Tag Archives: B.R. Stateham

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!”

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.