In the darkness the hushed voice of someone sobbing.
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!”
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.
“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.
So long ago. A lifetime. Another time. Another place.
Memories almost forgotten.
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 . . . .!”
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?”
“Really. Is someone hurt out there?”
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.
“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.