the bonds in this house, that makes you an accessory to murder. You know that, don’t you.”
+++++“I am completely at a loss for words, Detective Morales.”
+++++“We could search the house,” I said.
+++++“You would need a search warrant, my dear boy. I would insist. And obtaining one at this time of night? I daresay it would be an arduous process.”
+++++“How long ago was she here?”
+++++“Why Detective Turner, I think you just saw her leave moments ago. Good luck finding her now. She is a most resourceful person.”
+++++I started to say something. But the house rocked with a big hammy fist pounding on the front door insistently. Frank glanced at me and nodded, before walking out of the library and into the main hall. Moments later the big red headed Neanderthal re-entered the library, followed by two uniformed offices bracketing the small frame of a dark haired young girl. In the hand of one of the officers was a zip drive, which he tossed to me.
+++++“Found her trying to hail a taxi at this time of night a quarter mile away. We thought that strange. So we picked her up and brought her over here. Knew you and Frank were working a homicide. Thought maybe there was a connection here.”
+++++Officers Flattery and O’Connor. Sons of Irish immigrants who became cops. From father to son. Both the best of the best when it came to police work.
+++++I caught the drive, eyed it for a moment or two, and then smiled.
+++++“Betcha this is the password for a freshly created bank account in some off shore bank. Money transferred from your account into this one. With this little lady as being the main recipient. If I’m right, both of you are going to jail for a long, long time.”
+++++Lewis Hayden looked almost sick. But give him credit. He was a showman who could not pass up wowing a crowd.
+++++“Detectives, may I introduce you to a most charming young lady who calls herself Irene Adler.”
+++++“You’re kidding,” Frank, my oversized Watson, said turning to look at the tom boyish, yet exotic looking young woman standing between the uniforms, before turning to look at me again. “Well, Sherlock. You did it again. Congratulations.”
+++++Indeed, Watson. Indeed.

Friday the Thirteenth

He turned around and glanced at his partner.  The monstrous goon was standing directly in front of the burning headlights of the Ford Mustang, big mitts for hands stuffed into the pockets of his slacks, and fully outlined like some black silhouette of a nightmare.
+++++He smiled at that thought.
+++++It was Friday the 13th.  And let’s face it.  Frank did look like some biological experiment gone horribly wrong.  The guy was six feet four and weighed three hundred fifty pounds.  Solid, baby.  Solid.  There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the guy.  He had arms like the metal cables holding up the Golden Gate bridge.  His head was perfectly shaped like a cement block, topped off with a crop of carrot colored red hair which kept blowing around uncontrollably in the stiff cold breeze coming in off the river.
+++++It was a cold night.  Cold enough for Frank to wear a heavy overcoat.  The last time he looked at his phone the ambient temp was around a -9 degrees.  The wind chill was around -21 degrees and dropping.
+++++The Mustang sat in the middle of Cutler’s Road.  At this time of the night, in this weather, the paved road which ran parallel to the Little Brown was empty of any traffic.  Except for the Mustang.  The red Ford looked like an abandoned derelict.  Except when he and Frank came upon the car the headlights were still on and the engine was still running.  They found the car with the driver’s side door wide open.  Facing the river and wide open, with no one sitting behind the wheel, while in the passenger seat, slumped forward in her safety belt, the unconscious form of a young teenage girl.
+++++Cutler’s Road was used by lovers of all ages as a secluded place in the beginning of a romance to get to know each other better.  This part of the Little Brown was a wide expanse of moving water just south of the city.  Big tugboats dragging barges filled with all kinds of cargo slowly made their way up river all day and all night long. At night the lights of city, and the southern edge of the runway for Harrison International Airport, was visually impressive to observe.  Add in the occasional 747 or Airbus dropping in, literately, from above and it became even more impressive.
+++++The drive of the Mustang was missing.  The girl strapped into the car, now conscious and sitting in the back of an ambulance, swore her boyfriend had been in the car with her.  In fact he had been driving the car when, in her words, everything ‘started getting all weird and freaky.’  The next thing she remember was waking up with Frank standing beside the car with a flashlight in his hands, gazing at her in a concerned fashion.  Her boyfriend, a kid by the name of Mervin Tobias, had just bought the car.  He had come and picked her up and they were just driving around.  Honest, just driving around.
+++++That was it.  That’s all she remembered.  Had no idea where her boyfriend was.  Had no idea what had knocked her out.  Had no idea what made her feel so strange and weird just before dropping off into unconsciousness.
+++++Frank turned and glanced behind him.  The dark image of his partner came out of the inky night and stepped into the column of bright lights of the Mustang.  His partner was as tall as he was. But around a hundred pounds lighter.  Better dressed and far better looking.  In fact, so good looking he told Turner he should be in the movies ’cause he sure as hell looked like a dead movie star. Wavy black hair, a wiry smear of a black mustache, a perpetual smartass smirk permanently painted on his partner’s lips.  If Turner didn’t look like a Thirties matinee idol come back to life no one did.
+++++Frank jerked his head toward the Mustang.
+++++“What the hell is going on here, Turn?  Why the hell would a seventeen year old kid, after just buying a car with his own hard earned cash, go out and pick up his girlfriend, drive down here, and then apparently commit suicide?”
+++++“Suicide?” Turner echoed, lifting an eyebrow in surprise and half turning to glance at the river.  “You think that’s what happened?’
+++++“I haven’t got a friggin’ clue what happened.  And say, while we’re on the subject, why the hell am I the lead investigator on this case?”
+++++“You agreed to our new formula, you big lumox.  The agreement is three to one.  My three cases as lead investigator to your one.  Tonight this one is your case.  Impress me with your genius, you walking encyclopedia.”
+++++The smirking grin permanently on Turner’s lips widened as he turned back to his friend and looked him directly in the eye.  Frank Morales was about as good a detective as they made them.  And he was indeed a genius.  Others who knew said the guy had an IQ that’d make a Descartes or a Feynman blush in embarrassment.  He had an eidetic memory, a photography memory for those who didn’t what eidetic meant, that could recall every piece of data he had ever read anytime in his life.
+++++Turner was almost his equal.  As good as a detective as his partner.  As experienced as a cop.  Just as good with a gun or in a fight.  And had a pretty damn good memory himself.  Maybe a hundred pounds light.  Certainly far more good looking.  Separately the two had conviction records that were stellar.  Combined as a team, the two were unequaled on the force for their ability to crack the uncrackable.
+++++“What do we know about the boyfriend?” the smiling Turner asked.
+++++“Not much,” shrugged Frank, turning to look back at the car.  “Merv’s seventeen years old.  The only child to a single parent.  His mother works as a junior vice president at a big bank downtown.  He’s been working at a sand pit company after school every day for the last three years saving up money to buy the car.  Apparently good in school.  Kinda popular.  Average level jock on the football field and basketball court.  Nothing out of the ordinary in any way.”
+++++“You learned all that in the ten minutes or so we’ve been standing out here in the cold?”
+++++“I know how to use a cell phone, asshat,” the red haired giant grunted, the corners of his lips twitching . . . Frank’s version of laughter . . . as he turned and started walking toward the ambulance.  “Let’s see what the girlfriend has to say.”
+++++Turner’s grin remained on his lips as he followed his partner over to the ambulance and stood behind and slightly to one side of Frank as Frank questioned the girl.  She still looked groggy.  But her wits were about her between her sucking in some oxygen through a clear plastic mask before answering any questions.  Behind her the two medics watched her closely as they sat on the gurney and listened in quietly.
+++++But there was nothing suspicious said.
+++++Just a couple of teenagers our driving around in a car Merv absolutely adored the moment he picked it up.  The girl was just a seventeen year old girl.  Merv’s high school sweetie.  Two parents, living in the suburbs, both parents working.  Average.  Just . . . average.
+++++So what was going on here?
+++++The girl acted like she’d been drugged.  Her boyfriend was missing.  Some local fisherman had phoned in the report about a car driving erratically on the road before coming to a halt in the middle of the road.  And that was it.  That’s all they knew.
+++++“Who was the fisherman who called it in?” Turner asked.
+++++“Dunno,” Frank said, shrugging. “Dispatch never got a name.  The caller just said he was out by the Little Brown doing some ice fishing and saw the car driving around erratically.”
+++++Turner, hands in his pocket and beginning to feel the cold seep in through the heavy overcoat he was wearing, turned and walked back to the edge of the river bank.  Frank tagged along behind him.  Silently the two began scanning the bank just below them and then the far side of the river.  It didn’t take long.
+++++“There,” Turner grunted, pulling a gloved hand out of his coat pocket and pointing across the river.  “That small light.”
+++++“Got it,” Frank nodded, reaching for his cell phone.  “Let’s get a ride from the River Patrol and go see if that’s our man.”
+++++It was their man.  Unfortunately.
+++++Someone had put a 9mm bullet through his forehead.  Did it up close and personal.  The fisherman was still sitting on the rough wooden bench in his hut, his back bracing him upright, his head thrown back and dead eyes staring at the hut’s rough plywood and tarp paper roof.
+++++“Someone . . . somehow . . . drugs two teenagers in a car the boy just bought today,”  Frank began, not sounding happy. “They pull the boy out of the car, go across the river and kill this guy because . . . because . . ?”
+++++“Had to have seen’em,” Turner put in, his eyes looking at the dead man. “He saw someone coming down river in a boat.  Saw’em nab the boy outta the car.  He had just enough time to call us before they put a bullet in his head. Had to be that way.”
+++++“Yeah, it makes sense,” Frank nodded.  “But why?  Who?”
+++++“We’ve got two leads.  We check out the mother and her work at the bank.  A vice president of a big bank might be involved in . . . something.  Right?”
+++++“Or,” Frank said, turning to look at his partner.  “Something happened at the sand pit the boy worked at.  Something the boy saw that made him a liability.  Who owns the sand pit?”
+++++It didn’t take long to find out.  A holding company called Payne Investments.  Just so happened Payne Investments was owned by Thomas James.  Gambler, thief, and member in good standing in several different organized crime families.
+++++Two leads.  Which one to go on first?
+++++Frank’s case.  Frank called the shots.  He chose the sand pit.
+++++The two blasted across town in Turner’s just restored black SS 396 Chevelle.  The rich kid enjoyed collecting his own brand of toys.  Hot vintage muscle cars.  Pulling up silently to a street curb just down the street from the sand pit’s gated fence, both Frank and Turner saw a car sitting across the front of the close gate, the car’s engine idling, with a lone person sitting inside it and looking at his cell phone.  The bright light of the phone’s software illuminated the man’s face.  They recognized the man immediately.  It was one of Thomas James’ goons.  A thug suspected in half a dozen murders over the years in the city.
+++++“Probable cause?”  Turner said in the SS’s dark interior. “A probable crime being committed inside the pit’s premises?”
+++++“That’s what I’m going on,”  Frank grunted, opening his car door and sliding out.
+++++Frank led.  Turner followed.
+++++The two pulled their respective weapons from their shoulder holsters as the slid through the darkness toward the running car.  Shadow to shadow, in and out, completely unseen.  The poor slob sitting inside his car and looking at porno on his phone didn’t see a thing until Frank tapped the driver’s side door window with the talking end of his .45 caliber Glock.
+++++Interestingly, the tough guy sitting in his car . . . the hardened criminal who was suspected in at least a half dozen murders . . . was so surprised to turn and stare into the open end of a Glock that he dropped his phone onto his lap and fainted.  Just rolled his eyes up into his head and fainted dead away.
+++++They slapped some heavy bracelets on his wrists and then attached them to the steering wheel in such a way he wouldn’t be able to move a finger until someone uncuffed him.  They took the keys out of the ignition and then they turned their attention to the pit itself.
+++++There were only two buildings on the large fenced enclosed lot.  There were lots of heavy equipment of all kinds sitting around in the darkness.  There were several deep sand pits half filled with water scattered about.  But only two buildings.  One was a large shed used for equipment maintenance.  The other was a small shack used for the foreman’s office.  In that building they saw a window filled with the yellow glow of burning lights from within.
+++++Peeking through that window they saw the kid roped like a prized calf into a rough wooden chair with gray Duct Tape wrapped around his mouth and head.  The kid was sitting in the middle of the small room and two very large men were standing on either side of him looking at him with wide grins on their lips.  In each of the men’s hands were big automatics they held down the length of their legs.
+++++Through the window Turner and Frank heard them talking.
+++++“Ya shoulda kept your mouth shut, Merv.  We told you to keep your mouth shut.  Now we gotta go out and put a bullet in your mother’s brain and then go over and take care of that pretty girlfriend of yours.”
+++++“Too bad,” the second thug grunted, shaking his head sadly.  “She’s cute, that one.  A shame.  A real shame.”
+++++“Go outside, Art.  Start up the front loader.  We’ll dig a deep hole and throw his body in it and cover him up.  Like the others.  Merv here might as well join the company. On a permanent basis.”
+++++Both men laughed as the one called Art holstered his weapon, turned, and walked over to the shack’s only entrance.  He was still laughing when he opened the door and Frank’s wrecking ball for a fist caught him full in the face with a powerful right jab.  Art flew back into the room, his legs barely working, and straight into the setting figure roped into the chair.  Both he and the kid went over sideways and crashed to the floor.  Art was out.  He wasn’t moving.  Wouldn’t be moving for another couple of hours.
+++++Art’s buddy stepped back from the train wreck which flew by him and made a mistake.  Instinctively he lifted his gun up and started to take a shot at the two entering the shack like thundering elephants.  But Turner was faster.  A 45.caliber slug caught the guy in his left shoulder.  The blow from the powerful slug twisted the big man around savagely as it tore through bone and muscle.  He dropped to the floor bleeding profusely.  But he would live.
+++++They pulled the strapped in Merv off the floor and sat him back upright in the chair.  Frank pulled from his slacks a swing blade knife out, rolled his wrist around, and snapped the blade open like a pro.  It took seconds to cut the kid free from his ropes.
+++++“Oh my god!  How did you . . . who are you . . . is Connie safe?  Is she safe?” the kid began speaking a thousand miles an hour, eyes as wide as dinner plates.  “You saved my life, man!  You saved my life!”
+++++Frank grunted, almost laughed, then walked over to the unconscious form he’d punched out and disarmed the sleeping beauty from his weapons.  Turner, bending down beside the guy he’d plugged, did the same before standing up and walking back to the kid.
+++++“Save your breath, son.  You’re gonna be up all night telling us everything you know about this place.  And by the way, I like your choice for a car.  Nice one.”
+++++The kid broke out into the biggest grin ever recorded by mankind.  The grin of a teenage boy who was the proud owner of his very first car.

Entry 7 – A Gentleman’s Calling Card

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

He stood in front of the full length mirror and eyed the image reflecting back toward him critically.  Yes.  The years had been kind to him.  But he could see the whisper of gray beginning to make their appearance around his temples.  There were a few more wrinkles around the eyes.  And there was that new scar, just the suggestion of one, behind the hinge of his left jaw.  A fond farewell kiss from a woman’s razor blade a few weeks back.  Another scar to add to the set which added to the set he already possessed.  It was to be expected in his line of work.  After all, it wasn’t as if he was an accountant or a car salesman.
+++++A hard, barely perceptible sneer of amusement flashed across his thin lips before disappearing altogether.
+++++His jet black eyes were still clear and sharp.  His stomach was flat and as hard as cement.  He still moved with the athletic fluidity of Spartan efficiency which had been a hallmark others had commented on.  The high cheekbones; the narrow thin nose.  All there.  All intact.  Still . . .after all these years.
+++++“Ah!  The sport coat you asked for, Mr. Schmidt.”
+++++The voice behind him came from a little man with a large bald spot on the top of his head, reading glasses slid half way down his nose, dressed smartly in a pair of tailored slacks, with a long sleeved shirt with the cuffs rolled up to his elbows.  Around his neck was a tailor’s measuring tape.  In his hands was a smartly cut herringbone patterned sport coat, opened and held in such a way to suggest it needed to be slipped onto someone’s shoulders immediately.   Smitty half turned, glanced at the tailored inner silk lining of the coat, and nodded approvingly before slipping on the jacket.  Turning to stare into the mirror again, Smitty’s black eyes first glance at the image in the upper right corner of the mirror before looking at himself.
+++++“Perfect!  Just perfect, Mr. Schmidt!  See the cuffs?  As requested.  The end precisely at the wrist.”
+++++The mirror was reflecting back the image coming through the tailor shop’s large plate glass window of the large brick building directly across the street.   A dark building sans any interior lights shining at all.  On the large front door was a big sign that said CLOSED in large red letters.  Above the door was an unlit marquee which needed new lighting fixtures.  Once it said proudly in orange and blue neon lights JULIO’S PIZZA.  Now it was a dark, rusting hulk that had long since seen better days.
+++++As the little bald tailor danced around in front of him, concentrating and chirping lightly an unending reel of nonsense as he checked the fit of the new sport coat, Smitty watched as a big Lincoln limousine pulled up in front of the pizza palace and came to a halt.  Two rather large men rolled out of the front seat of the car.  The big man on the passenger side stepped back and quickly opened the limo’s rear door.
+++++The round blob of Giuseppe Falco, all four hundred pounds of him, clawed himself up to a standing position and stepped away from the car.   The bodyguard closed the door quickly and then stepped up and took the right arm of an unsteady Falco and began walking toward the door with the CLOSED sign.  The limo’s driver quickly opened the door and also helped Giuseppe inside.
+++++“Ties, Mr. Schmidt?  Are we looking for some new ties tonight?”
+++++Smitty’s attention came back to the dark eyed image reflecting back to him in the mirror.
+++++“Red silk.  And maybe a dark silk one as well.”
+++++“Excellent choices, sir!  Excellent choices!” hummed the tailor as he hurried off into the interior of the shop.
+++++The image before him was a man he knew all too well.  Small framed.  Fast.  An excellent shot.  Extremely good with a knife.  A killer.  Dressed in a tailored sport coat of exquisite taste, dark gray slacks, with a light gray button down collar shirt and with gold cufflinks.  And waiting . . . waiting for the right moment.
+++++He glanced at his watch just as the beaming little tailor came back with three silk ties draped across his right forearm.  One gray.  One a startling bright red.  One a very light blue.
+++++“I’ll take all three,” he said, nodding. “Hand me the red one now.”
+++++The little man nodded, handed Smitty the tie, pushed his reading glasses back up his nose, and stepped back and watched with immense pleasure as the dark eyed man expertly threw the tie around his neck and tied a perfect Windsor knot.  The little man didn’t notice a large gray BMW sedan pull up in front of Giuseppe’s and come to a halt.
+++++But Smitty did.
+++++Finishing the knot, the dark eyed man nodded, turned and faced the plate glass window, pulling down the cuffs of his shirt in the process, as a big man, alone, climbed out of the BMW and slammed the door closed angrily.
+++++The tailor’s eyes glanced out the window.  But only for a moment. Shaking his head, his tongue making clicking noises he turned away and looked at his prized customer again.
+++++“Thankfully they leave me alone.  And I certainly leave them alone, if you know what I mean.”
+++++“I certainly do,” Smitty said, grabbing the tailor’s right bicep gently and pulling him along with him. “I think we should move away from the window?”
+++++“Move away from the window?” the balding tailor echoed,  looking very startled.  “Why?
+++++“I believe there is going to be an accident shortly.  A very noisy accident, if I’m not mistaken.”
+++++“But . . . but . . !”
+++++BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!
+++++Three explosions.  One right after the other in a cacophonic staccato of ear shattering noise.  A nanosecond later the pressure waves from the three explosions blew out the gigantic plate glass window of the tailor shop.  The very same one both of them had been standing by only seconds before.
+++++When the dust and debris cleared, lying on the floor in front of the now shattered full length mirror was the bloody remains of Giuseppe Falco’s severed head.  Holding onto a now very pale, and very sick tailor, that same amused snarl spread across Smitty’s lips.
+++++“Hmmm. Apparently there was some kind of mishap.  Shocking.”
+++++For an answer the little tailor bent over and heaved up his lunch and breakfast as sirens, hundreds of them, began blaring in the growing dusk of a cold winter’s night.

Augustus Commands

The roar of the crowd erupted like a Vesuvian shudder.  The noise was visceral.  Thundering across the long, narrow arena like an audible tidal wave. Ten thousand Romans came to their feet in a spontaneous clatter of excitement when, some distance below on the damp and dark soil of the Circus Maximus’ floor, the Green’s best charioteer overtook the Red’s number one chariot team deep in the south corner turn and slipped past to take the lead.
+++++It was one of those typical bright Roman summer days. The sun was hot and brilliant in a cloudless blue sky. Not a breath of air stirred the hundreds of colorful pennants which hung limp from the surrounding hippodrome flagpoles. The Palatine hill gleamed in dark greens, white marble and deep red brick from the numerous mansions with their park like gardens surrounding the rich overlooking the hippodrome. The crowd was in a festive mood today. The assorted aromas of spicy delicacies, cheap wine, and ten thousand people packed into the steep confines of the hippodrome’s hard stone seats assaulted the nostrils of all as the thunder and glory of the chariot races below held everyone’s full attention raptly.
+++++Except for three of the soldiers of the city Urban Cohort soldiers, who, following the purple clad back of a burly looking Praetorian guardsman, threaded their way haltingly along one of the narrow stadium walkways toward a gaily decorated covered box of a high dignitary. The leading Cohort officer, dressed in the working attire of a tribune, was a formidable looking individual of average height with a receding hairline of dark hair and a high forehead. On his face was an indecipherable mask of someone used to commanding men. A trait all too many Roman citizens recognized instantly.  But there was no denying the hard lines of experience carved into his face around his eyes, or the thin scar running horizontally across his chin just below his bottom lip. One look was enough. A soldier. An experienced, hardened old ex-legionnaire officer now serving in the Urbani.
+++++Behind the tribune strode a taller, younger, more naturally athletic looking junior officer of the Urban Cohort. A centurion in rank. A decidedly handsome young officer with a flashing natural smile coming often to his thin lips as they pushed and shoved their way through the raucous crowd. Finally, behind the centurion,  strolled a much older, smaller man of the enlisted ranks of the Cohort. An old, grizzled looking piece of leather who, at one glance, was an open book to read. Ex-legionnaire. An old veteran of the wars. Someone who had slogged through the mud and snows of a hundred different campaigns across a dozen different countries. Someone who was, even at his age, still very dangerous to confront in almost any situation.
+++++The Praetorian leading the entourage through the crowd was not polite to those of the crowd who found themselves blocking his way. He forced his way through the yielding crowd mercilessly, leaving behind him a wake of hard stares and mumbling faces in the process. But eventually he arrived at the ring of purple clad guardsmen surrounding Caesar’s ornate box and quickly ushered the three following him into the secured area with a swift hand gesture.
+++++Caesar, the Augustus, attended the races today. Because he was here the crowd’s presence had increased threefold in attendance. The presence of the old man had this effect on Rome’s populous. Octavius Caesar, old and bent with arthritis and rheumatism as he was, was nevertheless well loved by one and all. Well into his seventies, the old man rarely left his personal residence anymore. But when he did he always generated an immense crowd around him. Thus the large presence of Caesar’s bodyguards. Taking the old concept of a general’s personally bodyguards, called the Praetorian Guards, and expanded it dramatically, Caesar had created an elite force of 6,000 officers and men whose sole occupation was to maintain the safety of the government and the ruling parties within the city.
+++++It had also been Caesar’s idea in creating the city’s Urban Cohort. A police force organized along the lines of a Roman legion, their primary goal aimed at keeping the city’s population under control.  Caesar, finally plucking the crown of authority from the outstretched fingers of his dead foes, both amazed and dazzled the Roman world with his brilliance and imagination as a ruler of a vast empire. An empire once racked by incessant civil wars now dwelled in an aura of peace and tranquility. An aura of peace and tranquility kept in check by the velvety covered steel grip of one man.
+++++“Ah, see who is here? Cousin Decimus bearing sad news,” the old man said when he turned and saw the approach of the three Cohort officers.
+++++With assistance from a junior officer of the guards Caesar came to his feet and, with open arms, embraced the tribune fondly for all to see. Decimus, for his part, gently held the fragile old man for a moment or two with one arm, making sure to press too firmly in the process.
+++++“Well cousin,” the old man said, his voice surprisingly strong and his eyes surprisingly clear as he stepped back and looked up into the tribune’s face. “Something troubles you. It is not sad news you come to report. But something else. Ah! Perhaps something more sinister?”
+++++“Caesar, you are aware of the death of Claudius Publius Sejanus, son of the father to the same name. The man just announced to be the next legate in the Levant.”
+++++“I am indeed,” nodded the old man as he shuffled around the tribune and quietly shook hands both with the young centurion and the old veteran. An act which, again, was observed by one in all in the hippodrome. “A shocking event. Taking his own life in on the marble steps of the Mars Ultor temple. And newly commissioned as well. A centurion wasn’t he? To follow his father to the Orient as one of his father’s military aides?  Such a tragedy.”
+++++Caesar came back to stand beside the quiet but powerful calm of Decimus Virilis, in the process reaching up with an ancient hand and gripping the younger man’s upper arm firmly.
+++++“But you think this may be more than a suicide, eh cousin? I know you, Decimus.  We’ve soldiered together far too long for me not to see your talents. That’s why I asked you to investigate the moment word reached me of the lad’s death. So tell me everything.  From the beginning.”
+++++As ordered, Decimus outlined the last few hours of his investigation.
+++++An hour before the cock crowed. The fist of an impatient guardsman pounding on the wooden door of his small villa’s outer garden gate demanding immediate entrance.  Servants, with torches in their hands, sleepy eyed but genuinely frightened, swarmed into the garden to see who so rudely clamored to enter. To their surprise they found a Urban Cohort enlisted man demanding to see the tribune.  He was being summoned and was needed immediately.
+++++Upon his arrival at the base of the temple’s steps the vision before him was surreal. The last beams of a fading moonlight bathed the magnificent columned temple of Mars Ultor in the heart of the city. White moon beams gleamed off the bronze chariot of Mars at the centermost apex of the temple’s roofline. Equally the bronze statue of Julius Caesar atop his three meter high stone pedestal, situated at the base of the temple’s marble steps, seemed almost alive in the moon light.
+++++But the body of the young Sejanus lying on the steps at the half way mark, his white toga bathed in the blackness of his own blood, held the attention of all. Several of the city’s Vigilies and Urban Cohort soldiery created a rough circle surrounding the dead body. Many of them held burning torches above their heads. A bubble of bright light in the middle of the moonlit semi-darkness of Rome was, as Decimus could see in their faces, an obvious omen of bad luck. He almost laughed, observing the faces of the guardsmen who were trying desperately not to stare at the dead man lying on the blood stained steps of the temple. Romans were notoriously superstitious. Doubly so if an unnatural death occurred which could somehow be associated with a Roman deity.
+++++Death, lying on the temple steps of the city’s most revered god, Mars Ultor . . . Mars the Avenger . . . foretold terrible misfortune was to come to someone.
+++++“Cousin, you have most wondrous way with words. Almost poetic,” the old Caesar chuckled just as the hippodrome’s crowd exploded a raucous chorus of cheering.  The old man looked down at the racing chariots below and then turned his attention back to Decimus, leaning toward him in the process. “But how did you know it was murder and not the suicide that was originally reported to me?”
+++++It was his protégé, the young Quintus Flavius, who first alerted him to the possibility of murder. The centurion and he examined the body as it lay on the bloody steps together. As guardsmen held burning torches near by Quintus discovered the bandaged arm of the young nobleman. The man’s right arm . . . his sword arm . . . hidden in the folds of his expensive toga.  It was a deep cut, from the edge of a slashing Gladius, which had bit deep into the young nobleman’s upper arm. Bit deep all the way to the bone.  It had happened hours before his untimely death. It had been expertly cleaned and bandaged by a physician. But to Decimus it confirmed his suspicions. The young Claudius Publius Sejanus had been murdered.
+++++“Ah! I see a glimmer of your talents, cousin,” the old Caesar nodded, disregarding those occupying the emperor’s booth with and the ten thousand who filled the hippodrome. “It was reported to me that the boy used his own sword and pushed it into his body. A ritualistic death, as some would say. But it takes two hands to ram the sharp point of a Gladius into one’s flesh. A severely injured arm heavily bandaged would make such a death almost impossible to achieve. But was there something else as well? Another clue you found?”
+++++Indeed, Caesar.
+++++In the dark blood which had ran down the steps below the fallen nobleman he found the barest outline of a small scandal, a woman’s scandal, imprinted in the half congealed liquid. A woman discovered the body and had fled from the scene. A few meters away they found the second faint imprint of the same bloody scandal on the stone pavement. The woman was running. Running away from the corpse of the young Sejanus.
+++++The old man’s face clouded over thoughtfully as he leaned again closer to speak to Decimus. But the sagacious tribune already knew what his elderly cousin was about to ask him.
+++++No, Caesar.
+++++This lover of Claudius Publius Sejanus, for she was indeed his lover, had not assisted him in ramming the sword into his belly. The foul deed had already been committed by the time she found her lover lying on the steps.
+++++How, you ask, could anyone possibly know this?
+++++The blood, Caesar; the blood. By the time of her appearance the blood of Sejanus had ran down a number of the stone steps and had began to congeal. Her late arrival, and subsequent horrific discovery, compelled her to flee from the scene in haste before anyone discovered her. In fleeing, she stepped into the congealed blood, leaving a permanent imprint in the dark fluid in the process.
+++++“You searched for this woman, yes? Did you find her?”
+++++Before the regal tribune of the Urbani could answer the hippodrome’s crowd thundered into life. The crowd roared a second time. There was the cracking and splintering fury wood smashing and grinding, along with the screams of horses and men down below the emperor’s balcony. The Blues number three driver tried to push his way past the Green’s number two driver. But the Greens driver resisted. Chariot wheels became entwined and the horrendous crash following delighted the crowd immensely.
+++++Assuredly, Caesar. Through the night they searched. Urbani troopers were sent down the side streets and alleyways leading away from the temple to question potential witnesses. He, accompanied by Quintus Flavius, adjourned to the home of Claudius Publius Sejanus the senior to inform him of his son’s death. To their surprise they found the older Sejanus awake and in his study, already informed of his son’s suicide.
+++++Entering the Legate’s private study the found the white haired, gaunt frame of the senator standing behind his desk with a frown on his face. The desk was piled with numerous scrolls. On the corner of the desk was a large leather pouch half filled with rolled parchment.
+++++“You have come at a bad time, tribune. I pack my things for the approaching journey to the Palestine. Duty calls and I cannot delay.”
+++++“Not even delay a few days to preside over your son’s funeral?” Decimus asked, his dark eyes running up and down the Legate’s frame as he studied him closely.
+++++“I cannot. Word has come that there may be trouble with the Parthians again.  Besides, why should I linger and preside over the funeral of a defective son? He was a disgrace to the family’s name and a disgrace to me. Better to put such unpleasantries behind us I say.”
+++++“In what way was your son . . . defective?” the tall Quintus Flavius asked as he stood in back and to one side of the older man in front of him.
+++++Decimus Virilis’ expression remained unreadable as he waited the general’s response. The hardened old legionnaire, a twenty-five year veteran of Rome’s wars,  silently approved of the young centurion’s query. The two made a good investigative team. Quintus Flavius was naturally inquisitive. He had a good eye for detail and an innate ability to sense falsehoods from others. The only thing he lacked was experience.  That quantity the young centurion would receive in abundance assisting in the investigations Caesar Augustus assigned his distant cousin, Decimus Julius Virilis, to investigate.
+++++“My son, may the gods forgive him, was a weakling. He was not much of a soldier. He had no love for politics. He preferred ‘Poetry and Beauty.’  His own words . . . Poetry and Beauty. Foolish. Foolish and silly. The empire’s affairs has no time for Beauty and Poetry. What it needs is men. Hard men with a clear vision on how the empire works.”
+++++“Harsh, wouldn’t you say, Legate?” the curly haired centurion behind Decimus answered. “The tribune here is a hard man. A much decorated veteran of the wars. Yet he enjoys poetry and beauty. As do I.”
+++++The general’s hard eyes lifted up for the first time and took in the image of the men standing across from him. His eyes came to rest on the scarred, darkly tanned, high sloping forehead and thinning hairline of Decimus Virilis.
+++++“Your exploits are well known, Tribune. Especially your handling of the IXth Brundisi in the last Dalmatian Wars. It must have been quite a fight. Surrounded by Dalmation tribesmen on a lonely hilltop. Commanding the remnants of an undermanned legion, its Legate and second in command cruelly murdered just before the attack. Yes, your exploits are well known. But I stand by my words. My son was weak.Too weak to survive.”
+++++Claudius Publius Sejanus was a hard man. Hard as stone. Hard as the tempered blade of a Gladius. But Decimus saw in the older man’s eyes something else. Something deeper and hidden. Worry. Something was playing on the general’s emotions deep within his soul. He was skillfully masking it. It was barely perceptible. But it was there. And it had a discordant vibration to it. Related, somehow, to the death of his son. But not in any sense of a man grieving over the loss of an only child.
+++++Curious. Most curious.
+++++“Weak or not, legate. Something must have triggered your son in taking his life so cruelly on the steps of the temple. Have you a hint of what that might have been?”
+++++“News came earlier tonight his current lover and her family had been killed, actually slaughtered, in their own home. Apparently brigands broke in to rob the place.  They killed everyone. Including the servants. I’m afraid the news shattered him. He went flying out of the house the moment he heard. I never saw him again. Only the news, just arrived, of his death.”
+++++“Who, if I may ask, was your son’s current lover?” the centurion asked not so discreetly.
“Amelia. Daughter of the Greek banker and shipping magnate, Phillip Themistocles.” the general growled, picking up two heavy rolls of parchment and stuffing them into the leather pouch viciously. “Now, gentlemen, if there are no other questions, I must continue with my packing. I am scheduled to depart the day after tomorrow and I have much to do.”
+++++“Then we will leave you to your thoughts, general. We offer you our sincerest condolences as well,” Decimus answered, bowing his head slightly before turning and withdrawing from the general’s study.
+++++The crowd, again, came to their feet with a roar of pleasure at the antics of the horsemen below.  Caesar, his old eyes afire with curiosity, glanced at the action down on the hippodrome’s floor before returning to stare into his cousin’s face.
+++++“You did not believe Sejanus, cousin? And what of this death of the Greek banker and his family? I heard just a vague reference to it earlier in the day.  But what of the details, cousin? How does this play into your investigation?”
+++++They are intricately tied together, Caesar.
+++++Half way across the city in our journey to the Themistocles house we were set up by a gallery of rogues intent on killing us. They came armed with swords and clubs. Six of them. They were not the common hoodlum unusually found lurking in some dark city alley waiting for a fat merchant or lowly tradesman to fall into their hands. These men armed with swords were legionaries.  The were confident in the sword work. They fought as a unit and not as some rabble.
+++++They thought the odds, six to two, were in their favor. They even joked among themselves who would first draw blood. They surrounded us and attacked.
+++++As you can see, cousin, they were unsuccessful in their assignment. My protégé and I fought, back to back, in the darkness of a lonely Roman street. Steel rang against steel and blood flowed hot and raw on the cobblestones beneath our sandals. After twenty five years serving in your armies, Caesar, I have become somewhat proficient with the sword. But my young aide, Claudius Flavius, is without equal in his swordplay. His family owns several gladiator schools in and around Ostia. The best swordsmen in the empire taught the lad how to handle a Gladius. In the initial attack the tall centurion cut down three of them with three strokes of the blade.
+++++I was fortunate to remove two more from the fight. The remaining attacker fled, dropping his sword and running for his life in the process.
+++++The crowd was growing listless in the stands. It was the idle time between races.  Below, in the dirt of the track, crews were cleaning up the debris from the previous debacle. The day was hot and without a cooling breeze. But underneath the brightly colored canopy of Caesar’s box sitting at the mid point high in the stands, the old man’s eyes turned and gazed upon the handsome face of the young centurion. Silently the old man nodded his head approvingly and then returned his attention back to Decimus.
+++++“An assassination attempt, cousin? On you and your young friend here?”
+++++Indeed so, Caesar. Hastily organized, to be sure. But necessitated by the need for haste from those who wished to stop my investigation as quickly as possible. The Goddess of Fortuna smiled upon us last night. It just so happened I had assigned a spy to covertly watch the House of Sejanus. My spy saw a dark form of a wounded man enter the back gate of the villa’s privacy walls.  Some minutes later the same wounded man, freshly bandaged and wearing clean clothing, and one other departed from the same gate in haste. My spy thought it wise to follow.
+++++“That is one thing I’ve always admired about you, Decimus. You surround yourself with good men. What did this man find at the end of his trail?”
+++++Phillip Themistocles, Caesar. Very much alive and apparently quite agitated. He was on the ship carrying the elder Sejanus to the Levant. As soon as word reached me that a supposedly recently slain dead man was found alive and occupying the most elaborate of cabins on the ship owned by Sejanus, I had a detachment of the Urbani arrest everyone on board. It did not take long to pull the truth out of several willing to talk in exchange for one more day’s worth of living.
+++++Phillip Themistocles turns out to be the step-father to the young Amilia who was with the younger Sejanus earlier in the morning. Themistocles and the elder Sejanus have been agents for the King of Parthia now for the last six years. The elder was to lead your legions, once he settled himself into his new command, deep into Parthian territory where the Parthian king and his armies would be lying in wait. The legions would be destroyed, ever man killed, thus leaving wide open the Parthian take over of all of Rome’s conquest in the Levant.
+++++For his part in the treachery the elder Sejanus would become a very wealthy man, as would Themistocles.  I see in your eyes, Caesar, your thoughts.  Why, you wonder, was Sejanus the younger murdered so cruelly?  And why was everyone in the Themistocles household slaughtered except Amilia?
+++++Happenstance, cousin. Sheer luck. The younger Sejanus whisked away his love only moments before the hired assassins descended upon the house and slaughter them all. He had just discovered the treachery his father was about to commit. With all traces of the Themistocles family apparently slain . . . Phillip, by the way, finding a slave who looked remarkably like him to take his place . . . there would be no evidence to link the elder Sejanus to the Parthian king. But Amelia left the house just before her scheduled death. She miraculously escaping her fate terrified her step father. Agents were sent out to find her and remove her from the living as quickly as possible.
+++++Both young lovers raced to the Temple of Mars in the hopes of claiming sanctuary from their pursuing killers. On the steps leading up to the temple the assassins closed in.  The younger Sejanus fought off the assassins long enough to cut a path wide enough for Amelia to escape. She ran, disappearing into the night, only to return much later to find her lover and betrothed so cruelly slaughtered.
+++++“Ah . . . ,” the old man hummed, nodding his head sagely. A servant came foward with a silver tray in his hands holding two goblets of wine. The old Caesar took one and offered it to the tribune before taking one for himself. “So now you come to me, no doubt asking for permission to do  . . . what, cousin?”
+++++“The elder Sejanus is still unaware that we have full knowledge of his treachery.  He should be boarding his ship later tonight to depart for his new command. Since he is a Roman citizen of some repute, I am required to solicit permission from you before I may arrest him. I have come asking for that permission.”
+++++The crowd roared in delight. A dozen long bronze trumpets lifted their loud notes into the hot afternoon air announcing the next set of races were about to begin. Caesar paid no attention to the crowd nor to the races. Sipping his wine for a moment the old man nodded as if making a decision and stepped close to speak to the taller tribune quietly.
+++++“I am told that ships are lost at sea with all hands occasionally even when the seas are as calm as they are today. It would be a terrible tragedy to hear that our recently appointed Legate to Palestine was so suddenly ripped from our bosom.  Tragic . . . but understandable.”
+++++“Understandable, cousin.  And of Themistocles and his band of vipers?”
+++++“The mines in Hispania are always in need of laborers, Decimus.  Always.”
+++++Neither Decimus, nor the centurion standing behind the still handsome old tribune, nor the grizzled old soldier standing beside the centurion, appeared in any way disturbed by Caesar’s decree. This was Rome. Caesar was Rome.
+++++Everyone knew Roman Justice was a cruel wench to satisfy. Especially for traitors.

 

Do You Trust Me, Jack?

“Oh, shit.”
+++++His last words. Just before the .22 cal. bullet slammed into his forehead directly above his right eyebrow.
+++++No one heard a thing. He timed it perfectly. He came out of the depth of the alley’s darkness just as a lumbering deliver truck rumbled by and squealed brakes as it slowed to turn on a different street. He squeezed the trigger of the Ruger when the truck’s breaks screeched like a dying banshee’s last breath.
+++++He caught the body falling before it smashed into the over filled trash cans lining the wall of the apartment building. Gently lowering the black clad body, the man’s 9mm Glock still in his gloved hand, he sat the surprisingly bloodless body down on the cold cement of the alley in an upright position. Rising, he glanced down at the bulky, ungainly looking Ruger Woodsman with its ugly looking thick bulk of a specially designed silencer attached to its four inch barrel and smiled.
+++++A snarling grin of quite pleasure spread momentarily across his thin lips. He so enjoyed his job. Even if, unsurprisingly, others thought of him as being a major liability.  If not an outright threat beyond measure or redemption. One that had to be removed.  Removed swiftly and violently. At any cost. But that was the key, wasn’t it? The cost. The cost it would take to remove him. It was going to be costly all right. Very costly. For someone.
+++++Taking a step to the alley’s dimly lit opening, black eyes survived the cold night’s vista, first to his right and then to his left. Two others were out there. Two of the best mob hitters he had ever faced. Originally there had been three hired hands, counting the dead guy lying in the cold cement of the dark alley behind him. Brought into town with only one intent. To cut him down. To silence him forever. Three out of town hitters hired by a man who, if he didn’t really trust . . . because who in this business do you ever trust? .  . nevertheless thought he had a good working relationship with.
+++++Four hours earlier he was in Bobby Delgado’s office. The old man was bald, overweight, but well dressed. His desk was surprising small in stature but had the trim precision and lack of clutter one would associate with someone with OCD. The man, hands clasped together on the desk in front of him, eyed him with a thin little smile stretching across his lips. On either side of the room, sitting in plush chairs and looking distinctly bored, were two of Delgado’s most trusted soldiers. Behind Delgado, sitting on the window sill, hands clasped together in his lap, was a big man dressed nattily in a two piece brown tweed suit. Jack DeSoto. One tough cookie.
+++++“Smitty, there’s a mess I want you to clean up,” Delgado said, unclasping one hand and reaching down to his right and opening the top right desk drawer. Pulling out a large Manila envelope, a heavy one, he sat it on the top of the desk and slid the heavy object toward Smitty with one finger. “I have a leak in the organization. A stoolie. I want you to find him, put the squeeze on him to find out whose he been talking to, and then remove him altogether. Today, Smitty. Today.”
+++++“Who?”
+++++Smitty’s voice. A soft whisper. The sound of wind blowing through high mountain firs. Creepy beyond belief.
+++++“Hoagland. My accountant. We’ve been watching him for weeks. He’s the leak.  He’s down at his office . . . you know the place. Go down there, close the building up, and find out what I need to know. Take the body when you’re down and dump it somewhere no one will ever find him. Can you get this all done today? I mean it. Today.”
+++++“Sure,” the dark eyed Smitty answered gently. “No problem.”
+++++But there was a problem.
+++++The guy sitting on the window sill directly behind Delgado, the tough cookie, was staring with unblinking eyes straight at Smitty. There was an unreadable mask on the hard man’s face. The look of a had man on a mission he would finish no matter how distasteful it might be.
+++++Smitty glanced at DeSoto just once. Just for one second. But it was enough.  DeSoto’s eyes went to his right and left to glance at what his two men were doing. They were not paying the least bit of attention at what was going on in the room.  Moving eyes back to Smitty his right hand slid out of his lap. The hand was in a fist. But two fingers were extended. Two. Glancing to his left, toward the window, the big man tilted his head slightly toward the window.
+++++That was it. Nothing more. But Smitty understood. Leaning forward Smitty scooped up the heavy envelope of money and, standing up straight again, slid it inside his coat pocket and nodded.
+++++“I’ll be back at six with something. Fair enough?”
+++++“Fair enough,” Delgado nodded, his smile widening.
+++++Across the street from Delgado’s headquarters was small Starbuck’s. A favorite hangout for Delgado’s men. Stepping out of the office building Delgado owned and used has his center of operations, Smitty glanced up and down the street, then moved quickly through a hole in the busy traffic and entered the coffee shop.
+++++A half hour later Jack DeSoto strode into the semi empty shop and sat down on a bar stood beside the dark eyed and ordered coffee.  Black and hot.
+++++“Get outta town, Smitty. There’s a contract out on you.”
+++++“What’s going on?” Smitty whispered casually as he lifted the cup in front of him toward his lips.
+++++“Delgado’s brought in some big time hitters to take you out. He wants it done today.  That’s why he brought you in and fed you this line about his accountant. Hoagland’s no stoolie.  Hell, he’s not even in town. The boss told him to take an extended vacation. The guy and his family are somewhere in Europe as far as I know. Won’t be back until next month.”
+++++“Why does Delgado want to take me out so quickly?”
+++++DeSoto’s coffee came. The big man in the brown suit reached for it, glancing toward the shop’s plate glass window in the process before turning back to the coffee.  Blowing into the coffee for a second he finally took a sip and then sat the cup back onto the counter.
+++++He frowned, shrugged, and replied in a quiet voice.
+++++“It’s simple, buddy. He doesn’t trust you. He’s never trusted you.”
+++++Smitty said nothing but sipped his coffee again. Lowering his cup he glanced at the man beside him and almost grinned.
+++++“Nothing I can do to change his mind?”
+++++“Only one,” DeSoto answered. “You could kill him. But Smitty, you’ve got no time to hang around. The boss wants you dead. He’ll have a half dozen or more men surrounding him tonight in the office for protection until he hears the contract has been completed. There’s no way you could get to him on such short notice. And there’s something else. Something I wanted no part of, mind you. But it’s there. You gotta know.”
+++++Smitty said nothing but sat calmly on the counter stool and stared at his coffee cup. Beside him DeSoto squirmed in his seat and made face before clearing his throat.
+++++“Next time I see ya, Smitty, I’ve got to put you down. I’m supposed to back up the pros. But if for some reason they screw up, I’m supposed to finish the job.”
+++++Smitty’s lips cracked into a tight little smear for a grin as he lifted his cup of coffee to his lips. Finishing the dark brew he saw the cup back onto the counter top and glanced up at the mirror lining the wall directly behind long counter. Black eyes stared at the image of the man sitting beside him.
+++++“Jack, do you trust me?”
+++++DeSoto lifted an eyebrow in surprise as he glanced at the dark complexioned man.
+++++“Trust you?  I . . . I guess I never thought about it. Why?”
+++++Smitty shrugged slightly, the sneer on his lips again.
+++++“In this game we play sometimes you’ve got to take a chance and trust someone.  That’s all.”
+++++DeSoto’s eyes shot over to stare at the dark eyed man in the mirror. A cold shiver ran down his spine. Smitty’s voice had that affect on him. Often.
+++++“Be seeing you, Jack.”
+++++Smitty got up, unrolled a twenty out of a wad of bills he pulled out of his slacks and tossed the twenty on the counter top. Without saying another word he turned and walked out of the small shop. DeSoto, coffee cup raised half to his lips, watched the man leave and frowned. Shaking his head sadly he sighed, sat the cup onto the counter, and stood up.
+++++He knew.  Knew Smitty wasn’t leaving town.
+++++He’d better go warn the three hitters. Smitty was staying. Meaning it was either kill Smitty. Or Smitty was going to kill them. All of them.
+++++Twenty minutes later DeSoto stepped out of a hotel room door and closed the door quietly behind him. Glancing to his left and then to his right he paid no attention to the squat, heavyset black lady dressed as a hotel maid beside a large cart containing fresh towels, bed sheets, etc.  The woman was in her forties, humming to herself as she stuffed dirty sheets into a large laundry bag as he walked by heading for the bank of elevators at the far end of the carpeted hall.
+++++He pushed the down button on an elevator and, waiting for the doors to open, half turned and stared back down the hall at the maid. She was a thick boned woman who had on heavy but looking leather shoes with white socks. Socks which slipped up well past heavy looking ankles and disappeared underneath the hem of her black dress. She holding onto a large stack of freshly laundered towels as she moved down across the carpet heading for the door he had just exited.
+++++He smiled. The guy from Detroit was going to like that. A woman old enough to be his mother bringing him a stack of fresh towels. When the elevator doors in front of him slid open the grin on his lips widened.  He knew the Detroit hitter.  Knew the man hated women. All women. As he elevator doors slid shut his grin widened as he lifted a hand and tossed off a silent salute to the maid.
+++++Good luck, lady. You’re gonna need it.
+++++Smitty heard the doors of the elevator close behind him just as he lifted a hand up and knocked gently on the hotel room’s door.  When the door shot open angrily and a bald headed, sweating fat man with a bulbous nose and beady little eyes stepped into the door way, he smiled sweetly and lifted the towels up slightly.
+++++“What the hell do you want?”
+++++“Fresh towels, sir.  You’re going to need them,” the heavy sat black lady responded.
+++++“What the hell do I need more goddamn towels?”
+++++Phatt! Phatt!
+++++Two .22 caliber magnums directly into and slightly to the left of the man’s sternum.  Two small holes punched into the man’s chest with enough force to stagger the man back a couple of steps into the hotel room.
+++++Smitty stepped into the room, and using a foot, shut the door behind him gently. In front of him sweating fat man, eyes wide with surprise, blinked a couple times stupidly and then looked down at his chest. Two remarkably thin streaks of blood were working their way down the front of his undershirt. Just two incredibly bright red stains.  Nothing more.
+++++“Godammit, I should have know!”
+++++The fat man rolled eyes up into his skull and then went over backwards.  He was dead when he hit the floor. Smitty, tossing the fresh towels onto the floor beside the dead man, reached up with one hand and pulled the wig off his head.  Tossing it onto the dead man’s chest he then used his free hand and began pulling the makeup off in long streaks of plastic and cosmetics.  Opening the hotel door he quickly Smitty grabbed the laundry cart and pulled it into the room.
+++++It didn’t take long. Didn’t take long to shrug out of the maid’s disguise and ram everything into the dirty laundry bag tied to the laundry cart. From another shelf in the cart he pulled out his suit coat, slacks, shirt and tie and quickly dressed. By time he stepped out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby Smitty was Smitty again. A well dressed looking businessman who was, oddly, carrying underneath one arm a tightly wrapped up white canvas bag with him.
+++++Six hours later Jack DeSoto used a key to let himself into the blackened offices of the boss’ accountant.  He was angry.  Closing the door behind him gently he stepped deeper into the darkness of the big office complex and eyed the place over carefully.
+++++“Reid!” he hissed softly.  Nervously. “Reid? Where the hell are you?”
+++++Winston Reid was the third hitter the boss had brought in to take out Smitty.  But Reid couldn’t be found.  He wasn’t answering his cell phone.  He wasn’t in his hotel room.  So he had to be here.  Here in Hoagland’s offices obviously waiting for Smitty to show up. Glancing to his right he smiled.  Deep into the suite of rooms he saw the light of Hoagland’s office was throwing a column of light onto the hallway’s thick carpet floor.  At least the guy was making it look as if Hoagland was working late tonight. Good. Maybe that’s lure Smitty into a kill zone.
+++++Except . . .
+++++He heard the soft whisper just behind him.  Just the merest suggestion of a noise. A hand went up to pull his 9mm Browning from his shoulder holster as he began turning.  But he stopped in mid motion when he hard the man’s soft whispering words. Froze in mid motion!
+++++“Jack.  Jack.  What time is it?”
+++++A spine chilling iron grip of sheer terror clamped down on his spine.  Smitty!  How the hell . . . ?
+++++“Jack, what time is it?”
+++++Jack DeSoto blinked a couple of times in sheer panic.  And then, as if smacked with a brick up against his head, he realized he was still alive. Still alive and Smitty was asking him a question. A question!
+++++“Wha . . . what time is it?  It’s . . . it’s six o’clock, dammit.  Why?”
+++++In the distance.  All the way across town.  The unmistakable boom of a tremendous explosion.  An explosion strong enough to rattle the windows in the suit of offices he and Smitty stood in.
+++++And then the hiss of a quiet laugh.
+++++“I told Delgado I would have something from him by six tonight.  But maybe not quite the something he wanted to hear, eh Jack?”
+++++DeSoto kept his hands out and away from his body as he turned slowly and faced the black shadow that was Smitty standing in a sea of darker shadows.  His mouth was dry. He could feel the sweat running down his forehead.  He felt his bladder screaming to be relieved of pain. It didn’t matter. He knew he was going to die.
+++++The soft clatter of Smitty’s laughter again.  Laughter coming out of the black shadows.  Creepy.  Creepy as hell.
+++++“I’ll ask it again, buddy.  Do you trust me, Jack?”
+++++And as Smitty’s soft whispering words leaked out of the darkness a gloved hand holding a long barreled Ruger .22 caliber Woodsman revolver, with the bulky looking tube of a silence attached to the end of the barrel, somehow materialized into the only sliver of light visible in this part of the office.
+++++“Do you trust me, Jack?  Do you?”

Roscoe

I hesitated and turned to look over my shoulder and eyed the little man sitting with his hands clasped together atop the battered looking conference table.  Just a small man.  No jaw to speak of.  Narrow nose. Stringy brown hair plowing toward utter baldness.  Plain looking.  So plain he was beginning to blend into the dull white paint of the wall directly behind him.  I got the impression a couple of more minutes sitting in the wooden chair alone in the interrogation room and he’d simple vanish into thin air.
+++++Vanish like a bad taste in your mouth.  Or maybe a bad idea.  Just slowly fade away.
+++++Closing the door behind me I stood in the hallway and looked at my monolithic nightmare of partner and lifted an eyebrow and waited.  He turned, glanced at me, saw the face I make when something’s bothering me and sneered openly at me.
+++++“That’s our killer?” Frank grunted, turning to look at me with those little brown points for eyes as he ran a hand through the mop of carrot colored hair.  “That guy put four rounds of a .357 magnum in to Rick Burns’ chest and then two in the face?  Him?  Sweet Jesus.  You gotta be kidding me.”
+++++“He said he did it.  We found Burns’ body where he said we’d find it. Burns’ blood is on the guy’s shoes and trouser cuffs.  Evidently the prints on the gun are his.  What else do you want?”
+++++“I want to know who killed Rick Burns,” growled by mountain gorilla wannabe for a partner, jabbing a pointed finger into my chest gently.  “Just like you do, buddy.  I know you don’t believe the guy’s story either.”
+++++The problem was Roscoe Tanner, accountant, said he did it.  Said he struggled with his boss for the gun he knew Burns always carried and then shot him six times.  Just like that.  Like it was an everyday thing.  Point blank range.  Two .357 rounds in the face.  Made the guy’s head explode like a bowl of tossed jello.
+++++I threw a smirk in his direction and nodded. I agreed with Frank.  There was no way a Roscoe Simmons, accountant extraordinaire for one big time slime ball like Rick Burns, could take Burns’ own gun, a Smith &Wesson .357 magnum, from him and then fill Burns full of holes and Burns not do a damn thing to defend himself.  But that’s what the forensics team at the crime scene confirmed.  That’s what Roscoe said happened.  That’s what the district attorney was going to use the moment he got his hands on this case.
+++++If Roscoe was lucky he might get Life in prison.  If not so lucky . . .
+++++“So what do you want to do?” I asked, pushing hands into my slacks and staring at my friend eyeball to eyeball.
+++++Frank and I stand about six foot four apiece.  He’s eighty pounds heavier and about twice as strong. He looks like a reject from a madman’s deranged genetic lab experiment.  On the other hand, I’ve been told I look like a dead man.  A handsome dead man, mind you. But still, a dead man.  Apparently I’m almost the spitting image of some dead movie actor from out of the 30’s. Yeah, he’s famous.  And no.  I’m not mentioning names.
+++++So we make a good team as homicide detectives.  I look like a half remembered handsome stiff only a movie buff would remember. He looks like a biological nightmare no one wants to remember.  My name is Turner Hahn.  His is Frank Morales.  And for the last eight years we’ve worked the homicide desk out of the South Side Precinct.
+++++“I’m thinking we’ve got witnesses over at Burns’ place who are keeping their mouths shut.  We should go over and talk to a few of the employees.  You know . . . persuasively.  Like only we can.”
+++++When some red headed giant about the size of Bigfoot sits you down in a chair and leans over you so closely his breath sends a shiver down the back of your neck, and in your ear he says in a gruff voice, “Tell us about the shooting,” you have a tendency to tell him about the shooting.  I’m not suggesting Frank can be intimidating when he wants to be.  I’m saying that, unless you know Frank as well as I do, he is always intimidating.  Just his physical presence alone makes atheists suddenly become religious.
+++++So we drove across town underneath an early evening sky threatening to open up and dump on us a biblical style deluge.  It was that time of the year.  Late spring.  Humidity so thick you could cut the water vapor hanging in the air with a dull set of pliers.  Towering white/grayish thunder cells visibly climbing for the stratosphere in ominous anticipation.  The rumble of thunder constantly talking to you off in the distance.  The kind of weather where the static electricity in the air makes mousey looking housewives reach for shotgun in the bedroom closet, or maybe a butcher’s cleaver from out of the kitchen counter knife set, and do a little house cleaning of their own.  That kind of weather.
+++++Burns owned a hotspot called Valentino’s Grotto.  It was a dance club for the under thirties set who were just breaking into good money professional wise.  Down in the warehouse district.  The old warehouse’s ground floor was covered in black tile. The small tables and chairs surrounding the dance floor were virgin white in color.  The far wall of the warehouse was nothing but gigantic speakers and a raised dais where, apparently, the DJ’s did their magic nightly. We were told by those who knew the place was a cash cow.  Thursday through Sunday nights the place was packed.  Money, both legally and illegally earned, dropped into Burns’ pockets by the dumpster loads.
+++++Everyone agreed Rick Burns was a festering boil on the ass end of humanity.  Nobody was lamenting his passing.  No one was surprised in the way his debit card was cancelled.  But interestingly . . . no one believed for a moment Roscoe Tanner, accountant and trusted employee of Rick Burns, had the gumption to swat a fly off his ledger books, much lest take Burns’ gun away from him and plug him six times in the chest.
+++++Rick Burns was brutally murdered.  But Roscoe Tanner didn’t do it.  Or, at least, that’s what the ten or so people we talked to in the empty club told us.  Roscoe was just too nice of a guy to harm anyone.
+++++So we stood in Burns’ private office, where the murder was committed, and stared at each other.  We’d just interviewed everyone who was there that night Burns was shot.  Everyone had alibis.  No one believed Roscoe was as murderer.  Obviously he was being framed.  By whom no body could say.  The list of potential suspects, they said, was almost the entire city.
+++++Like I said.  Rick Burns wasn’t a nice guy.
+++++“So what do we have right now proving or disproving our man Roscoe’s guilt or innocence,” I said, leaning up against the office door and sneering at my partner casually.
+++++“One,” Frank nodded, lifting a hand and one finger up to begin the discussion. “We have a murder weapon, Burns’ own .357, freshly fired and with Roscoe’s fingerprints all over it.  If the little guy wasn’t the shooter, whoever did pull the trigger was smart enough, and cool enough, to wipe prints off the gun and then somehow make our little man pick up the gun and grip it firmly enough to add his prints.”
+++++“Two,” I went on, lifting a hand up with two upraised fingers flying. “Everyone knew Burns was here in the office all night long.  But no one heard the shooting because of the damn music outside was so loud everyone went home completely deaf.”
+++++“Three,” Frank chimed in. “The only person anyone saw coming into or leaving the office was Roscoe Tanner.  The only one.”
+++++“No one from within the club saw anyone coming or going.  Except Roscoe,” I said, shaking my head and smiling. “But there’s another door leading into the office.  It goes out to an alley behind the building.  Someone could have come in that way and plugged our beloved departed.”
+++++We turned together and stared for a moment or two at the second entrance.  And then we decided to check it out.  The door led to a flight of stairs leading down into the alley.  The alley would be, at the time of the shooting, as black as a closed Pennsylvania coal mine at midnight.  But interestingly enough we found something.  A small glittering piece of plastic lying on the cement right beside the bottom step of the flight of stairs.  A small tube of lipstick.
+++++We stood in the alley looking down at the tube of lipstick.  It was Frank who broke the silence.
+++++“What would make a faceless little man admit he killed a man with the man’s own gun and not give us a motive as to why he did it?”
+++++“A woman,” I said offhandedly.
+++++“It’s always a woman,” Frank said as we eyed the lipstick lying beside the steps.
+++++“That, my friend, is a very sexist attitude to take. You should be in a deep fit of profound angst for uttering such a thing,” I said, looking at Frank, and grinning.
+++++“I know.  I should be,” the red headed giant nodded solemnly.  “But I don’t give a rat’s ass about angst. Or whatever the hell you said.”
+++++“Problem is,” I pointed out quietly. “Who? This place pulls beautiful women in every night. There’s no security cameras out here.  So who are we looking for?”
+++++Police work.  You ask questions.  You dig for clues.  You slump into your chair back at the station and mull over things.  You put the pieces of the puzzle together one way.  And then you try it in a different direction. Finally you get lucky.  Something happens.  An off the wall idea pans out and suddenly your staring at a possibility.
+++++The off the wall idea was to check out possible security camera tapes from establishments that flanked Valentino’s Grotto.  Maybe something would pop. What popped was a tape from an auto parts store facing the street a half block away from the murder scene.  Just around the corner from the street running past the warehouse nightclub.  The camera faced down the street and had a clear view of the alley entrance.  The same alley that ran directly behind the club.  At around the time of the murder a car came roaring out of the alley, the driver of the car sawing at the wheel to make a screaming right hand turn before blasting away at full throttle.
+++++The driver was a woman.  A redhead.  Driving a red Camero convertible.  In the bucket seat beside her was a man.  A man we instantly recognized.  A guy by the name of Henry Rodriguez.  One of Rick Burns disc jockeys.
+++++A little more digging and we found out the woman’s name was Samantha Carter. She was an employee of Rick Burns as well. A few more questions thrown out randomly and we find out Henry and Samantha were in a blazing inferno of a romantic fling with each other. We also heard each had recently had heated exchanges, if not outright shouting matches, with their boss about a week before the murder.  Over money. Lots of money.  It didn’t take long to find’em and have them brought down to the precinct.
+++++“Found something curious about you two,” Frank began, kicking a chair back from underneath the table and plopping down a size fourteen in the middle of the chair and leaning forward to brace an elbow on the upraised knee, “Night before last almost a half million dollars was deposited in an account you two share.  A half million.  So I gotta ask. Where does a DJ and a waitress suddenly come up with five hundred thousand big ones in the middle of the week like that?”
+++++“Something else we found out,” I threw in, standing across the table from them, casually leaning against the wall with hands in my slacks. “We’ve got eight witnesses who claim they heard Burns accusing you two were scamming thousands of dollars out of the till and had been doing it for years.  They say they heard him yelling at you several times over the course of the last month.  They even heard him telling you he was going to kill both of you if you didn’t pay every cent back by the end of the month.”
+++++The two sitting behind the wooden table were poster children for the perpetually terrified.  Both looked scared to death.  Like they’d had seen the outskirts of Hell in their rear view mirror and didn’t like the site, or smells, of the place.  Rodriguez especially looked like he was going to pitch over from a coronary.
+++++“Look . . . detectives,” he began, lifting a hand up pleadingly.  “That money isn’t ours.  We got up this morning and went down to the bank to draw out some money and that’s when we get hit with the news we’re half a million to the good.  It doesn’t make sense.  We . . we’re scared shitless, fellas.  Someone’s trying to hang us for Rick’s murder.  So we ran.  Left the money in our account and just decided to skip out while we had a chance.”
+++++“Nick is telling you the truth.  Rick’s gone all crazy over the last few weeks,” the redhead jumped in quickly.  Her hands were shaking.  The pupils of her eyes were nothing but pinpoints from the fear coursing through her veins.  Her forehead had tiny little beads of sweat forming across it like a fresh crop of dandelions popping up. “He’s accused us of stealing money from him.  He’s accused Roscoe.  He’s accused just about everyone who works for him!  I’m telling you, we’re innocent.  We didn’t steal nothing and we sure as hell didn’t kill Rick!  We’re innocent!”
+++++I glanced at Frank.  Frank, frowning, still leaning on one knee, eyed me for a moment but kept silent.  We know what fear is.  Know the genuine from the fake.  Silently we both agreed.  These two were scared to death.
+++++“Did Roscoe skim the money off the top?” I asked, looking back the lovers.
+++++“I . . . we . . . really don’t know,” Rodriguez answered, grinning nervously, after glancing at the woman, and not sounding convincing at all.  “I mean, come on.  If anyone would know how to bilk money from behind Rick’s back it would have to be Roscoe.  I mean, you know,  Roscoe was Rick’s accountant.  Jesus. He knew more about where all of Rick’s bank accounts were, for chrissake!”
+++++“So Burns discovers who the real thief is, accuses him in his office, and this tiny little man takes Rick’s gun and shoots him dead?  Is that what you’re telling us?” Frank rumbled, sounding obviously unconvinced.
+++++The two in front of us glanced at each other and then back at us.  Rodriguez had this look of a guy about ready to heave up this morning’s breakfast.  The woman who called herself Samantha Carter was trying to calm herself down.  But she was too fidgety.  She didn’t know what to do with her hands.  One leg kept rattling up and down like an errant jack hammer. Fear was making them as jittery as moths caught in a spider web.
+++++“Come on,” I said, grinning and looking directly at Rodriguez. “What are you hiding?  You might as well talk.  We’re going to find out anyway.”
+++++“Listen, it wasn’t our idea!  It was Roscoe’s!”  Rodriguez blurted out suddenly.  Like a weak dam straining to let loose flood waters on an unsuspecting village.  “All we wanted was a ten, maybe twenty, thousand and then we were going to split.  Leave town and never come back.  But then Roscoe . . . Roscoe caught us and . . . ”
+++++“He told us with a little patience and some luck we could split with maybe one, maybe two million dollars and no one would know the difference,” she said, erupting like an avalanche, eager to get the words out of her mouth.  “And it was working, too!  Until . . . until.”
+++++“Until Rick’s cousin, Lawrence shows up.  Jesus! If you think Rick was scary you should have got a chance to eyeball Lawrence.  That guy was a certified nut job!”
+++++“What a minute,” Frank growled, throwing up an open palm at the two demanding silence as he dropped his foot off the wooden chair and stood up. “You’re saying you were skimming the till and then Roscoe catches you.  But Roscoe’s skimming money off the top as well and he involves the two of you into his own little scheme.  Is that what you are saying?”
+++++“Yes,” the two said at the same time, nodding heads simultaneously as well.  “That’s what we’re saying.  Roscoe had this plan in place for the last five years.  Been skimming money from underneath Rick’s eyes for I don’t know how long.  Our job was to take bags of money, and I mean big bags of greenbacks, and drive across the state to a small bank in some godforsaken little town and stuff the money into a series of safe deposit boxes.”
+++++“How long has this been going on?” I asked.
+++++“With us transporting the loot? A little over a year,” the woman answered, smiling weakly. “We got about two hundred thousand in our box.  Give or take a couple of thousand.”
+++++“So where did this five hundred thousand come from?” Frank asked.
+++++“That’s what we’re trying to tell you!” Rodriguez yelped excitedly, almost jumping out of his seat. “We haven’t a fucking clue!  It just shows up the day after Rick is murdered.  Don’t know where it came from.  Don’t know who deposited it.  But I gotta tell ya, it scares the hell out of us.  Enough for us to decide to leave town.  And we were when you caught us.”
+++++“Tell us about Rick’s cousin.  This Lawrence,” I said, lifting a curious eyebrow.  “Where does he fit into this picture?”
+++++“Rick and Lawrence were partners in a couple of gambling joints.  They’re into the numbers racket as well.  They way I hear it Lawrence paid an unannounced call on Rick one day about six weeks ago demanding money.  Big chunks of money.  From what I hear the meeting wasn’t pleasant for Rick.”
+++++“That’s about the time Rick started accusing everyone of stealing,” the woman put in, shrugging.  “Me . . . Nick . . . Roscoe.  Anyone who had access to the till.  I mean he just went crazy!  And scary!  He was threatening to shoot every one if we didn’t return everything we took from him.  And I believed him!”
+++++Frank and I looked at each other and nodded.  We booked Rodriguez and Carter on a couple of money laundering charges and then pulled Roscoe out of his holding cell and sat his skinny little rumpus back down on the hot seat in the interrogation room again.  Frank waited until the little man was sitting composed in the chair, his hands on his lap, a look of neutrality in his eyes, a blank face painted on his features as he looked up at us.  The big guy nodded and began walking around the long conference table.  Walked slowly, menacingly, around the table and moved behind the sitting little accountant before reaching out with big paws for hands and violently gripping the wooden backrest of the chair Roscoe was sitting in.  The chair lurched to one side so violently the little man had to reach down and grip the chair’s seat to hang on.
+++++Bending down Frank put his lips an inch or two away from Roscoe’s right air and began speaking softly.  Almost pleasantly.
+++++“Here’s what we think happened, Roscoe.  You were caught.  Caught with your hands in the cookie jar.  For years you’ve been quietly moving money, money not officially recorded into one or another of Rick’s accounts, into some safe place only you knew about.  But then the boss wakes up.  He puts two and two together.  And you come out stinking to high heaven.  He confronts you.  Demands he wants every cent back or he’s going to kill you.  You know he means what he says.  He is going to kill you. ”
+++++“But you don’t kill him.  Not you,” I said, smiling, as Frank . . . still bent over close to Roscoe’s right ear, glances at me and almost grins.  “There’s not a violent bone in your body.  Murdering someone is beyond your realm of possibilities.”
+++++“But Rick’s cousin, Lawrence, is quite capable of pulling the trigger,” Frank whispered gently. “You come up with a plan to keep the money, or most of it at least, and at the same time removed Rick from the scene nice and neat.  You contact Lawrence, concoct a story on how his cousin has been bilking him for years from the profits earned, and then sit back and wait for the fireworks to begin.  That’s how it went down, isn’t it.  That’s how you got rid of the guy who was going to kill you and keep a sizeable chunk of coin as well.”
+++++“That’s . . . not what happened, detectives. It’s more complicated than that.”
+++++It turned out Roscoe told the truth.  It was complicated.
+++++Ten hours later Frank and I found ourselves walking across the white sands of a South Florida beach littered with beautiful suntanned bodies wearing very enticing, and very marginal, bikinis.  We tried to fit in. We were dressed in cargo shorts, crazy patterned Hawaiian shirts, and flip flops.  Not surprisingly we were the most over dressed two there.  We didn’t mind the curious looks and amusing faces as we kept walking toward the ocean. We came to a stop in front of a small man lying on a beach towel half asleep.  His body was as white as a lump of pasty dough.  He had hairy legs and a hairy chest.  When we came to a halt we blocked the sun out.  Our shadows apparently stretched out across the sands like two grave stones.  Somehow the guy lying on the beach towel knew.  Reaching up slowly with a hand he pulled off the dark shades covering his eyes, sat up, turned, and stared at us in silence.
+++++Rick Burns didn’t look surprised at all to find us standing over him.  It was as if he kinda thought it inevitable.  Without saying a word he climbed to his feet, pushed the shades back on his face, then slipped both hands behind his back and waited for them to be cuffed.
+++++Rick Burns killed his cousin Lawrence.  Knowing that they were almost exact copies coming out of the same mold, and knowing that genetic testing could not tell the difference from one to the other, he figured he had found the perfect way out of his partnership with his cousin.  He made a deal with Roscoe.  If Roscoe would take the fall for the murder he could keep half of the money the little accountant had stolen from him over the years.  Half came to ten million dollars.  Burns convinced Roscoe no one would ever believe he had murdered anyone.  At first the investigation would center around Roscoe.  But eventually he thought the cops would discover the half million stashed in the bank account of Nick Rodriguez and Samantha Carter.  He made sure everyone in the club heard his accusations accusing them of stealing his money.  He made sure threats of killing them were heard by a number of employees.  He was convinced the cops would eventually charge Rodriguez and Carter for the murder of Rick Burns.
+++++And when they did, the real Rick Burns and the sneaky little accountant would disappear into the night and never be seen again.
+++++Problem was Rick made one slight miscalculation.  Apparently he had never heard of the old cliché about there was no honor among thieves.  Too bad.   ‘Cause the old cliché is the truth.
+++++There is no honor among thieves.

Problem Resolved

“So where is he now?”
++++ The dark eyed man with the thinning jet black hair and high cheekbones standing beside the smaller man silently tilted his head toward something in front of him.
++++ They stood on the corner of Cleveland and Summers Street. The busiest street in the city’s bustling city business district. High noon underneath a cloudless blue sky. People . . . thousands of them . . . scurrying back and forth across the hot sidewalk in a maniacal effort to get from one financial crisis to another.
++++ In front of them the traffic was at a standstill. It didn’t matter what the traffic light said. A sea of bumper to bumper frustrated monsters sat motionless in a stalled river of metal, glass, and plastic thanks to the construction site across the street. A gigantic crane on massive metal tracks was slowly working its way into position. Towering over the traffic was a short steel cable with a massive black iron ball the size of a pickup truck swinging dangerously back and forth as the crane slowly inched its way onto the construction site.
++++ But directly across the street from where they stood was the Heidelberg Mercantile Bank & Trust. Black glass and chrome steel rising twelve floors straight up over downtown traffic. Modern. Efficient. An international bank without the least whiff of corporate ethics attached to it.
++++ “He’s in there? With the briefcase? Do you know what this means? If he has the CIA software and leaves the country every agent in the Middle East will be dead in a week!”
++++ For a response the man with the thinning black hair turned his head and stared at the Godzilla-like behemoth inching its way onto the construction site across the clogged intersection from him. It was a huge crane. The towering boom rose at least sixty feet in the air above the street and meandering pedestrians. The iron ball dangling from the end of the cable weighed at least forty tons of hardened steel and cement. Forty tons of steel and cement which went through just about everything it wished to smash.
++++ Forty tons.
++++ The little man, dressed in a rumpled suit, with a large bald spot glistening in the sunlight, gripping a briefcase, frowned, glanced across the street at the bank again and then at the man standing beside him.
++++ “Smitty, dammit! We can’t let this bastard leave the country! That’s why we hired you. Technically the man hasn’t done anything against the law. Having that list of names in his possession isn’t illegal. If it was I could alert the FBI and let them handle it. But revealing the list to anyone would be, for my agency, a serious breach of security. A breach of security that could be quite embarrassing to my boss. We have got to stop him!”
++++ The taller man with the jet black eyes kept his eyes on the yellow and black painted Kraken of a crane and smiled thinly.
++++ “Peterson, has anyone ever told you you worry too much?”
++++ The voice was more of a loud whisper. A harsh grating of something across a cheese grater. Startling to hear. Unnerving to experience.
++++ “Every day,” Peterson answered, his mouth twisting into a more severe frown. “Mostly from my wife. And from my children. And from my boss. But most of all from my shrink. So what? And what the hell are we going to do about stopping this guy from leaving the country?”
++++ “Watch,” Smitty said quietly as he turned his attention back to the bank across the street.
++++ Around them a thousand people were moving, jostling each other, cutting each other off as they hurried like army ants. Bored people. Frustrated people. Thousands of people who lived boring lives in a boring world filled with boring mendacity. None realizing their boredom was about to be dramatically altered.
++++ Across the street a tall man with red hair came out of the black glass doors of the Heidelberg Mercantile Bank & Trust walking fast and looking straight ahead. Dressed in a light green sport coat, a light blue shirt, with dark blue slacks, he gripped a heavy looking attaché case in one hand, which interestingly enough, was handcuffed to his wrist. Hurrying past a dense pack of humanity, irritated that he had to alter his path to get past them, he stepped up to a white Jaguar sedan, unlocked the driver’s side door, and quickly slipped in.
++++ Both Smitty and Peterson saw the man lean forward to start the sedan’s engine and then twist around in the seat and stare at the traffic. Both saw the man slam a hand irritably on the wood rim of the steering wheel in frustration. In this traffic he wasn’t going anywhere soon. No one was.
++++ “Peterson, say goodbye to our friend,” the dark eyed man said softly in a pleased whisper.
++++ “What . . . . ?”
++++ When it hit it seemed as if the city’s streets and sidewalks rolled in some kind of concrete Tsunami! And indeed it had!
++++ CRAAAAAAAAAACK!!
++++ Forty tons of hardened steel and cement dropped out of the heavens like the Hammer of Thor and smashed into the white Jaguar’s roof with an ear splitting thud ripping steel, shattering glass, and pulverizing pavement!
++++ People staggered and tripped over others from the wrecking ball smashing into the Jag and flattening it like a tortilla chip. Gigantic cracks in the sidewalk and street radiated out from the black behemoth lying on the crushed white sedan. A cloud of cement dust flew into the air as hundreds of park cars suddenly erupted into the clattering cacophony of theft alarms going off. At a corner of the bank building a fire hydrant exploded and a towering geyser of water shot up into the air as street corner lamp posts vibrated violently before suddenly pitching over and crashing into the hoods cars stalled in the city traffic beside them.
++++ There was no white Jaguar sedan anymore. What once had been a finely built British sedan now was nothing more than a piece of crushed metal no more than a foot thick oddly discolored with a thin film of bright red blood.
++++ Smitty, gripping Peterson’s right arm in an effort to keeping him upright, let go of the man after the initial blow. Turning, he faced the balding little man and smiled.
++++ “You no longer need to worry. Everything came out for the best. But it’s time to go. The police will be here soon and neither of us want to be around when they do. You know the routine. I’ll expect payment by the end of the week. And Peterson, just a friendly suggestion. Smile once in a while. It’ll do wonders for your personality.”
++++ Peterson, still blinking eyes in disbelief at what he had just witnessed, looked at the white cement dust coating his suit coat and started swiping it off with his hand before turning to say something.
++++ But Smitty was gone. Vaporized into nothingness.
++++ “Sonofabitch!” he growled, returning to swiping the dust off his coat again, “I hate it when he does that. Hate it!”

Madhouse (A Turner Hahn & Frank Morales Story)

Through the wall of light from the four patrol cars setting in the middle of the street and facing me I saw the nightmarish silhouette of my partner walking toward me. A figure straight out of a B-movie horror flick. A freaking giant. Like a miniaturized Hulk dressed in a massive looking trench coat covering a pair of slacks and a sport coat that were about ten years out of style. Not that he cared, mind you. Frank Morales was one of those iconoclastic oddballs that couldn’t care less about his attire. A big, red headed facsimile of a human who happened to be a damn good homicide detective. And my partner for the last decade or more in the detective division of the South Side Precinct.
+++++Tonight, in the cold, even he decided to wear a trench coat. Usually cold weather didn’t bother him. But for the last week the temp had been hovering around the -10F range. Cold. So cold I would have sworn every time I exhaled a breath of air the water vapor in it instantly froze and turned into snowflakes. So cold the leather of my shoes cracked and snapped every time we stepped out into it. So cold my joints ached. Especially my right knee. Like a sonofabitch.
+++++Cold, brother. Too fracken cold for my old bones.
+++++Me? I’m Turner Hahn. Another homicide detective. Just another cop. As tall as my partner but not nearly as massive. Nor as ugly. But really I’m as odd a duck as Frank is in my own right. Frank looks like a humanoid freight train with short, stringy red hair and a permanent scowl on his face. I look like some dead movie actor from out of the 30’s. When he was alive; not being dead for last eighty some-odd years.
+++++And rich.
+++++Yeah, I’ve got a bank account as large as Fort Knox. I earned it the honest way. I inherited it from a grand father I didn’t know was still living. Money coming out of the blue suddenly after I’d been working as a cop for ten years or more. Go figure.
+++++The movie star looks and the wads of cash in a big bank account weren’t going to help us tonight. We had a dead body leaning up against a corner mailbox down on Erin and 10th streets with a hole in his forehead from a .45 calibre semi-automatic. The stiff was sitting upright, with arms crossed across his chest, his legs stretched out, his chin smack on his sternum, his big blue eyes staring off into infinity. Sitting there like he was taking a little nap before deciding to get up and move on.
+++++But there was a problem. There was no blood. No brick work with bullet holes carved into it. No sign of a scuffle. No empty shell casings. Meaning our dead friend had seen his last days somewhere else and someone had deposited him here.
+++++Turning my attention away from the stiff I watched Frank slump toward me, hands in the pockets of his trench coat, head down and looking definitively pissed.
+++++“You want the good news or the bad news first?”
+++++“Let’s go with the good news,” I said, with half a smirk on my face.
+++++“The good news is with have a print on the gun and it’s in the system. A guy by the name of William Goodrich. Gun’s registered to him. And we have his last known address.”
+++++“That is good news,” I nodded, the grin widening. “Now what’s the bad news?”
+++++“The bad news is William Goodrich has been dead for the last eight years. His last known address is the Fairview Cemetery out on Ridge Road. And just to answer your next question, Sherlock. No, the guy isn’t a zombie and his grave is still intact.”
+++++The grin widened. Through the clouds of steam our breaths were generating and hanging motionlessly over our heads I could see the dour smudge of my friend’s face. Beat officers, over dressed for the cold, were moving around us still looking for any evidence to process. A couple of officers were waving flashlights around directing an ambulance, red/blue lights a whirling, into the crime scene. It was a fracking madhouse here standing in the cold. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. Nor my fingers. And my right knee was killing me.
+++++“Let’s go. The boys can finish up here. The morgue’s picking up the body. There’s no need to be around any longer. Whatta say we got get a cup of java and maybe a bowl of chili or two. While we’re eating we’ll figure out our next move.”
+++++Frank didn’t say a thing but turned on a heel and started walking toward the dark red CTS-V Caddy station wagon . . . yeah, that’s right; a station wagon . . . sitting quietly beside the street curb underneath a blacked out street light. Climbing in the car I quickly kicked over the engine and got the monster humming and grinned.
How many Caddy wagons have you ever sat in that has a six speed manual transmission and 580 horses under the hood? Kicking the tranny into second gear I turned and glanced at Frank.
+++++“A station wagon, for chrissakes. You gotta be kidding me,” he growled, shaking his head and then turning to look at the leather seats and the spacious back end. “Still, betcha this tub can smoke the tires. How fast so far?”
+++++” ‘Bout one eighty five,” I said, shrugging. “But that’s before the cold and snow hit. The dealer said it should do one ninety five easy. We’ll see.”
+++++Okay. So I like fast cars. I collect’em in fact. Got a whole ground floor of a warehouse filled with Muscle Cars from the 60’s and 70’s. But I broke down and bought the Caddy when it came out. A station wagon that could do almost two hundred miles per hours was just too much to pass up.
+++++Forty minutes later we were sitting in a corner both at our favorite all nighter warming our hands wrapped around big cups of coffee in front of us and waiting for Dewey’s unique brand of chili to arrive in oversized bowls. Between the coffee and the chili it was guaranteed you would thaw out in a matter of minutes. Or develop ulcers. Whichever came first.
+++++Eyeing Frank sitting across the table from me in the booth I watched him grunt a few sounds on his cell phone and then shake his head in disgust as he dropped the phone in an inside pocket of his trench coat.
+++++“You won’t believe this. The dead guy? Forensics just ran his prints. He’s in the system as well. Tobias Yates. Used to own a jewelry store up in the Heights. Was suspected to be a fence for most of the cons who worked the jewelry trade. Died eight years ago of a heart attack at home one night while eating supper. The wife buried him in . . .wait for it . . . the same Fairview Cemetery our Richard Goodrich occupied.”
+++++“Really,” I said, lifting an eyebrow quizzically. “Who died first?”
+++++“Goodrich apparently by a week before Yates. Why?”
+++++“How did Goodrich die?”
+++++“Oh. You’ll love this. Caught a bullet in the head. From the gun that was used on Yates.”
+++++“Killed with his own gun? Who killed him?”
+++++For an answer Frank lifted hands, palms up, and shrugged.
+++++“There’s gotta be a connection somewhere in this. Both the trigger man and the victim died roughly at the same time? What do we know about Goodrich? Was he a jewel thief? Did he do business with Yates? You gotta admit, brother. This is getting to be interesting.”
+++++Dewey, the guy who owned the all aluminum camper trailer styled eatery we liked to frequent, slid two big plates toward us. Each one occupied with a large bowl steaming hot chili and general amounts of crackers. Reaching up, sliding the toothpick from between his lips, he used it to point into the parking lot in front of the plate glass window beside us and at the red Caddy wagon.
+++++“Turner, you getting domesticated or something like that? Coaching little league hockey? Maybe delivering hot meals to the elderly? What the hell are you doing driving a station wagon, fer chrissakes!”
+++++The corners on Frank’s lips twitched . . his definition of laughter . . . as he reached for some crackers with his big hands and started crumbling them into a fine powder into his chili. I smirked, glanced at the wagon, then back at Dewey.
+++++“It has lots of horses. Goes faster than a stripped assed ape. And it’s got disk breaks big enough pull the asphalt off a highway in China. So what’s the big deal?”
+++++“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all,” the pot bellied, badly needing a shave owner of the eatery answered, sticking the toothpick in his mouth and mumbling to himself as he walked back to the kitchen. “But who’d a thunk it. A freaking station wagon, for chrissakes!”
+++++With the smirk still on my lips I lifted the spoon up and began digging into the chili. Frank, already about half way through the spicy dish, lifted a bushy eyebrow and glanced at me.
+++++“How the hell do two people die within a week of each eight years ago, go through the system, get planted in the ground, and then get murdered all over again?”
+++++“Somebody’s lying,” I said between spoonfuls of chili. “Obviously neither Goodrich nor Yates died eight years ago. So that means they had reasons to fake their own deaths. And needed help doing it.”
+++++Wind rattled the plate glass window adjacent to our booth. The cold just got colder since the wind was coming off the Little Brown river. Underneath the mercury vapor lights of the parking lot outside even the red Caddy wagon looked like it was shivering in the cold.
+++++“Let’s finish up here and get back to the precinct. Do some digging in the forensics records. We ought to find something.”
+++++We did.
+++++This will come as a surprise, I’m sure; but cop work isn’t glamorous. Ninety percent of the time it’s pure drudgery. You ask questions. Lots of questions. And then you listen. An idea forms in your head. So you ask a lot more questions. And listen some more. Eighty percent of the questions is pure horse manure. They get you nowhere. But procedure says you have to ask them. So you do. It’s the other twenty percent of the questions that go Bingo! on you. Most of those come out of the blue. You have no idea why you asked them. You just do. And the answers sometimes surprise you.
+++++The question that was the ice-breaker for us was asked by Frank while he sat at his desk with a phone stuck into his ear and hanging precariously off one shoulder as he talked to our man down in the evidence room.
+++++“So who claimed Goodrich’s shit after the trial?” I heard him ask as we sat at our desks.
+++++While I was the Yates’ case files from eight years ago I head a voice speaking over the phone partially stuck in Frank’s ear. It sounded bored. But glancing at my partner I could see he was far from that emotional response.
+++++“Oh . . . . really,” he said, one eyebrow going up in surprise. “You sure about that?”
+++++The bored voice spoke again. Frank, listening for a second or two, said ‘thanks’ and hung up and turned to look at me.
+++++“Guess who picked up Goodrich’s stuff.”
+++++“Who?”
+++++“Tobias Yates’ wife. Who happens to be, I might add, the current Richard Goodrich’s ex-wife.”
+++++“So both Yates and Goodrich were married to the same woman at one time,” I repeated as I tried to wrap my limited cognitive powers around it. “And now she is Yates’ widow.”
+++++“Right,” nodded Frank, the corners of his lips twitching. “A regular fracking Days of Our Lives horny-fest if you ask me.”
+++++I nodded, rubbing a hand across the fuss for a mustache underneath my nose, and glanced at the case files lying in front of me.
+++++“Well, I got news for you too, kiddo. I don’t think our Mister Yates died of a heart attack. Reading the autopsy reports kinda sounds like the guy was poisoned. Screw the bad ticker diagnosis. Autopsy report is sloppy. Sloppy and full of holes. So I’m thinking poison. Especially after I read this. Six weeks before Yates died he took out a life insurance policy for twenty million dollars. Two weeks after that he and his lovely wife divorce.”
+++++“Let me guess. Even after the divorce the ex is left on as the primary beneficiary.”
+++++“Bingo!” I said, grinning wickedly.
+++++“So we need to go over and talk to the lovely Mrs. Yates. See if she can shed some enlightenment on this quaint conundrum of horse shit.”
+++++A shot a grin at Frank as I got up. The giant had a way with words, and insults, which always made me smile. Rumbling down the stairs to the ground floor we stepped out into the frigid cold and fired up the Caddy. Thirty minutes later we were pulling up into the circular drive of a mansion. A mansion with no lights on. No streaming ribbons of steam rising up into the cold sky from the many chimney vents in the roof. No signs of life whatsoever. Even the snow was virgin white and without a single human track in it. Nor any tire tracks. As we climbed out of the Caddy underneath the portico in front of the main door both of us were scanning the house, the snow, the wooded grounds surrounding the house and not feeling the least bit comfortable about it.
+++++Definitely something was wrong.
+++++That feeling magnified tenfold when we found the heavy dark mahogany front door of the mansion partially open. Pulling out weapons out from their shoulder holsters we cautiously entered the cold, dark house expecting either trouble or something gruesome. We found gruesome.
+++++A dead man.
+++++Setting on a leather sofa, arms splayed, a small .380 caliber automatic in his right hand. His eyes were open and looking definitely frozen. There was a bullet hole in his right temple. A hole that looked roughly the size of a .380. Around the entry hole was the distinctive burn marks. We found him in a small library in the back of the house. Sunlight now, well past dawn, flooded in through a set of French doors that opened out into the back yard. In the snow starting at the doors were a set of footprints . . . the footprints of a woman . . . relatively fresh and heading straight for a large detached three car garage.
+++++Frank, frowning, pointed to the dead man and glanced at me.
+++++“Betcha that’s Richard Goodrich. The original Richard Goodrich. And he didn’t kill himself. This was murder.”
+++++“How do you know that?” I asked.
+++++“Richard Goodrich was left handed. This guy’s left handed. See . . . he’s got his wristwatch on his right hand. There’s an ink pen in his right shirt pocket. Like a left hander would naturally do when reaching for a pen. So a left hander wouldn’t use his right hand to pull the trigger. Ergo; murder.”
+++++“And the women’s prints outside?”
+++++“Mrs. Yates. She’s running. As you would too if you shot your ex-husband and made it to look like a suicide.”
+++++I nodded in agreement and dug out my cellphone. As I thumbed in the precinct’s number I glanced at Frank.
+++++“Call the airport. Ask’em how many planes are departing in the next hour.”
+++++Frank nodded and reached for his phone.
+++++I knew it was a long shot. But sometimes . . .
+++++We nabbed Betty Tobias, once Betty Goodrich, at the airport. She was a mousey looking woman with brown hair, a flat face, and long red fingernails. She was sitting at a small table in a small bar inside the airport terminal with a beer in front of her and nervously checking her watch. The moment Frank and I walked in, accompanied by a couple of uniform officers, she slumped in her chair like a balloon suddenly losing all its air.
+++++Two hours later we had her in an interrogation room sitting in a hard wooden chair in front of a small wooden table with me sitting opposite of her and Frank looming over her like Dracula ready to pounce. Her cheeks were scarred with black streaks from tears ruining her mascara. She had been quietly weeping for the last two hours. Beside her was her lawyer. A lawyer we knew personally and liked. He looked ashen faced and tight lipped. Signs that told us his client was guilty and was willing to talk.
+++++“Mrs. Yates, run us through this. I admit we’re at a loss as to dotting all the dots and crossing all the T’s. But we have more than enough evidence to prove you killed Richard Goodrich. I’m sure your counselor advised you to open up and cooperate. It certainly will go easier on you. So tell us. How did this all begin? And why did it end like the way it did?”
+++++She glanced at her lower, who nodded silently, before folding hands on the table in front of her and looking at us.
+++++“Eight years ago Richard Goodrich came to my husband with a plan. Back then I was married to Tobias . . . Tobias Yates. Tobias was looking for a way to get out of the business. To get out of fencing stolen jewelry for the mob. He wanted a clean break. He wanted a way to completely disappear. Richard had the plan.”
+++++“Let me guess,” I said. “You take out a twenty million dollar life insurance policy on your current husband. That finances the whole deal. Tobias gets ten million and Richard gets ten million. How am I doing so far?”
+++++She nodded in agreement, lifting a hand up to wipe a stream of teams sliding down one cheek.
+++++“Richard said he knew two patsies who looked vaguely like himself and Tobias. His idea was to kill the two, make it look like it was him and Tobias who had died, collect the insurance money, and disappear. At first Tobias was totally against it. The idea of killing innocent people just to get away with a boat load of cash. But Richard was good. He was smooth. He had this way with words. In the end he convinced Tobias the plan was perfect and they could get away with it.”
+++++“So who does the killing? Richard or Tobias?” Frank grunted from behind the sitting Mrs. Goodrich. “And why did you divorce Tobias and marry Goodrich?”
+++++“Richard killed the two. They really did look like them. As to the divorce . . . well . . . I guess you could say I knew Richard long before I married Tobias. Richard was my first love. I could never say no to the guy. He told me to dump Tobias and marry him. And like the idiot I am I did.”
+++++“Okay. The lookalikes are dead. You divorce your first husband and marry slick talking Goodrich. What happened recently that got the two of them dead?” I asked.
+++++“When the insurance money came Tobias took his cut and left the city. Surprised me when he said he’d divorce me without a fuss. Left town and I didn’t see him until about a week ago. When he came back to town and saw I was now Mrs. Richard Goodrich he went nuts. Threatened to kill Richard with that little gun of his. They fought several times and then Richard, coming to believe Tobias was serious about killing him, decided to play safe and kill Tobias. I . . . I guess that’s the way it went down.”
+++++“So why did you kill your current husband?”
+++++“I didn’t! Richard came back to the house and told me what he’d just done. He was crazy. Out of his head! He knew everything was falling apart. He knew the cops would come in and start investigating everything. Knew they’d finally figure out what had happened eight years earlier. He got depressed. Yesterday I saw him walk back toward the reading room and close the door. The next thing I hear is a shot going off. I ran to the reading room and found Richards slumped on the couch. He was dead. That’s when I panicked! I had to leave. Had to! So I ran. Ran to the airport and . . . and . . . that’s where you found me.”
+++++I glanced at the scowling red headed monster standing behind the woman and her lawyer. Frank’s eyes looked at me and silently he shook his head no. He wasn’t buying it. Neither was I. Looking back at the woman I sat back in the chair, crossed a leg over the other, and smiled.
+++++“Nice try Mrs. Goodrich. But it doesn’t work. It sounds like a great story. And it has a chance to maybe convince a jury you’re the innocent victim in all of this. I’m sure the counselor here is going to do his best to convince the jurors it’s true. But let me tell you how it really went down.
+++++Eight years ago you were the one who came up with the idea of getting out of the business. You were the one who came up with the idea of taking out a twenty million dollar life insurance policy. You knew an old lover who had no problem with morality issues who would do the dirty work. No sane man businessman like Tobias Yates would listen to a total stranger spew out some cockamamie get rich plan of killing two people in an attempt to disappear from the mob. The only way that could happen is if someone he knew, someone he loved and trusted, came up with the idea. That person was you, Mrs. Goodrich.”
+++++“Can you prove that?” the balding little attorney asked in a soft voice.
+++++“She is the one who took out the policy, counselor,” I said, pointing a finger at the woman in front of me. “She is the one who filed for divorce. Strong circumstantial evidence has convicted many a murderer. But we have a bit more evidence to make our case.”
+++++“What evidence?” Mrs. Goodrich asked, color draining from her face.
+++++“We know for a fact you and your ex-husband have been living together for years,” Frank growled from behind her. “We also found a security tape in a bus station showing Richard Goodrich arriving in town about a week ago. So you’re story doesn’t hold water. It was Richard who blew town once he got his cut of the money. But eight years later he’s dead broke . . . and yes, counselor, we can prove that. Richard comes back and begins to put the squeeze on you two. Give him more money or he goes to the cops. You panic. You decide there’s too many loose wires running around potentially threatening you. Quite coldly you decide to clean up the mess. Kill both Tobias and Goodrich. You use Richard’s gun on Tobias and Tobias’ gun on Richard. Nice touch, by the way. I liked that. A kind of poetic justice in a twisted, macabre fashion.”
+++++The woman’s eyes glared at me filled with rage and contempt. But she kept quiet. Her only chance to get clear of this mess was to remain silent and hope her lawyer was good in the courtroom.
+++++He was good. But not quite good enough.

Vengeance Is A Cruel Mistress

“. . . dump him in that chair and tie his hands firmly to the chair arms. Now!”
+++++The voice was harsh, cruel, vindictive. Filled with fury.
+++++Two large men threw the small framed man into a high backed wood chair standing in the middle of a barren room. Grim faced, they roughly tied his arms just behind his wrists to the chair and then backed away quickly.
+++++The third man, low, wide, with powerful arms and big hands, stepped up to the trussed tightly into the chair like a sacrificial lamb and back handed the man with a vicious blow. A blow so hard it snapped the victim’s head to one side and sent spittle and blood flying across the room.
+++++“You sonofabitch! Think you were going to get near me and put a bullet in my head. Me?! That’s fucking funny!”
+++++Wham!
+++++A fist as hard as a pile driver slammed into the small man’s rather hard looking chin. The blow was so hard it tossed man and chair onto the floor violently. Stepping back, his mouth in a dark raging mask, his fists opening and closing menacingly, the squat man with the powerful arms violently gestured for the two men behind him to sit the chair and man upright again.
+++++The two men leapt forward and hauled the man upright in the middle of the dark room sans any furniture other than the one lone chair. Dust lay like a fine carpet on the rough hewn flooring of the room. An indication that the room had not been used for some time. There were no windows. Only a set of rather ugly industrial sized kitchen sinks attached to one wall and lone electrical wire with a single 100 watt light bulb attached to the end of it. That was it for decor. Nothing more. Except for the three man circling the sacrificial goat tied into the chair.
+++++“Who sent you, Smitty. Why is there a contract out on me? Talk, dammit! Talk!”
+++++Wham!
+++++The blow was hard. But not hard enough to knock him and the chair over. Bloody, bruised, dishevelled from being roughed up by the two who grabbed him out of the diner two hours earlier, the average sized man with the incredibly dark eyes said nothing and stared down at the floor in front of him.
+++++Underneath the bright glare of shaft of light from the light bulb above him the three stared at the man in sullen silence. And then the wide, squat man . . . the leader . . . laughed harshly.
+++++“Look at this piece of shit. The great Smitty! The ghost, they call him. The Angel of Death! The guy who completes every contract he accepts! You’re a fucking legend, Smitty. You’re supposed to be unstoppable! Incapable of dying! Well buddy, we’re gonna see about that. We’re gonna see if you can or can’t be killed. Ha! The great Smitty! Caught like a stupid cunt sitting at the counter in a cheap dinner drinking coffee! Just like that! Natch!”
+++++Yet a flood of doubt filled the man’s eyes. Smitty was Smitty because he had a reputation. A very deadly reputation. A reputation he had earned. Eyes narrowing suspiciously the boss turned to glare at his two men as he reached up, grabbed the electric wire with a hand, and flooded the faces of the two men standing behind Smitty with the glare of white light.
+++++“Just how did you grab this guy, Bobby? He just come willingly?”
+++++One look at his two men should have told him everything he needed to know. Both of them looked like shit. Bobby Hayes looked like he’d been in a fight with a pack of rabid baboons. His shirt was torn and stained in blood. One lapel on his sport coat was half ripped off. His face was black and blue with split lips, dried blood, and one eye socket turning color.
The man standing beside Bobby looked even worse. He looked like someone went after him with a baseball bat. Biting his lip in pain, one hand holding his rib cage, the man looked as pale as a sheet. How he was still standing the pain he was in was impressive to contemplate. Still . . .
+++++“Boss, we waited for him to come out of the diner. He’d parked his car in the alley and we waited for him there. He damn near took the two of us out. But I used a lead pipe and caught him with a lucky blow. Davy here caught most of it. He needs to get to a doc fast. I mean, he’s really hurting!”
+++++The beam of light fell onto the face of the man standing beside Bobby. It was obvious his second in command was telling the truth. Davy looked like he was about to keel over at any second. Grunting in disgust he let go of the light and looked down at the prized catch strapped into the chair. And back handed him again with a powerful blow.
+++++“You’re gonna talk, Smitty. Ya’ hear me? You’re gonna tell me everything I want to know just as soon as I return. Bobby! You stay with this asshole and make sure he’s here when I get back. Got that?”
+++++Bobby, obviously hoping he’d tag along, nodded his head and moved away from the lone exit and came to a halt directly behind the dark eyed man.
+++++The boss . . . known by his men as Gromley . . . nodded once toward Bobby and then stepped in front of hostage and glared down at him.
+++++“Smitty, it’s been years. Years since you just popped on the scene and started your incredible run. But it’s over now, buddy. I’m personally going to beat you to death with a baseball bat. And I’m gonna enjoy every minute of it!”
+++++And with that Gromley and Davy left.
+++++In the silence Bobby stared folded arms across his chest and stared at the back of Smitty’s head. Smitty, head bent forward, stared at the floor apparently oblivious about the blood dripping onto his shirt from his nose and busted lip. Silent. Still. Only the sound of labored breathing through a bloody nose echoing in the room.
+++++Bobby, still standing behind the legendary hit man, frowned. A thought wormed into his head. A thought he found disturbing. Even frightening. One he didn’t want to think about. But one that refused to go away.
+++++“Why, Smitty?”
+++++The man in the chair in front of him didn’t move. Didn’t make a sound.
+++++“You let us take you, didn’t you? You knew Davy and I went to the dinner every morning to eat breakfast. You knew we were coming. Knew we’d spot you through the front glass window. Knew we had orders to come and get you if you ever showed up.”
+++++Smitty, head down, eyes closed, blood dripping from his nose, said nothing. But a cynical, cruel smile began to pull back his thin lips.
+++++“I don’t get it. Why would you let Davy and me catch you like that? Why? We know the boys in Boston want the boss dead. We know they hired you to do it. But why, Smitty? What did the boss do to piss off Boston?”
+++++Silence. Loud . . . raucous . . . silence. And then, almost making Bobby jump in fright, the man sitting in the chair in front of him lift’s his head and spoke.
+++++“Remember Donovan, Bobby?”
+++++Color in Bobby’s face drained in the blinking of an eye. Unwillingly he took a half step back, arms falling to his waist and then one hand half lifting to pull out the 9mm Smith & Wesson from his shoulder holster.
+++++“What about Donovan, Smitty? What does my asshole for a brother have to do with any of this?”
+++++In the semi-darkness of the room, with only the one bright shaft of light illuminating the form bound in the chair in front of him, Bobby heard the strange . . . soft . . . hiss of laughter. A sound that froze the blood in his veins.
+++++“Gromley told you it was Donovan who took the one mil owed to Boston and disappeared with it. One million dollars, Bobby. Just disappeared. Left you behind to face Gromley and Boston’s wrath. Almost got you killed for it. Am I right, Bobby?”
+++++A million dollars in cut diamonds. Final payment between Gromley’s organization and Boston’s on some past deals. Handed over to his younger brother to personally carry back to Boston. Gone. Disappeared. Diamonds and brother. Never heard from again.
+++++The hiss of laughter filled the air again. And the hair on the back of Bobby’s neck rose in sheer terror.
+++++“You had to deny your brother, Bobby. Had to call him a traitor. Had to convince Gromley you weren’t a traitor like your brother. Had to kowtow toward him and prove him your innocence. But the truth is, Bobby, your brother wasn’t a traitor. He didn’t steal the diamonds. What he did do was get a bullet in the back of his head and a deep hole to fill for eternity in a local junkyard. And the diamonds, Bobby? Who do think took the diamonds?”
+++++It was lack a slap in the face. Like a brick between the eyes. Sucking in his breath he staggered back a step. He tried to breathe. Tried to breathe but couldn’t. Shaking his head violently back and forth he tried to clear his eyes and see. But it didn’t work. All he could see was red. Violent . . . brilliant . . . red.
+++++Donovan. Donovan! His little brother! The kid who always had a grin on his face and so much wanted to please his older brother. To please him! Gone. Gone forever. A . . . a bullet in the back of his head.
+++++Brother . . . . . !
+++++For several seconds no sound other than Smitty’s labored breathing filled the air. Tilting his head slightly to one side Smitty listened intently. Firmly tied down in the chair he knew there was very little he could do. Knew the odds were stacked against him if Bobby decided to pull out the Smith & Wesson and blow his brains out.
+++++. . . and then the sound of a switch blade. Click!
+++++Bobby’s big form came into view and moved slowly around to stand in front of Smitty. In his right hand was the gleaming blade of the knife. Smitty’s knife he had removed from the dark eyed man hours earlier. Sitting back in the chair Smitty looked up into the face of the man in front of him. And waited.
+++++The look on Bobby’s face was beyond description. Beyond hate. Beyond the need for revenge. Indescribable. For a few seconds he just stood there staring at the wall behind Smitty. Hypnotically. And then lifeless eyes dropped down to stare at the man in the chair. A second ticked by. And then two. And then bending slightly, the knife blade flashed.
+++++Two swift strokes. No more than that. Two strokes of the knife and the ropes holding Smitty’s arms down dropped to the floor. Standing up he took his time folding the knife blade back before tossing it into Smitty’s lap.
+++++“You have a job to do. Make sure you do it.”
+++++That’s all that was said. That’s all that was needed. Returning to his position behind Smitty, Bobby reached inside his sport coat, slipped out the heavy framed 9 mm, and dropped it down and hid it behind one leg. And in silence the two killers waited.
+++++Vengeance is a cruel mistress.
+++++A cruel mistress demanding swift action and copious amounts of blood. But vengeance would never absolve for the sins committed. Or bring an innocent Donovan back to a loving brother.
+++++But sometimes. Sometimes vengeance feels . . . .

Burn Away

It was two in the morning.

The streets were empty. Reflecting pools of light from the street lamps after a short summer rain. We–my partner and I–were in the Rousch 427 Mustang, the windows down, the 435 horses rumbling in a barely restrained symphony under the hood. Coming out of the stereo speakers were the strange, hypnotic vibes of a song called Handel on your Face by a two-singer male group called Bodyrockers.

I got a handle on your face./It’s in a stone-cold place./Why don’t you move it over here-ah/and let me burn away your fear.

 

The perfect theme song for murder.

It starts out with the classic notes of Handel’s Sarabanda and then turns into a melodic guilt-trip of lust, desire, and psychotic nightmares. Frank and me were in route to pick up our prime suspect. A crazy sonofabitch with a rap sheet about as long as I-70 from Denver to Kansas City. Assault. Robbery. Extortion. Attempted murder–just about everything a career criminal needed to make himself know to homicide detectives like us.

Now it was murder. Nothing attempted. Murder finalized. The body lay on the concrete pavement of his driveway with two 9 mm holes in his back and blood inching its way down the pavement toward the gutters. Inside the million dollar home the man’s wife was in hysterics. When we left the paramedics were giving her an injection to calm her nerves and make her sleep. She was sixty-eight years old with a heart condition. As we were leaving one of the paramedics looked at us, frowned, and shook his head.

In her condition it would be a miracle if she lived through the night. So our prime suspect wasn’t going to be charged with one murder. Two counts would be slapped on him if the woman died during the night.

Our suspect was named Raymond Russell. He’d just been released from a Federal prison a month earlier and was making himself at home down in the wharf district in a bar called Slim’s. His brother owned the place and Raymond was working there as a bartender/ bouncer. But rumor was he was doing other things on the side. Like fencing stolen goods. Muscling into the local drug business. Stealing cars.

Nice guy.

Turning on Vincent street, I worked the gearshift up through third to fourth and drove. Raymond was our suspect because the dead man’s daughter, a lovely little dark-eyed beauty about twenty-two or twenty-three by the name of Nancy told us her father and Raymond had had a series of bitter confrontations. Confrontations down in the wharf district not too far from where Raymond worked. Apparently Raymond wanted a piece of the old man’s business. Threatened the old man several times if he didn’t give in. Said his daughter might find herself in a terrible accident.

Like I said—Raymond was a nice guy.

I pulled the growling Mustang up to the curb about a half block away from the bar and cut the engine. In the darkness, Vine street is always black since no one in the street department feel’s safe enough to come down here and repair the busted street lights, the two of us sat back in the bucket seats and waited. Waited for the bar to close up and for Raymond to step out. In the darkness the black forms of warehouses and forgotten businesses lined both sides of the street like forgotten sentries. Only the soft colored neon lights of Slim’s broke the darkness.

An hour went by before the lights to the bar went out. As soon as they did Frank and I slid out of the Mustang and started walking silently down the street toward Raymond’s car. Frank–about as wide as a Mountain Gorilla on steroids and, with his stringy carrot top hair, about as ugly–reached inside his sport jacket and pulled out his 9 mm Glock. I pulled out the Kimber .45 caliber I preferred, cocked the hammer back with a thumb, and then reached for my leather case which held the gold detective badge inside.

He didn’t see us until we were about ten feet from him. But when he did, he dropped the money bag he had in one hand as he turned and stepped back.

“Who the hell are you guys?”

“Cops, Russell. Want to ask you some questions,” I said.

“Questions? About what? I haven’t done anything.”

“About a murder, Russell. A guy by the name Charles Connery,” Frank’s growl rumbled in the night.

“Charles Con . . . . why that crazy bitch! Listen, I’m not taking the fall for this. Whatever went down I wasn’t involved. There’s no way I’m going back to prison. No way!”

“Russell . . . Russell! Don’t do anything stupid,” I yelled.

Russell did something stupid. In the darkness we say the con reach with his left hand behind his back and pull out something dark and bulky looking. He lifted the left hand the bulky object up toward us in one swift motion. And that’s when we fired. My .45 and Frank’s 9 mm lit up the night at the same time. The blasts of the two pieces ripping the night apart with bright flames and a thundering roar.

Raymond Russell lay in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. Both of his shoulders were ripped to pieces from the slugs smacking into them. He was alive. He would live. Barely. But as we stood over him, and has Frank kicked the Colt .45 away from Raymond’s left hand, we stared down at the bleeding con and neither one of us were happy.

“Did you see that? See how he reached for his gun?”

“Yes,” I nodded, gripping the Kimber in my hand firmly. “His left hand. Drew with his left hand.”

“He’s right handed,” Frank said, nodding and using the Glock to point to Russell’s right hand. “Look at that.”

Raymond Russell’s right arm, from his elbow down to the tip of his fingers, was encased in a hard plaster cast. A fresh one. Pulling out a small flashlight I waved it around over the cast and noted how white it was.

“What did he mean about a crazy bitch?” I asked, frowning, eyeing the groaning man.

“Yeah,” Frank nodded, flipping open his cell phone and lifting it to his ear and speed dialing dispatch. “Sounds to me like he knows the Connerys. But maybe not the old man.”

“Knows Nancy Connery,” I said. “Sounds to me he knows her quite well.”

Frank spoke rapidly and calmly in the phone. Almost instantly we heard off in the distance sirens heading in our direction. Flipping the phone closed he dropped it back in his coat pocket and looked at me.

“Guess we should see just how crazy a bitch Nancy Connery is. If she is.”

Four hours later we knew exactly how crazy the daughter was. Driving over to the mansion just as the sun was beginning to light up the eastern sky we didn’t say a word. During the night Mrs. Connery died from a massive heart attack. The only Connery living now was the daughter. And she just inherited fifty million dollars. But last month–last month–Nancy Connery was thrown out of the family residence when word got back to her parents she had been seeing a slime ball by the name of Raymond Russell. Partying all night long. Getting drunk. Cavorting down at Slim’s like some cheap harlot. Words Charles Connery used to describe his daughter. He told her he was going to throw her, not only out of his house , but out of his will as well. If she wanted to run around with a lowlife like that, then run around with him without any money and see how long he stays with you.

Nancy Connery had a history of being in and out of mental institutions all her life. Self destructive the lass was. Hurt herself . . . and when she was in the mood, hurt others as well. Mostly her parents.

The night she was thrown out of her house she moved in with Raymond Russell. That lasted all of one week. Suddenly, the night before Charles Connery gets two slugs in the middle of his back, Nancy Connery moves back into the family mansion. The slugs came, interestingly enough, from the gun Raymond drew on us earlier in the night.

We climbed out of the Mustang and walked up to the front door of the house, the two of us noticing a light on in the living room as we stepped up to the double front doors. Reaching up I pressed the button for the doorbell and stepped back. Nancy Connors opened the door almost immediately.

“Detectives is . . . is he dead?”

“Whose dead, Miss Connors?” Frank asked.

“Why . . . .Raymond Russell. He is dead, isn’t he? He said he’d never go back to prison again. Said he’d kill himself first. So . . . so he must be dead. Right?”

“He’s alive, Miss Connors. Very much alive and telling his side of the story,” I said. “We need to take you downtown.”

She looked up us, her face a portrait of childish innocence, but her eyes . . . her large brown eyes . . . burning funeral pyres of insanity.

“I want a lawyer,” she whispered softly.

We nodded, each of us taking an arm and escorting her out of the house. As we walked to the patrol car that had followed us back to the house I could hear the lyrics from the song rattling along in my head.

I got a handle on your face./Its in a stone-cold place./ Why don’t you come over here-ah/and let me burn away your fear.

 

Too Bad (A Smitty Story)

 

 

She was a beautiful woman.
+++++Stunningly beautiful.
In the crosshairs of the 10-40×50 rifle scope her jet black hair waved like some erotic siren in the morning breeze.  She stood, facing two men, in a black dress that revealed long, sculptured legs.  And white heels.  The heels lifted her and sculptured the legs even more.
+++++Red lips.
+++++Lips, even from this distance and through the scope, glistened with a kind of sensual invitation. Around a shockingly narrow waist she wore a white leather belt.  White on black—with just a touch of bright red—completed the picture.  In the scope she looked like fantasy.  Something unattainable.  A vision any man would lust for.
+++++Too bad.
+++++Lifting a hand up he adjusted the scope to compensate for the slight cross wind blowing from his right to left.  A little over 900 yards.  So far away the bullet would arrive before the crack of the gunshot.  Removing his hand from the scope he gently clasped the plastic grip of the .408 caliber sniper’s rifle and settled himself in comfortably.  Gently, like a lover caressing his latest conquest, the right index finger extended and barely touched the wide trigger.
+++++Too bad.
+++++Too bad someone had to die today.  Too bad she got herself involved with the wrong people.  Too bad there was no other way to bring this dirty little mess to any other conclusion.  Too bad.
+++++Through the scope he watched her.  Saw her laughing at someone’s joke.  Saw the casual, relaxed way she moved among the two men.  Saw the heavy briefcase she gripped casually in her right hand.
+++++Too bad.
+++++He had to compensate for the slow roll of the large fishing boat he was using as a shooting platform 900 yards out in the bay.  But the waves gently rocking the expensive craft were constant and could be anticipated.  This far out on the blue waters of the bay he was far removed from the normal boaters coming into or exiting the cove where the wharf she stood, jutted out into the water.
+++++Softly the tip of his index finger on the trigger began to apply a little pressure.  The ugly machine in his hands . . . custom designed and built by a friend . . . was accurate out to 1,300 yards.  Just the blue steel of a bull barrel, a finely machined firing bolt, a built-in shooting bipod, the plastic shoulder pad with its built-in shock absorbing system.  And the big scope.
+++++When the gun in his arms belched fire and thunder he hardly felt a thing.  Not waiting to see if his bullet hit the target he slipped off the top of the fishing boat’s cabin and stepped into the cabin and started the boat’s powerful Chrysler engines.  Slowly turning the wheel to one side he got the boat moving.  Not too fast to draw attention.  Not too slow.
+++++Behind him, far away, he thought he heard the wail of sirens.
+++++Too bad.   Just too bad . . .
+++++” . . . it has to be done, Smitty.  She has to be the leak.  She’s the only one who knows where all the skeletons are hidden.  No one else does.  Take her out and we seal the leak.  We seal the leak and we stay out of prison.  Simple as that.”
+++++Simple as that.

Standing at the desk, in an office large enough to be some abdicated dictator’s throne room, he stood holding the color 8×10 photo of a beautiful raven haired woman dressed in a very skimpy bikini at the prow of a very expensive yacht.  Hair blowing in the wind.  A hand up to a cheek in an effort to move a sliver of raven hair from his eyes.  Beautiful.  Long limbed.  Stunningly attractive legs.  A figure that would make a eunuch grown in regret.
+++++Dropping the picture onto the desk, eyes as black as the soul of the living dead looked up at the man sitting in the high backed leather chair on the other side.  He was holding a very expensive cigar to his lips.  Lips that were molded into an irritating little smirk.  Dressed in a three piece Egyptian cotton suit, he looked like a very successful corporate lawyer.  Which in fact the was.   The lawyer part.  But one who worked for a crime boss by the name of Jesus Galanti.
+++++“Galanti wants this done?”
+++++The man with the black eyes spoke in a soft whisper.  But a whisper that could send chills down a spine.   Or even make a criminal confess to the cops voluntarily the moment he heard the dark eyed man’s name was interested in him.
+++++“He wants the leak plugged, Smitty.  A grand jury is breathing down his neck and the Feds have two task forces assigned to try and bring him down.  Someone is leaking information to the Feds. Information only two or three people in the organization would know.  She’s Galanti’s accountant.  She’s got her finger in every money stream our employer is involved in.  It has to be her.”
+++++Howard Hensley was not a corporate lawyer.  He was a well known criminal lawyer who had a reputation of taking on the more photogenic, therefore the most newsworthy, cases.  Everyone knew he liked defending the really big mob bosses in cases that might involve a six o’clock news sound bite.
+++++“When?” Smitty asked quietly, looking down at the photo of the woman again.
+++++“As soon as you can,”  Hensley grinned, pushing himself forward and reaching for an envelope on his well manicured desk.  “Here’s some money for expenses.  But don’t take too long.  The grand jury convenes bright and early this coming Monday.  If she’s their star witness and she isn’t around to testify the Feds will have nothing on Galanti.  So it’s imperative she’s removed from the scene no later than Sunday night.”
+++++Smitty took the heavy envelope and slid it into an inside pocket of his dark gray sport coat.  Eyeing the lawyer for a moment he nodded then slipped the photo off the desk and pocketed it as well.
+++++“The problem will be resolved by Sunday night.  Tell Galanti he can sleep soundly tonight.”
+++++Hensley painted that irritating smirk on his gray lips and nodded before reaching for the fat Cuban cigar. For his part the dark eyed hit man said nothing but turned and walked out of the large office.  Taking the elevator down to the ground floor he slipped the photo of the woman out and gazed at her intently.
+++++Beautiful.
+++++Too bad.

Two hours later he was knocking on the door of a large condo.  Dressed in the coveralls of an electrician and gripping a large metal took box in one hand he waited for the woman’s maid to open it.  But when the door opened it wasn’t the Hispanic maid.  Eyes dropping down Smitty looked into the smiling face of a seven year old, raven haired little boy.
+++++“Hi!” the boy said, smiling wide, green eyes bright as he looked up at the dark eyed man.  “You’ve come to fix the lights?”
+++++“Madre de dios!  Robbie, Robbie!  You shouldn’t do that!  Open the door to strangers like that!” the short, squat woman of indeterminate age cackled like an angry hen as she hurried to the boy, stepped in front of him and bodily moved him to stand directly behind her.  “Pardon, senor.  But the boy has no fear of strangers whatsoever.  None!  He drives his mother to tears and gives me high blood pressure every time he does this!  But, how can I help you?”
+++++Smitty, with blue contact lenses hiding his eyes and a body suit on underneath the overalls to give the appearance of a man fifty pounds heavier and definitely out of shape, smiled and shrugged.
+++++“Got two boys of my own, lady.  They drive me crazy as well.  But I hope they never change.  The super called and said you were having trouble with the electricity?”
+++++“Trouble?” the maid said, her face melting into a simple puzzle. “The only trouble we’re having is the switch in the kitchen.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.”
+++++“That might be the problem,” the disguised man said, nodding firmly.  “The super said you were having a problem with something and asked me to stop by and check it out.  Doing this on my lunch hour, lady.  Helping a friend out.  Can I come in and check it out?”
+++++“Sure!” the boy chirped, head sticking from and grinning as he looked up at Smitty. “Can I watch you fix it?  Please?”
+++++“Well,” the maid hesitated, looking indecisive, but then shrugging and shaking her head in confusion.  “I should call the senorita first.  But if you can fix the kitchen light she will be very pleased.  So come in, come in!  Let us close the door before someone else comes!”
+++++Smitty, disguised, smiled and half turned to briefly glance at the condo’s security camera high on the wall of the hallway.  He wanted to make sure whoever was watching. . . if anyone was watching . . . got a clear look at his altered face and physique.
+++++If the Feds were tapping into the security cameras he wanted them to chase ghosts.  If someone else was watching . . .
+++++He didn’t know about the faulty kitchen light switch.  But he believed in serendipity.  Walking straight to the kitchen, the dark haired boy following on his heels, he sat the took box down on a kitchen counter top and opened it.
+++++Forty-five minutes.  That’s all it took.  Forty-five minutes to electronically sweep the apartment.  Forty-five minutes to discover the place was heavily bugged.  Electronic bugs in the kitchen, the living room, the master bedroom.  High tech wireless bugs the Feds favored.  Smiling, the boy at his side talking his head off and watching everything he did, Smitty didn’t touch the bugs.  But he did plant a couple of his own.  Sent the boy back to the kitchen to get him a glass of water each time he sat one.  One in the woman’s bedroom.  One in the little office just off her bedroom.
+++++He even found the problem with the kitchen light switch.  One of the wires was hanging by a strand or two of bare copper wire.  With the quick efficiency of a man who knew what he was doing he cut the damaged piece off, peeled the plastic covering off another section of the wiring, and rewired the switch.
+++++Both the boy and the maid cheered and clapped when he flipped the switch on and the light came on bright and clear.  Saying his goodbyes he walked to the door and left.  The boy with the green eyes and raven black hair following him out of the condo and all the way down the carpeted hall to the elevator.  Constantly talking.
+++++When the elevator doors closed and the boy said goodbye, Smitty stared at himself in the polished chrome steel of the elevator walls.  On the face he couldn’t recognize himself was a quiet, almost forlorn mask.  There had once been a time he had a wife.  Once, a long time ago, they talked about having kids.  But the wife was gone.  And there was no thought about kids.   Until now.
+++++Three blocks away from the woman’s condo he handed the uniform and electric repairman’s truck back to an acquaintance he knew and climbed into his black Caddy CTS-V.  Driving away, watching in the rear view mirror the real electrician staring down at the five brand new one hundred dollar bills in his right hand in surprise, he smiled and turned at a corner and disappeared from view.  Glancing at the Rolex on his wrist, he thought he’d make the next stop in time.  But he had to hurry.
+++++There too he found the office heavily bugged with the Feds wireless technology.  This time he momentarily forced the security cameras of Smith & Dane’s Accounting office to experience a momentary glitch.  Enough of a glitch for him to slip through a ground floor window and enter the woman’s private office unobserved.  It took just three minutes to find the bugs and to install his own.
+++++One other place he had to go before his surveillance routine was completed.  It took even less time than it took installing the bugs in the woman’s office.  Driving away from the wharf he reached to his right and inserted the ear plug into his left ear and then on the little black box setting in the passenger’s seat he selected a number on a small dial.
+++++And began listening.
+++++It didn’t take him long.  Thanks to the pleasant but lengthy conversation with the woman’s son he had an idea where to look.  All it took was forty eight hours.  And then he took the shot . . .
+++++. . . three hours after his target went down.
+++++Standing in front of the door of the woman’s condo with a large bouquet of red roses cradled in one arm.  The moment his finger removed from the doorbell she opened the door and looked straight into his eyes.
+++++Raven black hair.  Green olive colored eyes.  Now red rimmed from her two hours of grieving.
+++++“Yes?” she said, tissue in one hand and her voice shaky.
+++++“Mommy, who is it?”
+++++The boy’s voice.  Still bright and fearless.  Still so constantly curious.  A smile played across his thin lips.  To be that way again.  Constantly curious.  Bright.  Fearless.  Instead he was . . .. What?
+++++“Mrs. Dane, a friend of ours asked me to drop by and bring you these.”
+++++For a moment the woman’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch in a sharp pang of fear.  Glancing at the roses and then up into the plain, ordinary face of the man standing in the doorway dressed in a sport coat and slacks, she made herself relax and stepped out into the hall.
+++++Smitty handed the roses to her and glanced past her at the boy.  His hand reached inside the left pocket of his sport coat.  Fingers wrapped around a small black box as his thumb pushed in a small button in the middle of the device.
+++++No one noticed it except those who were eavesdropping.  Suddenly their microphones erupted in a screeching noise so loud people wearing ear phones and listening in had to throw them off violently in an effort to save their eardrums.  The condo building’s security cameras became a sea of white fuzz so thick nothing could be discerned clearly.
+++++The electronic counter-measures would last only a couple of minutes.  Enough time for him to get his message across to the beautiful woman.
+++++“Mrs. Dane, my name is Smitty.  I am a professional hitman.  Two days ago Howard Hensley paid me a lot of money to kill you.  He wanted to convince his boss and your employer, Jesus Galanti, that you were the one who was leaking information to the FBI.  By killing you he thought all suspicions would be thrown off of him.”
+++++Color drained from her face.  Tears filled beautiful olive green eyes and began streaking down her cheeks.  But she turned silently, pushed her son back into living room of the condo, and closed the door firmly before turning to look at the man standing in the hall with her.
+++++“You killed Howard?”
+++++“We do not have time for questions and answers, Mrs. Dane.  Not if you and your son want to live. As I see, right now you have two very serious problems.  The FBI has your condo and your office bugged.  They’re trying to wrap you up into their little web of deceit just like they did with Hensley.  Problem number two is Galanti.  He’s furious his number two man was gunned down.  He thinks another mob boss ordered the hit.  I think I can eventually convince Galanti it was your boyfriend who was the leak.  But it will take time.  Right now it is imperative you and your son leave town.”
+++++One of Smitty’s hands came up.  Between index finger and thumb was a plain white 3×5 lined card.  On it was a name followed by the number five.  Reflexively the beautiful woman took the card from his hand and glanced down at it.
+++++“That’s the name of a wharf across town.  The slip number is on it.  Be there in one hour, Mrs. Dane.  The two of you.  I can get you out of town to a place that is safe for you and your son.  You can stay there until all this blows over.  But you must decide now.  I can do no more.”
+++++Glancing up to the security camera Smitty turned and walked away.  Leaving the beautiful woman standing in the silence of the condo’s hall . . .
+++++. . . Howard Hensley shouldn’t have given him the photo of the woman in the skimpy bikini standing on the prow of a beautiful yacht.  His yacht.  He shouldn’t have dismissed his lieutenant’s pleas not to use a cell phone . . . even if it was a cheap over the counter throwaway . . . and talk to the Feds while on the boat.  For all his flash and show time photogenic showmanship he wasn’t a very smart man.  It didn’t take long for the dark eyed man to figure it out.  The Feds had come calling on Howard Hensley. They had a noose around his neck but didn’t want to corral him just yet.  They wanted to play him and hope they could eventually hang Jesus Galanti.

The bullet hit Hensley in the back of the head.  Mrs. Dane and the other man she was with were twenty yards away when Hensley went down.  And as he had predicted, the bullet hit the target before the faint crack of a rifle going off somewhere came to their ears.
+++++No one thought about looking out into the bay at the large fishing boat slowly trawling the waters a mile away, half a dozen big ocean-going fishing poles rising up expectantly hoping for a big catch.

Innocent (A Smitty Story)

He saw her slide out of the front seat of her Toyota Corona and close the door before opening the left rear door.  A beauty in subdued mustard yellow.  Long brown hair.  Sculptured, athletic legs.  A long, lithe, athletic body.
+++++He almost smiled.
+++++No wonder Little Gabe fell in love.  Even from across the parking lot of the small apartment complex he could see both the beauty, and the country girl innocence, glowing like some neon light from her.  Two things that would draw Little Gabe to her like flickering candles drawing moths to the dancing flames.
+++++Tossing a long strand of hair over her shoulders she bent down and pulled out two large briefcases from out of the car’s back seat.  Setting the briefcases on the trunk lid she turned, threw more hair over her shoulder again, and closed the car door.  Aiming the clicker at the front she locked the car and then dropped the keys in her purse, threw the strap of the purse over a shoulder, and then reached for the briefcases.
+++++Her name was Erica Norton.  Teacher.  Taught fourth grade in Howard E. Johnston’s Elementary School over on Pine Street.  She was approaching thirty.  Never married.  Didn’t drink.  Never smoked. Lived alone, except for a cat named Alex, here in this apartment complex. Regularly attended church on Sundays and Wednesday nights.  A quiet mouse who lived a quiet unexciting, yet supposedly safe, existence.
+++++Until she met Little Gabe.
+++++Admittedly a beautiful quiet mouse.  But someone who had no idea how close to Death’s final whisper she currently skirted in the darkness.
+++++In the hot, humid night he stood partially hidden by a well manicured fir tree.  From his unseen vantage point he watched Erica step onto the sidewalk leading to the front door of the apartment complex.  A breeze was stirring, blowing strands gently away from her.  An image straight out of a beauty magazine photo shoot.  As she walked up the sidewalk the cloth of her dark yellow dress swished, revealing a lot of legs.  She held her head high as she walked.  Tall, statuesque.  Beautiful.
+++++In the darkness he slipped a hand into one pocket of his tailored slacks and wrapped hands around the cold steel of a switch-blade.  Sliding the folded knife out he remained motionless as Erica walked past him, the cicadas chirping loudly as if they were happy to see her.  In her wake the subtle aroma of expensive perfume filled his nostrils.  Dark black eyes watched her as she approached the entrance to the apartment complex and disappeared through the door oblivious to the drama that was about to take place.
+++++Click!  Using a thumb to press the button the switch-blade in his hands snapped open angrily. Expectantly.  Hungrily.   But the dark-eyed man didn’t move.  Blending into the night like some mythical harbinger of death  he remained motionless his eyes turning to look again at the dimly lit apartment complex parking lot.  He didn’t have to wait long.
+++++No sooner had the door of the apartment complex closed behind her when two doors of a black Ford Escape popped open and two very large men got out.  In the dim illumination of the tall light poles that rose like metallic Redwoods out of the parking lot asphalt he recognized them.  Two major hitters working for Jimmy McDougall.  A mean, vicious hood who didn’t take kindly to anyone within his organization stealing from him.  Especially to the tune of 500 G’s.
+++++Little Gabe should have know better.  Should have known taking money from the boss–money that would be instantly missed–would have disastrous and instant results.  Gabe found out the hard way. Four slugs in the chest after hours of being tortured was the justice metered out by Jimmy McDougall.
+++++The problem was Little Gabe didn’t talk.  Didn’t reveal where the five hundred thousand was hidden.  That omission really pissed Jimmy off.  So the order went out.  Grab the girl and bring her to a safe spot where no one would find her.  Maybe she knew where the money was.
+++++Gabe had been a tough little kid.  When he found him in a pool of his own blood strapped tightly into a chair in the middle of an empty warehouse it was too late to save the little guy.  But the kid was alive enough to recognize the dark-eyed figure standing in front of him.  One eye–the a other battered, pulpy, unable to open–looked up into the face of the dark-eyed man as a grin spread across his blood caked lips.
+++++“You gotta save her, Smitty.  You gotta save her!  She knows nothing about my little stash! Nothing!  But they’re gonna come after.  They’re gonna do things to her.  They’ll kill her, Smitty.  They’ll kill her.  You’ve got to save her!”
+++++For a few second the compact, hard, coldly handsome killer stared down at a kid who once wanted to be a friend.  A warm hearted, loud kid who loved to dance and play in a band.  But a foolish kid.  A stupid kid.  Stupid enough to get himself killed.  Still . . .
+++++“All right, Gabe.  Where does she live?”
+++++So here he was.  A dark shadow of waiting death eyeing two men walking toward the apartment complex with orders from their boss to find the money.  Do whatever it took to find the money.  But just find it.  And get rid of any trouble makers.
+++++The two large menacing silhouettes, walking shoulder to shoulder, moved past him on the side walk and stopped in front of the apartment complex entrance.  That’s when he moved.  Making not the slightest sound, the one known as Smitty came out of the shadows and stepped up behind the two.
+++++“Evening,” he hissed softly almost in the ears of both men at once.
+++++Their reactions were instinctual and violent.  Both jumped visibly in the darkness and whirled to face who ever it was who had just given such a fright.  Both were reaching inside their suit coats for guns hanging loosely in shoulder holsters.  Neither moved fast enough.  From out of the night the bright steel of a switch-blades slashed left and right with blinding speed.  Both men grunted in startled pain–someone moaned–and then both fell to their knees with heads bent down and copious amounts of blood . . . their blood . . . flowing like dark waterfalls onto the sidewalk in front of the apartment entrance.
+++++“That’s for what you did to Little Gabe, boys,” the savage hiss of a whisper came to them from out of the night.  “But be thankful I didn’t finish the job.  Both of you miserable miscreants will live.  This time.  Live to go back to your boss and give him a message.  Do you hear me?”
+++++One of the killers lifted a blood soaked, half mutilated face up and nodded.  He tried to focus his eyes onto the black shadow standing in front of him.  Hovering over him like Death itself.  But his eyes couldn’t focus.  Too much blood seeping down from his forehead stung his eyes and made them water uncontrollably.
+++++“Tell him I’ve found his money.  He’ll have it back within an hour.  All of it.  And when he gets his money it’s over.  Done with.  Finished.  No one touches the woman.  Ever.  Understand?”
+++++Both men nodded in the night.  Both came to their feet.  Their clothes were soaked in their blood. Both stood up wobbly.  Both began stumbling down the sidewalk toward the parking lot.  Smitty stepped to one side, folded the bloody steel edge of his switch-blade closed with both gloved hands, and watched the two best men of Jimmy McDougall move past him.  As dark-black eyes watched the killers stagger down the sidewalk leaving a bloody wake behind him his eyes narrowed and a grim expression spread across his face.  He should have killed them both.  Both had worked over Little Gabe for hours trying to make him talk.  Both loved that kind of work.  If there was any justice in the world both should be dead.
+++++But not now.  Not here.  Not tonight.
+++++Eyes turned to look at the apartment complex entrance.  And then eyes black as the night itself played across the front of the apartment building’s exterior.  There was a security camera aimed at the entrance in the hallway on the other side of the door.  He didn’t want to be seen tonight.  Not ‘officially’ seen.

***

She came out of the hot shower reaching for an oversized towel waiting across the small bathroom sink.  The small bathroom was a steaming sauna.  The walls, the shower curtain, the small mirror above the sink dripped condensing water from the hot clouds of steam swirling around the bathroom.  Drying herself off she eventually wrapped the large towel around her svelte frame and reached for a second, smaller towel.  Throwing her luxuriant brown hair in a pile above her head she quickly wrapped the smaller towel her head and reached for the knob of the bathroom door.
+++++Opening the door she came out of the bathroom,  steam following her in a long vaporous trail in the process.  Walking barefoot across the thick carpet of her bedroom she moved with the ease of a graceful feline across an African veldt to her queen sized bed.  The towel wrapped around her firm body slipped to the floor as she bend down to pulled the covers of the bed back–a hand sliding underneath a pillow curiously.
+++++When she turned around to face Smitty–revealing her beauty the ugly snout of a .38 caliber snub nosed Smith &Wesson was in her right hand and the hard look of a woman who knew how to handle the weapon on her lovely face.
+++++“Good evening, Erica.”
+++++The dark-eyed man sat in a chair pushed up against a wall directly opposite from the bed.  A leg crossed over the other, hands resting comfortable on a thigh, Smitty sat in the chair calmly, the suggestion of a sneer barely creasing his thin lips, and eyed the beauty openly with admiration.  She really was a beautiful, beautiful woman.
+++++“Who are you?  And what do you want?”
+++++“The name’s Smitty.   I’ve come to collect the little gift Gabe handed over to you the other day. And if I’m lucky—if you’re lucky—I might be able to save your life.”
+++++“What?” she snapped, the ugly nose of the .38 unwavering as it aimed toward Smitty’s chest. “What are you talking about?”
+++++“You know what I am talking about, Erica.  You knew something like this might happen.  Gabe’s dead.  And Jimmy McDougall wants his money back.”
+++++“I don’t have any money.  Gabe didn’t give me any money.  And I certainly don’t know anyone by the name of Jimmy McDougall!”
+++++The sneer on Smitty’s lips widened slightly as dark eyes played across Erica Norton brazenly. Brazenly enough to make the gun in her hand drop for a second and a crimson flush sweep across bare flesh as she quickly bent down and reached for the towel lying on the carpet to cover herself with.  He didn’t move.  Just sat in the chair and watched as the woman wrapped the towel around herself tightly and then lifted the gun back up and aim it at him.
+++++“He didn’t give you cash, Erica.  Not five hundred thousand in cash.  But something smaller. Much smaller.  Something that surprised me when I found it.”
+++++Beautiful eyes darted to one side–toward a large painting hanging on a wall to her left–worry and fear making her face turn even harder.
+++++“You found it?  The book of rare stamps?  How?  How did you know we converted the money into stamps?  He talked, didn’t he!  He talked!  I told him not to say a word!  No one would ever figure it out!”
+++++The sneer on Smitty’s lips didn’t change.  But somehow it became harder.  Colder.  Even cruel.
+++++“That was it, Erica.  That’s what tipped me off you weren’t the innocent little school teacher. Innocent no more.  Gabe wasn’t smart enough to come up with the idea to rip off Jimmy McDougall. Wasn’t smart enough to know how to convert cash into a fortune of rare stamps.  But you were, little girl. You were. You took the money and bought the stamps.  You told Gabe no one would ever suspect him and then sent him off to his death.  The only question left to be answered is this.  Did you love him, Erica? Did you have any feeling for him at all?”
+++++“That money was going to buy us a new life!  A new life far, far away from this place!  He didn’t want to work for his boss any more.  He wanted to leave the mob.  But he was about as  poor a little bastard as I ever met.  I told him we couldn’t run away without some money.  Lots of money.  He promised me he could get money.  Lots of it!  Now hand the book over to me.  Hand it over or I swear to God I’ll shoot you where you sit!”
+++++The hard eyes of a killer stared unblinking at the beautiful woman for a long time.  And then, moving slowly, he came out of his chair and reached into his suit coat and withdrew a small but thick leather bound book.  With a flick of the wrist the book sailed across the bedroom and landed on the edge of the bed beside her.
+++++“Your choice, Erica.  I either walk out of here and take the book with me and hand it to McDougall.  Or I walk out of here and leave it with you.  One offers you a chance to live a long and prosperous life.  The other guarantees you will be dead inside a week.  Which is it going to be?”
+++++“I can take care of my self, you bastard!” she hissed, lifting the gun and rapidly pulling the trigger of the snub nose revolver three times.
+++++Click! Click! Click!  Three times the hammer of the Smith & Wesson loudly smacked onto empty chambers.  Stunned, color draining from her face, she staggered back in disbelief and stared at the useless weapon in her hand.
+++++Smitty walked in silence over to the bed and scooped the small leather bound book up in one hand and slid it into an inside coat pocket.  Turning he moved across the room toward a set of sliding glass doors that led out onto a small balcony.  Sliding one of the doors open he kept a hand on the door as he turned and looked at her.
+++++“Jimmy McDougall ordered his boys to kill Gabe last night.  But in truth you’re his murderer, Erica.  His love for you killed him.  Yet even as he was dying he wanted me to save you.  Too bad, isn’t it?  Too bad he loved you so much.  Too bad he made me make a promise to him.  Too bad you’re probably going to kill some other patsy sooner or later.  Too bad justice has to be so blind.”
+++++Erica Norton screamed.  And screamed.  And screamed.  Screamed until she couldn’t scream no more.  But only an open glass balcony door and a dark, dark night heard her.

Who Are You? (A Smitty Story)

In the darkness the hushed voice of someone sobbing.
+++++Quietly.
+++++Softly.  Desperately trying to stop.  Like a child scolded severely might whimper alone in their bed.  Dabbing her eyes with a kerchief she sat in the semi-darkness in the backseat of the cab and held a cell phone to her ear.  Through the night the cab drove.  Fast.  With intent.  With a cold purpose as of yet unsaid.   Like some madman’s demonic kaleidoscope the interior of the cab lit up with the dull orange orbs of street lights exploding in a rapid staccato rhythm.
+++++But in her despair she sat huddled against the left rear door of the cab like a beaten pup hugging an immovable wall.
+++++An almost  pretty woman in her mid-thirties.  Conservatively but tastefully dressed in a skirt, a white blouse, with a navy blue jacket covering her bare arms.  Around her neck was a necklace with one very large black pearl hanging delicately just at the beginning of her cleavage.
+++++Her hair was pulled back behind her head and tied down into a tight bun.  Fair complexioned.  Neither beautiful nor unattractive.  A woman with a career.  A woman who did her job well and neither asked for nor expected anything out of the ordinary to happen to her.
+++++But tonight her hushed whisper for a voice sounded strained and her petite frame shook with emotion as she sat in the backseat of a cab at three in the morning talking on her cell phone.
+++++“I don’t know why he left, mother.  He just left!  Didn’t take a thing with him. Left his clothes . . . his toiletries . . . everything at the apartment.  But he wrote a note and left it on the bed.  Said he had to leave.  Had to get away. For my own sake.  Johnny never gave me a hint, never said a thing to indicate something was bothering him. It’s like . . . it’s like this just came out of the sky blue like a lightning bolt!”
+++++Johnny.
+++++Coal black eyes shot up to stare into the rear view mirror.  Eyes as black as sin itself.  Hard eyes.  Eyes filled with little mercy.  With a hand on the wheel the silent man drove the cab over semi-deserted streets, an occasional spike of light momentarily illuminating his face.  A face as hard as chiseled granite.  With sharp angles.  High cheek bones.  A razor thin nose.  And those eyes.  Those deadly dark eyes.
+++++Johnny . . .
+++++Years ago . . . a lifetime ago . . . he once had been called Johnny.
It had been a long time since he had heard that name.  A time much earlier in his life.  So many years past.  So many sins committed.  Layers of artificial amnesia encapsulating and then regulating that name and all the emotions which went with it into a part of his mind never to be opened again.  The name . . . the pain it always stirred within him . . . pushed aside and forgotten.
+++++Until tonight.
+++++“But . . . but Johnny wouldn’t do that, mother!  He wouldn’t just leave me!  He wouldn’t take all the money out of our savings account and just leave me!  I . . . I’m telling you something is terrible wrong.  Something terrible has happened!”
+++++In the silence of the cab the indecipherable voice of a mother scolding her child clearly written on the woman’s tear-streaked face.  Pain.  Fear. Worry.  Desolation.  All strokes of the emotional brush clearly seen the moment the interior of the cab lit up eerily from a street lamp.  As he eyed her through the rear view mirror he kept driving. And listening.
+++++“But mother, why would he do that?  Yesterday we went out and bought engagement rings!  Sat down with a local minister and talked with him about the wedding!  Now he’s . . . he’s gone.  Just left me.  Why?  Why?”
+++++A louder scolding voice coming out of her cell phone.  A flash of anger and with one smooth motion she threw the phone into her purse sitting on her lap and  set the purse on the seat beside her.  With her face streaked with black mascara and tears she turned to stare out into the night
+++++“What’s his name, lady.”
+++++A soft voice.  A gentle voice . . . but one edged with something else.  More a soft whisper.  Coming from the front of the cab.  From the dark shadow sitting behind the steering wheel.
+++++“Wha . . . what?  What did you say?” she asked, turning to look at the back of the shadows dark silhouette.
+++++“What’s your boyfriend’s name.  I heard a Johnny for a first name.  People used to call me that once.  Johnny.  Just wondered what  his last name was.”
+++++“Uh . . . uh . . (sob) . . . Menlow.  John Menlow.  Oh.  I’m sorry you heard all this.  I apologize for sounding so emotional.”
+++++“No need to apologies, lady.  I know how hard this ole’ world is.  I hear about it all the time in this cab.  What did your boyfriend do for work?”
+++++“Worked in an investment firm.”
+++++“Pretty good at it?”  the hiss of the soft . . . strange . . . whisper.  “Made some money at it?”
+++++She took the time to use a Kleenex to wipe tears from her eyes.  An odd warble of sound came out of her throat for an answer.
+++++“Jeesh,  shame he ran off will all your dough.  I’d be pissed.  Did you call the cops?”
+++++She shook her head no and covered the lower part of her face with the Kleenex.  She began shaking in silent agony as streams of tears flowed from her large eyes.  Dark eyes . . . as dark as infinity . . . watched her for a moment or two in the rear view mirror.
+++++Conversation ceased for the remainder of the ride.  When the cab pulled up to the curb of a large apartment complex he watched the woman climb out of the car, close the rear door of the car and step up on the curb.  When she tried to hand him the fare he lifted a hand up and pushed the money away.
+++++“You’ve had a rough day, lady.  Keep your money.  But tell me, you think this John Menlow is in trouble?  He’s in trouble and that’s why he ran off with your money?”
+++++“I . . . I think so,” she nodded, wiping mascara from her face.  “I know he loves me.  I can’t think of a reason why he would do anything like this unless something terrible has happened.”
+++++She stopped cleaning the mascara from her face with the Kleenex and frowned and looked at the cab driver for the first time.  Yet there was nothing to see.  The darkness of the street hid his face completely.
+++++“Say . . . who are you?  And why am I telling you everything about my personal life?”
+++++“Just a cabby, lady.  Just a cabby.  People tell me their problems all day long.  I’m like a priest.  I hear confessions all the time.  Hope things work out for you.  Maybe your Johnny might come back to you.”
+++++“I hope so, fella.  I really hope so.”
+++++Smitty watched her turn and walk toward her apartment building, head down, a Kleenex masking her face as she cried silently in great heaving jerks of her body.  He sat in the cab, black eyes unblinking, one hand riding high on the steering wheel, an elbow laying across the gaping hole of an open driver’s side window, and watched as she disappeared into the building.
+++++Johnny.
+++++So long ago.  A lifetime.  Another time.  Another place.
+++++Memories almost forgotten.
+++++Johnny.
+++++Into the night the cab disappeared.  Into the night  death began his relentless search for Johnny.  Some have the talents of an artist.  They paint on a canvas, or write on paper, masterpieces of wonder with color or with words.  Some men are good with their hands.  With hammers and chisels they can take a piece of freshly hewn wood and build magnificent mansions or . . . in stone . . . carve statues so breathtakingly life-like that,  to the naked eye, seem to breath and move as if made of bone, muscle and flesh.   Some men are gifted the eloquence so grand, so stirring, their words rouse passions and dreams in the hearts of all who may listen to them.
+++++But some men . . .  some men were born to inhabit the night.  To troll among the miscreants. The malevolent.  The homicidal unseen and unsuspected.  Born to hunt.  To stalk.  To seek out their prey and run them to ground in such a way their quarry never suspects their lives are about to change.  Or end.  Violently.
+++++It took Smitty twenty four hours to find Johnny Menlow.
+++++A hallowed out little man sitting on an empty bench in an empty, cavernous bus station.  The smell of diesel fumes strong in the air.  The black and white tiles of the floor in need of a severe scrubbing and a fresh coat of wax.  Figures here and there, dressed in various forms of the traveler and toting heavy looking suitcases and bags moved with the motions of the disillusioned.  Staring at the world with blank eyes.  Exhausted eyes of people long since forgotten.
+++++Jon Menlow sat on an empty wooden bench in the middle of the hollowed temple of the dead, bent forward, arms resting on his legs; hands moving constantly in slow motion.  Head bent down, eyes staring at the tile floor but not seeing.  Sat like a man  deep in his thoughts . . . deep in his damnations that were slowly, irrevocably, eating away his soul.
+++++Smitty stood several feet away and behind the back of John Menlow and eyed the man and the scene around him carefully.  In a huge building of this size there were no more than ten souls visible.  Yet John Menlow sat in the middle of the building and about as far as he could get from the set of wide double doors leading out to the rows upon rows of waiting buses.
+++++There were no bags or suitcases waiting silently beside him as he sat bent forward and hunched over.  John Menlow wasn’t going anywhere.  He was waiting.  Waiting like a condemned criminal waiting on death row for that final walk.  Waiting.  Stewing.  Remembering.  Remembering those he loved.  Those he had harmed.
+++++Smitty’s dark eyes narrowed as he slid a hand into the right trousers pocket and gripped the long, thin handle of a switch-blade.  Looking slowly to his left and then to his right he scrutinized each and ever individual near him carefully before returning his black eyes back to his quarry.
+++++John Menlow wasn’t sitting in a semi-deserted bus station waiting for a bus to take him into oblivion.  John Menlow was waiting for someone.  Waiting . . . and dreading . . . the moment when that someone finally appeared.
+++++Curious Smitty turned and walked to his left toward a stand of newspaper racks. Shelling out some coins he bought a day old paper and then moved to his right.  Moved to an empty bench some six benches directly behind John Menlow.  Sitting down and crossing one leg over the other casually he opened the paper and began reading as if he was someone waiting for a loved one’s bus to arrive.  But there was no reading the paper this night.  Tonight the hunter hid in plain sight and waited.  Waited to see what terror held this guilt-racked man to his wooden bench as firmly as guilt always did to a trapped man.
+++++Smitty did not wait for long.  Ten minutes later four men dressed in expensive casual sport coats and slacks, draped in gold chains and large gold and diamond studded rings on their fingers—creatures who never otherwise be caught in a bus station—passed him as he sat with the paper open in front of him and moved toward John Menlow.
+++++Four men used to money.  Power.  Death.
+++++Two men separated for the pack and moved silently off to the right and sat down on a bench.  The other two moved toward John Menlow.  One, a man with wavy black hair graying around the temples, with a small scar decorating his chin, was the pack leader.  The man in charge.  He had the look Smitty was all too familiar with.  The look of a killer.
+++++When they appeared in front of John Menlow the much younger man sat bolt upright and stared up at them.  Across the face of the dark man with the graying temples a cruel snarl played across thin lips.  He said something in a soft voice too faint for Smitty to hear.  Menlow, pale and moving with sudden, jerking, movements, nodded and reached inside his coat for something.
+++++The man with the graying temples snarled even wider as the man dressed beside him reached inside his coat menacingly.  Menlow pulled his hand out and reached up toward the smiling man.  +++++The smiling man offered an open palm and the small, brass colored form of a key momentarily appeared.  Menlow dropped the key into the smiling man’s open palm.  The gray haired mobster looked at the key for a second or two and nodded.  Handing the key to the man beside him he watched in an idle, almost bored fashion as the bigger man walked away and toward a long line of storage racks.  Carefully counting down the racks the big man came to the one he was hunting for and inserted the key into the lock.  With a twist of the wrist the gunsel opened the door and reached in for something.
+++++Out came a heavy blue canvas carrying bag.  A very heavy blue canvas carrying bag.  The man grunted when he pulled the bag out of the bin and dropped it to his side.  Closing the door to the bin he turned and stared across the station at his boss and nodded.
+++++The smiling man with the gray temples nodded and looked at John Menlow.  Something was said which made Menlow nod and then slump over and drop his head into his hands in anguished relief.  The smiling man laughed.  Laughed and turned to walk away.  But as he did his eyes turned toward the two men who had peeled away just a moment earlier.  Ever so slightly the smiling man nodded.
+++++And John Menlow’s death sentence had been officially decreed.
+++++Smiling man and his shadow walked out of the bus depot, passing Smitty sitting on his bench in the process and never looked back.  Lowering the paper the black eyes of death watched the back of John Menlow and waited.  Menlow, after visibly sobbing a few times, came to his feet, shoulders slumped over and head down, turned and began shuffling toward the exit.  He never saw the two rough looking, tanned creatures with their expensive clothes and gold chains stand up and begin moving toward him.
+++++Menlow shuffled past the dark eyed man sitting on the bench.  Seconds later the two heavy set, darkly tanned thugs of the smiling man walked past, neither taking any interest of the compact, thin looking man sitting at the bench folding his paper carefully in place and lying it on the bench beside him.  Their eyes were on their soon to be victim.  Neither had a thought in mind that anyone would dare disturb them in their grisly assignment.
+++++Smitty stood up and slid a hand into his trousers pocket as he turned and began walking toward the bus station’s wide exit.  In front of him, maybe ten paces away, were the back of the two thugs.  They followed Menlow out of the door and into the night.  Neither heard the silent footsteps of the compact, light framed man walking directly behind them.  Turning to their right they continued to follow John Menlow into the dimly lit wide expanse of the bus station’s parking lot.
+++++The night’s warm, muggy summer’s night breeze played across Smitty’s cold, angular face.  It would be raining soon.  A hard summer squall was blowing in.  Rain hard enough to wash away blood.  Wash away evidence.  Wash away the smell of death.  Silently Smitty pulled from his trousers pocket the folded form of thin handled switch-blade just as one of the two men in front of him slid a hand inside his sport coat for something while his other hand removed a long cylindrical object from a different coat pocket.
+++++From out of the man’s coat came the ugly black form of a long barreled revolver.  From the side pocket the cylindrical shaped object was quickly screwed onto the end of the revolver’s barrel.  But the man didn’t raise the revolver and its silencer just yet.  Menlow kept walking deeper into the semi-deserted parking lot toward a small sedan parked underneath a lonely, tall, brightly lit light pole rising up into the gathering gloom.
+++++Fumbling for keys Menlow stopped beside the driver’s side door of the sedan, back facing the two dark forms half hidden in the parking lot’s darkness.  The two had stopped only eight feet away.  Right at the edge of the bubble of light the single parking lot light pole threw into the darkness.   The two gunmen stood in the darkness and eyed Menlow emotionlessly.  Then the one with the silenced revolver lifted the weapon up and aimed it at the back of Menlow’s head.
+++++“Hey, fellas.  Either one of you two got a match?”
+++++The soft whisper of a voice came out of the darkness behind them.  Unexpectedly.  Unnervingly eerie to their ears.  Making both of them jump instinctively and turn to face the intrusion.
+++++“Listen, asshole . . . ” the one with the gun in his hand snarled viciously, dropping the weapon in his hand quickly to hide it behind his leg as he turned and faced the voice.
+++++He never finished his sentence.  Something long . . . thin . . . sharp . . . came out of the night and bit deep into his throat.  Fear, surprise, shock . . . all lit up the man’s hidden face at the same time.  Something tasting hot, salty, like brackish saltwater,  began to fill his mouth.  He felt like he was drowning.  He felt himself becoming light headed.  Dropping the gun from his hands he threw both of them up to his throat and felt the handle of the switch-blade, covered in blood, jutting out of his throat.
+++++“Jesus!”  the second gunman as he turned to look at his partner drop to his knees and then keel over, face first, into the pavement.  “What the fu . . . .!”
+++++Crack!
+++++The gunman’s right knee snapped in two from a blow like that of a sledgehammer smashing though a plaster wall.  He screamed, almost fell but caught himself, and bent over form the sheer excruciating pain.  It was his last living act.  The edge of a hand, like the edge of an axe, came out of the night and bit into the back of his neck.  There was another loud crack!  And he too dropped . . .  dead . . . onto the pavement with a broken neck.
+++++John Menlow was about to slide into his car when he paused, frowned, and turned to look behind him.  He thought he heard the muffled voice of someone.  Leaving the car door open Menlow took a couple steps toward the edge of the light and peered out at the darkness.
+++++“Hello.  Is there someone out there?”
+++++Silence.
+++++“Really. Is someone hurt out there?”
+++++Silence.
+++++And then behind him he heard a car door open and quickly slam shut.  Standing up straight, wide-eyed and thoroughly frightened,  Menlow slowly turned around and,  with eyes blinking wildly, stared at his car.
+++++A small, thin, but will built little man sat in the front passenger seat of his car and stared up at him with black eyes.  Amazingly black eyes.  Lying on the man’s left thigh was the cold blue steel of a Ruger .357 caliber revolver.  At the end of the six inch barrel of the weapon was the long round tube of what had to be a silencer.
+++++“Get in,” the strange man said in a soft, yet quite clear voice. “We need to leave, John.  Leave now!”
+++++John Menlow blinked a couple of times and then walked back to the open door of his car and slid in behind the steering wheel.  He didn’t say a word.  Starting the car he shifted down into Drive and drove.
+++++“We don’t have much time.  So you need to talk and talk fast.  How much was in that blue tote bag you had stashed in the locker.  And why did you hand it over to someone who so convincingly frightened you.”
+++++“Who are you?  And why . . . why are you wanting to know about my business?”
+++++Smitty turned his dark eyes toward the pale, ghost like features of John Menlow and stared.  Sat silently and stared.  The silence . . . those hypnotic, cobra-black eyes visibly sent chills down Menlow’s spine.
+++++“Okay,  okay!  I’ll tell you!  I’m an investor.  I work at a small firm ran by a guy named Clark Harris.  Just a small firm of Harris, myself, and five other agents.  Last week Clark disappeared.  Disappeared with two million dollars of investor’s money.  The day after it was confirmed Clark was gone and he had the money, a guy by the name of Nick Carsons came by the office.  Said that two million was his money and he wanted it back.  If he didn’t get it back by tonight he was going to kill all of us.  Kill us and our families as well.  I gathered up all I could find.  More like stole all I could.  Three-quarters of a million.  That’s all I could scrounge up.”
+++++“Stole money to save your friends and your girl friend.”
+++++“Yes!  How . . . how do know Marcia?  I mean, is she safe!  Is she all right?”
+++++There was panic in Menlow’s voice.  Terror etched a haggard look across his normally average face as he turned to stare at the dark eyed man.
+++++“She’s safe,” the soft voice replied in the darkness of that was the passenger’s seat.  “For now.  But you’ve got to go to her.  Now.  Take her and leave her apartment.  There’s a motel out on Highway 60 called The Goodnight’s Inn.  Take her there and wait for my call.”
+++++“But . . . but  I can’t go back to her.  I stole her money!  I stole a lot of people’s money!  She must hate my guts by now!”
+++++“She doesn’t,” the voice in the blackness hissed.  “Stop the car and let me out.  And then go to the woman who loves you.  Do what I told you to do.  Wait for my call.  I’ll take care of this mess.”
+++++John Menlow started to protest.  But those eyes . . . those eyes.
+++++He stopped the car and watched the small man slid out into the night and close the door behind him.  And he left.  Left Death standing in the darkness watching the bright red of the car’s tail lights fade into the night.
+++++Two hours later Smitty was sitting in the leather bucket seat of a CTS Cadillac parked parallel beside a street curb.  In one gloved hand was a cheap throwaway cell phone.   He was looking to his left.  Down a long street lined on both sides with cars parked and empty.  The night was lit up with bright neon signs of several bars and nightclubs lining both sides of the street.  But at the far end of the street was a black line of brownstone apartment buildings.
+++++Smitty was waiting.  Waiting for the lights of one particular brownstone to snap on.  When it did he used a gloved thumb to punch in numbers of a private residential number.
+++++“Yeah, Nick Carson’s residence,” a voice . . . not Nick Carson’s . . . answered in a bored fashion.
+++++“Let me talk to your boss,” a soft whisper drifted across the ethernet.
+++++“Who’s calling?”
+++++“Tell him the guy who just stole the three-quarters of a million John Menlow just gave him wants to talk to him.  I’m sure that will tickle Nick’s interest some.”
+++++“What . . . . !”
+++++There was the noise of a phone dropping onto a table.  Noise of heavy feet running across a hardwood floor.  A door slamming.  Seconds later the explosion of voices screaming invectives and foul language.
+++++And then Nick Carson voice screaming into the phone.
+++++“I don’t you who you are . . . I don’t know how that little bastard could have hired you!  But I’m gonna find you, you little prick!  I’m gonna find you and cut your heart out!  Steal my money, will you!  I’ll cut your heart out and then I’m going after this Menlow creep and his girlfriend and I’m gonna cut their hearts out!  Where the fuck is my money. asshole!”
+++++“Go to the window and pull the curtain back,” Smitty said softly.  Casually.
+++++From his vantage point directly opposite Carson’s brownstone he saw the second story curtains of Carson’s office flash open and the form of the man with the gray temples standing in the middle of the window.
+++++“Look down the block.  See the black car that’s turning on its headlights now?  That’s me.  I have your money.  And I plan to return it back to all of those who had it stolen from them.   Say goodnight, Nick.  And by the way.  You won’t be hurting anyone ever again.”
+++++A cruel little smile played across Smitty’s lips as he  pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at the glowing numbers of the phone’s dial.  A thumb moved slide across the face of the dialer and paused over the number eight.  Glancing down the street again he saw the form of Nick Carson still at the window.  The smile on Smitty’s lips widened as he pressed number eight firmly.
+++++The explosion was staggering.
+++++A ball of fire shot out of the second story window of the Carson residence and roared half way down the street.  The shock wave from the explosion was physical enough to rock every car violently.  Car alarms, by the hundreds, rose up into the night with a cacophonous clatter.  Glass, wood, pieces of brick shrapnel rained from the heavens.
+++++Almost instantly from all over the city police and fire alarms began wailing.  People flooded out of the night club and bars and ran into the street to stare at the burning crater that once was Nick Carson’s brownstone.
+++++Behind the gawking crowds a black CTS Caddy pulls away from the curb gently and moves away.  Black fading into black.  Like a ghost.  Like a wraith.  Like the Angel of Death himself.