Nightfall

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Full Story Text

Nightfall

by

Brian Merklin

And

Jeff Buckner

1

 

     The world takes on an odd tilt when you find yourself being stared down by a monster outweighing you by about two-hundred pounds.

     Things tilt a little more when you're tied to a chair and said monster is naked from the waist up, staring at your cleavage, and his pants get tighter by the second.

     But if this is point B (or X or Y or Z if you want to be realistic) the strangest part is figuring out how you got here from A.

 

2

 

     "Mary was special."

     The girl (that's what she was, really) sat across from me.  She stared at her lap, her hands fidgeting with each other.

     I leaned over the desk, trying to get her to look at me.  Every time her eyes started to rise, they would flit away like two gnats that you can never quite catch.

     "Who is Mary?"

     "Mary and me worked together."

     "You worked together?"

     For the first time since shuffling through my door the girl raised her eyes and met my own.  I stifled a gasp.  She was beautiful. Her face held a softness that said she hadn't been at her current profession long.

     Her irises were a soft blue, making her somehow more beautiful than if they'd held a sharper color.

     She would be wrecked within a year.  Maybe dead.  It's what people who seek her kind out are looking for. They can't bear to see their own ugliness reflected in beauty, so they do what they can to destroy it.

     Usually they succeed.

     I said none of this to her.  People don't come to me for counseling sessions, and if I took up the habit of telling my clients what I thought of them it wouldn't be long before I had no clients at all.

     If this girl could pay, I would help her.

     If not, I'd tell her (gently, of course) that she'd need to seek help elsewhere. With the police maybe: where she would be worked into the system until she disappeared all together within its depths.

     "What's your name?" I said.

     "Y-you're Melissa May, right?"

     "Says so on the door, but I didn't ask what my name was.  You are?"

     "Amanda."

     She was back to wringing her hands and staring at her lap.

     From above,  the fan hummed and rattled, doing its best to tell me its motor was about to give out.

     "Amanda what."

     "Amanda Loebb."

     "Okay, Amanda.  You and this Mary person worked together.  That's fine.  You say she was special.  That's fine too.  But you need to tell me what I can do for you, otherwise you're going to have to make room in that chair for someone else."

     The threat was empty.  No one had knocked on my door in almost two weeks. As of right now my schedule was clear and this girl wasn't taking up any time that I wasn't already wasting by pretending to be busy on the computer and drumming my fingers on the desk.

     But she didn't need to know that. 

     Amanda was nodding, as though she understood.

     "I need your help because . . . "

     I was about to tell her to speak up when I noticed wetness on her cheeks that hadn't been there before.  I shut my mouth hard enough for my teeth to clack together.

     She sniffled once, quietly.

     "Because Mary is dead."

     "I'm going to assume, because you're here, that you don't think Mary's death was an accident."

     Amanda nodded, sniffled again.

     I brought out a box of kleenex from the desk and pushed it across the desktop to her.  She accepted it without a word and dried her cheeks. 

"Okay," I said.  "Tell me from the beginning."

 

 

 

 

3

 

     It turns out Mary had been strangled.  You didn't need to be a detective, private or otherwise, to figure that out. Turn on the local news at any given night and you're likely to hear about something similar. Pay attention, though, the bit never lasts long. Asphyxiation of hookers in Middleton is nothing new.

     It wasn't much of a surprise, either.  You have sex for money and chances are sooner or later someone is going to show up who wants to choke you.  Whether it’s just a game to that person or not, it's a gamble you have to take if you want your payday.

     From what Amanda had told me, the scenario seemed to fit.  Mary's body had turned up in a dumpster last week.  Not professional.  She had shared an apartment with Amanda and sometimes brought work home; the dumpster had been in an alley behind their building.  Very unprofessional.

     Other than rot, Mary's body had been intact.  Fingers, teeth, head, extremities.

     So, so unprofessional.

     She'd had sex prior to death, according to the coroner.  The assailant had worn a condom.  Smart on his part, but that was about it for the level of killer we were dealing with.

     Yet, despite the few blunders made, this type of thing happened often enough that the police weren't optimistic about catching him.

     They told Amanda as much.

     So Amanda came to me.

     I told her the same.

     She didn't care.

     I told her the case was too old.

     She didn't care.

     I told her she shouldn't waste her money (against my better judgment, but sometimes you can't shake ethics).

     She insisted.

     Because Mary was special. 

4

 

     Middleton is a relic. Picture every movie you've seen depicting post-apocalyptic wastelands with vast hulks of ancient machinery slowly rotting away under the elements and you'll have an idea of the structures that haunt a great deal of the thoroughfares in town.  We haven't quite reached the dust-bowl stage of Mad Max yet, but give it time.

     I suppose you could call it a West-coast version of Detroit.  During the early part of the last century, Middleton (then Middle-Town - the brainchild of some uncreative founding sap) thrived as a rapidly growing Californian Mecca for blue-collar job seekers.  Families arrived in droves during the post World War decades.  Middle-Town upgraded to Middleton.  Life was good, as the saying goes.

     Then industry became a thing of the past.  No one cared about cars or manufacturing.  Computers were the new thing in town, and no one in Middleton knew shit about them.

     Factories closed, production lines ground to a halt.  Banks worked overtime serving foreclosure notices. 

     Like Detroit, you can't come close to calling Middleton a ghost town.  What you can call it is a wasted husk of its former self. 

     Every once in a while you'll catch a documentary on TV about it.  The narrator remarks for a time on the tragedy - the jobs lost, the poverty, the shame of a once-proud populace - before moving on to brighter times in another part of the country. Usually complete with soft, light-hearted background music toward the end.

     Somewhere along the line Middleton became "Metal."  The name is not official, but an affectionate term dubbed by the locals.  Only maybe affectionate is the wrong word.  The nickname stuck because of all the junkyards that sprang up in the wake of the mass closure of factories and plants, and because of the wasted structures that now paint the city's skyline.

     The weather here seems to compliment the rest of the town's atmosphere; perpetual gray from an overcast sky, cool temperatures, and frequent fog banks all contribute to the melancholy which pervadeseverywhere.  You'll usually catch a glimpse of the sun during dawn and dusk.  Any time other than that and you're lucky. 

     Life goes on in Metal, like it does anywhere else in the world.  C'est la vie and all that.

     My office is a rented space in one of the smaller abandoned factories located on the East side of town.  Someone with a little money tried to renovate itas an office complex and draw in some executive types.  It was a poor effort in general, and I don't imagine they pulled in much money.  The building was sold, and sold again.  Currently there is only one other occupied office in the building. Leased by one Madam Shumway.  She's an older woman who looks like she's had a little too much of life. She operates a bogus spiritual guidance business that I'm fairly sure is a cover for something else.

     It was in that office that Amanda visited me for the first and only time.  And I suppose you could say it was there where everything spiraled out of control. 

     Everything has to start somewhere, right?  Point A.

     5

 

     I decided to start with Mary's pimp.  Amanda told me it was a man Floyd Rose. When I asked if Mary had suffered any difficulties with Rose she said no.  No more than the usual pimp/prostitute relationship. 

     Mary had always paid up on time.  Rose was never sweet on her; Amanda informed me that he had never been one of "those" pimps.  But neither had he ever sought her out as a scapegoat. 

     And apparently the customer satisfaction rating was high enough to earn her a spot in the periphery, out of the direct line of Rose's vision. 

     It sure as hell wasn't much.  But Amanda couldn't think of anyone else by name that Mary might have known.  I'd had her write down everything she could remember about Mary's interactions during the last few weeks, and this turned up the best place to start.

     Rose liked his girls to walk in the North Park area by Raley's Boulevard.  It was a hot spot and cops liked to bust a girl every now and then.  But, like any business, prostitution is about location, and the North Park area brought in a good amount of income just from the sheer volume of traffic.

     Rose operated out of the Chicken Pie Shop, Amanda had said.  I spotted it sandwiched between a pawn and an abandoned building.  The sign out front showed a grinning cartoon chicken giving the thumbs-up above the name.

     Parking wasn't hard to find in this area of town, and I pulled my Charger into the alley two buildings down.

     I'm never worried about theft with my car for two reasons. the engine runs decent enough once you get it going, but starting up or shutting down it pops and backfires like a shooting range.

     The other reason is it's a '76. Prior owners had given it such poor upkeep that by the time it came into my hands the frame was ninety percent Bondo.

     The sky was overcast and I put on my jacket as I climbed from the car.  I'm one of those people who never gets used to the cold, no matter how long I've lived in it.  I'm just not built for it, I suppose. 

     Rose was where Amanda had said he'd be: in the corner table, his back to the wall like he was the fucking don of North Park and didn't want someone sneaking up on him. 

     He was reading a newspaper.  When I walked in, jangling the bell above the door, he looked up and eyed me from head to toe.  Even from across the room I noticed his gaze lingering on my chest and waist.

     Then he was back to his paper, having dismissed me as someone with which he needn't concern himself.

     Mistake.

     But I didn't have to let him know that right now.

     I walked to the counter and smiled at the greasy-faced kid behind the register.  He didn't smile back, just raised his eyebrows, which, as far as I could tell, was the only indication he wasn't completely vacant.

     "What's a chicken pie?" I said.

     "Ohhuh?"

     His mouth was hanging open.

     "Sweetie, your mouth.  A fly'll get in there."

     He scowled.  Somehow this expression made him seem vaguer than before. "What do you want to get?"

     "Tell me what a chicken pie is first."

     "It's like pot pie.  You know? You buy them in the freezer section."

     "Like at a grocery store."

     "Yeah."

     "And you sell them here?"

     "Yeah?"

     "You're not asking me, sweetie."

     His face fell slack for a moment, then, as if the REBOOT button had been pressed in his brain: "Did you want one?"

     "No, that sounds awful.  I will have a Diet-Coke, though."

     I paid for my drink and left the poor kid to stare into the middle-distance and think about whatever was going through his head, if anything. 

     Rose was on the phone by the time I turned away from the register.  I went and sat down opposite him at his table.  He scowled at me and raised a finger telling me he'd be a minute.

     I smiled my sweet smile, hoping it would have a better effect than it had on the kid, and reached out and took his phone.  I shut it and put it on the table between us. 

     "I need to talk to you about Mary Hollisworth," I said.

     His expression changed from one of surprise at having his phone taken from him by an attractive female, to one of defiance.

     "Fuck off."

     "Can't.  I'm on the clock."

     "You'll be off the clock in a minute if you don't fuck off outta here."

     I shook my head.

     "Where'd you learn such one-liner's Rosie? They're bad for you."

     This seemed to confuse him because he opened his mouth, shut it, only to have it fall open one more time.

     "You can't make me talk to you," he said.  "Even if you arrest me.  You arresting me?"

     He was twitching.  I was surprised I hadn't noticed it before.  It wasn't bad, but it was enough to notice.  And it got worse when he was nervous.

     Rose drummed his fingers on the table top, then changed it up to rapping his knuckles.

     "I'm not arresting you," I said.

     "No?"

     The hand was withdrawn from the table.  He was doing his best to stare me down.  I grinned and stared back.

     "Nope."

     His twitching slowly subsided.  He began to return my smile.  Looking at it formed an unpleasant ball in my lower abdomen. 

     "You're not a cop."

     "Never said I was."

     "You're not a cop," he said again.  He was almost laughing now.  Mood swings.  Probably using the same product he used on his employees to keep them dependent on him.

     "You said that."

     "Means you really can't do nothing to me."

     "Don't think so?"

     He laughed this time.  A raspy bark that spoke of too many cigarettes.  "No."

     I lunged, snagging a fistful of his thinning hair.  My intent was to bring his head down against the table but out of reflex he pulled away and I had no leverage. So I simply followed his motion until I was kneeling on the table in front of him.  His eyes were wide and I could see he was opening his mouth to scream.

     I punched him in the face.

     Not hard, not nearly enough to knock him out.  It was more a love tap - right to the bridge of the nose.  His eyesimmediately watered and he sucked in a shocked snort.

     It was enough.

     Hauling back I brought my arms down, his head with them, against the table.

     I let go and his head came back up slowly.

     A quick glance at the register revealed the pimple-faced kid was gone.  He'd either seen what happened and was hiding or calling the police, or he was simply out back getting baked.

     I decided to bet on the last one and sidled over to Rose's side of the table. I put my arm over his shoulder in a chummy gesture and his dazed eyes rolled over to focus on me. 

     With my other hand I jabbed the barrel of my .38 special into his lower flank. I wasn't trying to hurt him.  I was just letting him know it was there.

     Understanding flashed across his face.

     "You think anyone gives a shit about a small-time like you?" I said.

     He was focused on me now.  The twitching was gone, replaced by fear.

     "The cops sure as hell don't.  They wouldn't waste anymore energy on you than they have on Mary."

     I took a moment, never dropping my gaze from his, letting my words sink in.

     "I don't give a shit either."

     I pressed the gun further into his stomach and his eyes dropped for a moment.

     "But I'm getting paid to do this, so you're going to give me something to work with before I leave."

     The silence that stretched out lasted a long time.  I held his gaze through all of it.

     Finally he spoke.

     "I don't know who killed her."

     This time I was silent.  If he was gathering his thoughts I'd let him.

     "Girls die all the time," he said.  "She wasn't special.  Some guy got excited and smothered the bitch while they were at it.  I'd have caught him he'd be a dead man. But I didn't."

     "She was choked.  Not smothered."

     "Ends up the same, don't it?"

     Over time in this job you develop a sense of when someone is lying and when he or she isn't.  It's not a hundred percent, and it wont hold up in court, but it will tell you when to pursue something further.

     Floyd Rose was telling the truth.

     Still, I tried.

     "She have personal troubles?"

     "Girls don't have personal lives.  They do and I find out about it we have a talk."

     "Your talk involve fists?"

     He glared at me.  He was getting his balls back - or thought he was.

     "Any repeat clients?"

     "A few."

     "Who?"

     "Don't know names.  We ain't that high-class, you said so yourself."

     I was overstaying my welcome now.  Any minute the kid would come back to the register, see the blood on his boss's face and figure out something was wrong. I didn't know if he'd put it all together and call the cops, but I didn't want to take that chance.

     "Rose," I said.

     "Yeah?"

     The defiance was back in his voice.  Mister tough guy again - even though he'd just had his ass kicked by a girl.

     I brought the butt of my .38 down on his forehead opening a wide gash.

     "Bitch!"

     Blood was flowing, pouring down the side of his cheek, a red waterfall.

     "Just think of that next time you want to have a talk with one of your girls," I said.

     I left, jangling the bell again on my way out.  My Charger was untouched, where I had left it.  I took side-streets for almost two miles to make it back to the freeway.  I didn't think Rose would call the cops, but it didn't do to take chances.

     Says the girl that just beat up a guy in a public restaurant.

     Right.

6

 

     My next stop was Louis Credo.  Louis is a detective with the Middleton Police, a veteran of almost twenty years.  Middleton is his home.  He was born here, raised here.  He knows this city as though it were something living, a twin, perhaps; fraternal, but still sharing a bond.

     Louis is not a fan of mine.  Like most cops he is wary of private investigators. He cooperates where he must because the law states he is obligated, but he never hides his reluctance. 

     But Louis owes me, and he knows it.  I didn't save his life in a Dodge City-style shoot-out or anything so spectacular.

     What I did was keep a secret.  Louis is a drug-user.  Cocaine is his poison of choice.  The way I found out was nothing special, either. 

     I'd come into his office to see if he had anything to offer me concerning a case I'd been working.  I've always had a problem about entering without knocking, and more than a few times I've found something unpleasant on the other side of the door.  This time it was Louis chopping a line on his desk. 

     He had watched me without expression as I shut the door, and when it was latched, said, "So."

     "So."

     "You're either going to walk out that door and tell someone what you've seen, or I'm going to be able to do something for you to keep you quiet."

     That was it.  Louis was smart, and like anyone he just wanted to survive without a lot of trouble.  So I laid it out for him.  He was a good cop and so long as he didn't hurt anyone on the job because of his habit and fed me a little information now and then, I'd keep my lips shut.

     You might say Louis's habit is casual.  He uses maybe two or three times a week, when long hours prove too long and he needs that little boost to stay focused. 

     Spoken like a true addict, right?  Well, Louis, for all his dislike of me, is still a good officer.  Until the day he steps over the boundary I laid out for him, I'll keep our deal. 

     The day was waning when I entered his precinct building.  My watch showed after six and the sun was moving lower toward the horizon, painting the sky a pretty purple and orange mixture.  I wasn't sure if he'd still be there.

     His office was on the fifth floor.  I threaded my way through the teeming, scattered crowds of people who were leaving for the day, and took the elevator up. Inside, a muzak version of "Under Pressure" played.  There is always someone out there eager to ruin a good song.

     When I got to his office the door was shut.  I made sure to knock this time.

     "Come on."  Louis's voice from the other side.

     I went in and shut the door behind me.

     There was no coke on his desk, and the man himself was reclined in his chair, facing away from me with his feet propped up against the window sill.  His hands were clasped behind his head.

     Out the window I could see the sunset.

     The air was noticeably cooler in the office.  Louis always preferred the fresh air of an open window to artificial temperature.

     "Kinda warm, don't you think?" I said.

     "Had a feeling it was you."

     "Cop's intuition?"

     "Nope.  Someone spotted you coming in and warned me."

     "Not going to tell me who, are you?"

     From my angle all I could see was a hint of his profile, but when his cheek bulged I knew he was grinning.

     "And tell you who to look out for next time so you can sneak up on me?"

     "Yeah, I know.  Figured it was worth a shot."

     "Mmm."

     "Kind of late for you to still be here with your feet up."

     "I like to stay and watch the sun-set sometimes.  It's a good view from here."

     "It is."

     Silence, not uncomfortable, stretched between us.  After a few minutes I took a chair and sat to watch the sunset with him.

     A few minutes later it was gone, leaving the sky to darken on its own, the orange and purple both fading rapidly to gray.

     Louis turned.

     "Sorry to keep you waiting."

     "No you're not."

     He shrugged.

     "What is it this time, Mel?"

     "What do you know about Floyd Rose?"

     "Pimp of the prostitute killed not too long ago.  Not a suspect."

     "That all?"

     "You investigating that case?"

     It was my turn to shrug.

     "People pay me to look into things.  I look into them."

     He grunted. "Who is paying you on this one?"

     Ordinarily I'd keep my clients confidential.  But this was the game between me and Louis.  I held his secret, sure, but only up to a point.  If there wasn't a little give and take along the way he'd clam up, secret or no. 

     "Her friend," I said.

     "Her friend another hooker?"

     "Yes."

     "Wouldn't be that Amanda girl, would it?"

     "It might just.  How'd you know?"

     "She came sniffing around here shortly after the other one died.  Wondered why we weren't doing more."

     "You gave her the usual answer?"

     "It was the truth."

     "Hey I'm not judging."

     "I sure hope not, considering it's giving you business, which I hear hasn't been that lively of late."

     "Low blow."

     "Sue me."

     He reached into a desk drawer and brought out a pack of cigarettes.  He held them out to me and I shook my head.

     "Suit yourself."  He lit up and sucked a long drag.

     "I don't think you're allowed to do that inside."

     "Oh yeah, forgot about that."

     He took another drag and propped his feet up on the desk this time.  I caught a whiff of smoke as it curled and coiled, diffusing within the room.

     "Can you tell me anything else about Rose?"

     "Not too much.  He's your typical low-level operator, busted a few times on the usual things."

     "You're a big help."

     "I wasn't finished."

     "What else then?"

     "He's become a subsidiary as of late."

     "Yeah?"

     "Oh yeah.  Found himself in the realm of Gary Smalls within the last couple of months.

     Smalls was one of the biggest organized crime bosses in the City.  Maybe the biggest, though the behind-the-scenes power struggle of the bosses was always tipping the scales one way or another.

     "Smalls moved into the North Park area?"

     "Looks that way."

     "Why?"

     "Why does one of those guys ever expand?  More stuff means more power."

     "More complications."

     "Tell that to him.  I'm sure he'd love to hear from you."

     The smoke was getting thick now.  I coughed.  Louis grinned and blew a plume in my direction.

     "Fine, I get the hint."

     "What hint?"

     "You're a bastard."

     "Been called worse."

     I stood and walked to the door, then turned.  "Anything else you want to ad?"

     "Nope."

     I left Louis alone to finish his smoke and think about whatever men like him pondered at the end of the day.

7

 

     Any hint of sunlight had been completely erased and the glow of the city was reflecting against the darkness when my phone buzzed in my pocket.

     I pulled it out and sighed when I saw the caller ID: Louis.  The rumble of the Charger's engine had been acting as a soporific the last few minutes, and with my apartment building in sight, sleep was all I wanted right then.

     "Yeah?" I said into the phone.

     "You might want to head over to the Meyer's Road on-ramp to I-5."

     My pulse quickened.

     "Why is that?"

     "You might not be getting a paycheck for a while."

     "Shit."

     "Just get over here."

     There was a beep and connection died.

     Louis didn't have to say it out loud.  He wouldn't have bothered to call me at all unless it was something like this.

     Amanda Loebb was dead.

8

 

     I'll give it this: body-work issues aside, the Charger can move when it wants to.  There is something to be said for the original designers of American Muscle.

     I pulled over about a hundred yards from the scene of the incident.  The flashing lights acted as a beacon, a lighthouse warning sailors away from the rocks.

     The walk felt like miles, rather than a football field.

     Cloud cover had come in during last hour or so.  It happens that way sometimes.  Like I said, you never can tell with beach weather.

     My hands were in my pockets, avoiding the mild chill in the air.  My head had found a few more pounds of weight, and I let it sink forward.  Only when I got close did I lift it.

     Louis was standing just outside a cluster of other officers, both uniformed and plain-clothed.  They were gathered in a broken circle around what I knew was the body.  Every few seconds a flash went off as someone took a picture.  There was a low hum of conversation with the occasional raised voice issuing a command.

     "You look tired," said Louis, as I approached.

     "And you're pretty awake for having been at work all day."

     I wasn't in the mood for him at the moment, help or no help.

     "You know how it goes."

     "Yeah.  I do."

     He was silent.  I watched him out of the corner of my eye.  His eyes were on the body.  As usual there was nothing on his face, not even a twitch to indicate he felt anything.  Then, for only a second, his jaw twitched.  That was all, but I suppose it was enough.

     "What happened?" I said.

     "Other than the obvious?"

     "Sure."

     On the other hand, we both sounded tired.

     "Similar to the other girl.  Ms. Loeb here was strangled.  Post-mortem contusions and abrasions indicate she was dumped from a moving vehicle.  No sign of tire marks or anything to indicate they slowed down.  On the other hand, no broken bones so it wasn't too fast either."

     "That all you have?"

     "For now."

     "Think it's a serial killer?"

     "Maybe.  Won't know that until more turn up."

     "Unless you catch him first."

     "What makes you think it's a him?"

     "You know as well as I do statistics say female serials are rare."

     "But not impossible."

     I grunted.

     "It's not a gender war, Mel."

     I opened my mouth to snap back, but something in his tone stopped me; he was having a hard time with this - for whatever reason.  There was no point in arguing about stupid things right then.

     "You know you're the only person who has ever called me Mel besides my folks?"

     "Bet you hated that."

     "I did."

     "I'll have to remember that."

     He started to walk away, but said over his shoulder, "You can have a look, but don't get in the way and don't touch anything."

     He faded into the darkness and I turned back to the semi-circle before me.  I side-stepped until I was close enough to see.  God knows I didn't want to - didn't need to really, since it was my latest client who was dead there on the ground and no longer able to fork over a paycheck.

     I suppose I knew myself better than that, though.  I suppose Louis did, too.

     She was beautiful in death.  I hadn't noticed before.  Perhaps I was biased against the women who did what she did, against the profession anyway, and that had clouded my vision.

     Now, though, looking down at her illuminated by flashlights and flash-blubs, she was stunning.  Blue-eyed.  Brown hair that seemed to glow in the light.  Soft features.  Innocent.  Destroyed.

     I had called it.

     The thought made me sick, but I forced myself to look, taking in what detail I could, staying out of the way as Louis had asked. 

     When I'd seen enough, and was starting to attract annoyed looks from the official people, I backed off.  The darkness took me in like a cold blanket, blockingall but the dimmest beams of light from the scene. 

     Above me was a road sign, colored the green of freeway information.  North to LA, it said.  To me it looked like an exit sign out of Hell.

     Amanda had almost made it.

9

 

     I drove slow on the way home.  There didn't seem to be much point in rushing anymore. 

     On the way I thought about what I knew so far, and what it meant.  What I knew was little.  What it meant, so far, was absolutely nothing.

     Orange sodium lamps lit the freeway, and they seemed to shoot past in time with each thought.

     Two hookers were dead.  Both were young, both were too pretty for their work.  Not much of a connection there.

     They were friends and they lived together.  That was something.  No one yet knew why Mary had been killed.  But Amanda had died just hours after she came looking to me for help.  That sent alarm bells clanging in the back of my head. 

     Thus far I'd only spoken to two people about this.  I trusted Louis - grudgingly, but I did.  That didn't rule him out, though. 

     It was because of that trust, however, that I thought I would start with the other person to whom I'd spoken.  Floyd Rose would be getting a visit from me tonight.

     First, though, I was headed home.  I needed to shower, to eat.  No one can run for long on empty, and I was just about there.  A recharge wouldn't take long.

     My exit came up soon and I took the turn fast, relishing the faint squeal of tires on the near deserted road. A few minutes later I pulled into my parking space.

     I killed the engine and sat there under the overhang, listening to the click-click of a cooling engine.  Taking a moment, I stretched, feeling the tension in my muscles ease somewhat, and wondered if I could stave off sleep for another few hours. 

     Finally I got out.  I hip-checked the door shut, closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. 

     There was another click, different from the engine.  The voice of my older brother from years ago at the shooting range came back to me: That's a business sound.  You don't ever want to be on the other end of it.

     I opened my eyes.  Two men stood on either side of me; one near the hood my car, the other at the trunk.  The one at the trunk had a pistol pointed at me, held close to his waist. It was too dark to see the exact make of the gun.

     "You gents need help with something?"

     If they'd heard the tremor in my voice they didn't show it, which meant either they hadn't noticed it or they weren't here to exploit my fear through rape or some other Bad Thing. 

     For some reason, this didn't put me at ease.

     "Mr. Smalls would like a word," the one with the gun said.

     "Don't know him."

     "Doesn't matter.  He's heard of you."

     "What does he want?"

     "You can ask him."

     The voice came from behind me, almost in my ear. I yelped and whirled around.  I could have throttled myself in that moment.  The other man had managed to close the distance between us without me noticing.  Silently, as I watched - trying to regain my composure - he opened the passenger door of the car next to mine.

     "I need to frisk you and then you get in," he said.

     I watched him, not moving.

     "If you want to make this hard, we can oblige you.  Either way you will still see and speak to Mr. Smalls."

     Everything about this man said I would be wise to believe him.  They had made no move to actually harm me yet.  I decided to do as they asked, to keep things that way.

     I stood against the car, hands and legs spread, trying to will the shame from my face as his hands roamed over me.  He didn't linger anywhere, but covered everything.  My .38 was removed, along with the two reload cartridges I kept with me.

     "In."

     I slid into the seat and the door was shut behind me.  They followed a few seconds later, one driving, the other in the backseat directly behind me.  A minute later we were back on the freeway.

     Everyone was quiet. Outside it had been too dark to really see, but with the intermittent illumination from street lights, I could tell both of these men were professionally dressed. Not suits and ties, but clean, button-down shirts, khakis on the driver (I couldn't make out the other's pants because the side-view didn't reflect down that far). Just two white collar guys out for a drive with a lady friend.

     Apparently normal body-types, too; t least as far as long sleeves and pants would allow one to see.

     "Let me guess," I said to the driver. "Retired Special Forces?"

     He looked at me for a moment, then watched the road again.

     "Why do you say that?"

     "You guys blend in, don't look like what you really are."

     A hint of a smile teased the corners of his lips.

     "You found your calling," he said. "I hope you get to keep it."

     That shut me up. I settled back and watched the road.

     We followed the freeway South for several miles, and I began to wonder if we were heading for the boarder. We took an exit long before then, however, and after a few miles of side-streets and alleys, I began to lose track of where we were, which was probably the point.

     I was a little surprised when we pulled to the rear of an upscale looking office building by way of an alley. I had no idea what street we were on or what the address of the building was.

     "You could have just blindfolded me."

     "We're not worried about you finding the place," the driver said as he got out. While he walked around to open my door I pondered what that meant. By the time he opened the door I had decided he had been trying to prevent us from being followed.

     They led me in to the building through an unmarked door with a keypad lock. At the end of a hall, we took a service elevator to the eleventh floor. The top one if the buttons were to be trusted.

     Said floor was much more plush, I noticed, than the one through which we had entered. Burgundy carpet ran the length of the floor, blending with mahogany walls.

     My escorts led me two doors down into a small office. From the looks of it a secretary occupied it during the day: a small desk just off center, enough to block entrance to the large, wood double doors behind it.

     Driver Man stepped forward and knocked twice.

     "Enter," said a voice from within.

     Driver Man pushed the door open and held it for us as we walked through.

     It was a larger office. One that looked like it had been chopped out of the Harvard library. The same floor and wall scheme as the hall was present here, except the walls were lined with rows and rows of books - all set on inlayed bookshelves.

     In the center of the room, in front of a large pane window overlooking the nightscape of the city, was a huge oak desk.

     Standing behind it, waiting for me, was Gary Smalls.

10

 

     We regarded each other in silence for a moment. Then he nodded to the two men who'd brought me here.

     "That will be all."

     Without a word they retreated from the room, closing the doors behind them.

     "Do you know who I am?" he said.

     "Gary Smalls."

     "Very good."

     "Not really."

     "Why do you say that?"

     His voice was smooth, educated.

     "Your picture makes it to the paper every now and then. You're not exactly a subtle persona in the public eye."

     He flashed a smile. White teeth against black skin - they gleamed in the otherwise dim light.

     Smalls was dressed in a pinstripe vest and slacks. His shirt was buttoned, his tie straight. His coat was draped over the desk chair. It was the only thing that hinted at a sense of informality.

     He gestured to a chair in front of his desk.

     "I'd rather stand," I said.

     "It's a comfortable chair, I promise."

     "You get blood clots if you sit too long."

     A smile.

     "Suit yourself." He reached into his desk and brought out a cigar.

     I'm not a connoisseur, but it looked expensive.

     "Do you smoke?" he said.

     I shook my head.

     "Oh. Well then."

     He set the stogie down.

     "Don't stop on my account."

     "It's not polite to smoke in front of guests."

     "Is that what I am?"

     "I'd like to think so."

     "And what should I think?"

     He came around to the front of his desk and leaned against it. "You're a careful woman aren't you?"

     "Why do you say that?"

     "You're staying close to the door in case I try to harm you. Easier to miss with a gun from farther away, the doors make for fast escape."

     "It pays to be careful."

     "It does at that. You especially."

     "What does that mean?"

     "You don't see many women in your line of work . . . let alone attractive ones."

     "That has what to do with anything?"

     "Are you saying no one has ever underestimated your intelligence, or anything else about you because of the way you look?"

     I thought of Floyd Rose, smirking at me from across the table.

     "Once or twice."

     He shrugged.

     "Then I'm just commenting on the way things are."

     "I'm glad to see you're so socially conscious. Why am I here?"

     Smalls pushed himself off the desk and went to stand in front of the window. He didn't move fast, his motions were always fluid.  I got the impression that this man was never still for very long.

     "You're here because I want to help you," he said.

     "With what?"

     "You can pretend all you want, Ms. May, and make this difficult, or you can lay it out on the table and this can go smoothly."

     "Lay what out?"

     A sigh.

     "The case on which you're currently working."

     "I'm not on a case. My last client was killed. Recently, too."

     "So I've heard. But I had this inkling that you might still be nosing around."

     "Oh not me. I don't nose. It's bad for you, like blood clots."

     Smalls turned and smiled at me. The hair prickled on the back of my neck and forearms.

     "It can be very bad for you, you're right."

     "Besides," I said. "Why would you think I was nosing? You don't even know me."

     "Like I said: Just an inkling."

     I decided to take a risk. I crossed the room to the chair in front of the desk and sat. This got me raised eyebrows.

     "Not worried anymore?" he said.

     "Even if I did make it out the door something tells me your guys on the other side wouldn't let me get far."

     "They are very competent."

     "Retired Special Forces?"

     He chuckled, but didn't answer.

     "So," I said. "Suppose I was nosing, against my better judgment. Why would you want to help little old me?"

     "Because the person who killed those girls is my son."

11

 

     I was a tomboy growing up. Consequently I did things like play in little-league and other boy things.

     I remember my last game. It was a spring afternoon: around the time when the weather turns just a little too warm, making it uncomfortable to stay outside for very long. I was centerfield - my best position - and we were six innings in.

     The batter was a girl named Judy Hendricks. I don't know why I remember that, but I do. She sent a pop-fly in my direction. The ball seemed to go up, up, up for miles until it was lost in the sun.

     I don't know how long I stood there with my glove up, trying to see the ball and only seeing my vision go white from the sun instead. It felt like a very long time.

     And suddenly it was there, eclipsing the sun and about a foot from my face and closing the distance fast. There was a crack! and a lot of pain, and the next thing I remember was waking up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

     Besides the pain, the only thing I really felt was surprise. A kind of sure-didn't-see-that-coming! sensation.

     I felt something akin to that when Gary Smalls laid it on me that his son was responsible for the deaths of both my client and her friend.

     "How do you know?" I said. I could think of nothing else. I hadn't even known there existed a smaller Smalls.

     "I don't. Not so it would hold up in court, anyway."

     "And you'd know something about that, wouldn't you?"

     "A little."

     Through the window, far enough away so that any noise wouldn't reach, a plane, presumably full of passengers, descended for its final approach into Lindberg Field.

     I began to wonder if the office wasn't sound-proofed completely. Then I remembered the doors: traditional wood paneling, normal thickness. It wouldn't be smart to conduct that kind of business here.

     But then, we were also alone.

     "So . . . what is it you want from me?"

     "I want you to find him. That's what you do, isn't it?"

     "I'm not a tracker."

     Smalls moved back to the desk. He sat, picked up the stogie he'd put down earlier and brought it to his lips. From his pocket he produced a lighter and lit it. He watched me the entire time.

     "I'm a patient person," he said.

     "I never said otherwise."

     "In my business you might not think it, but it's necessary."

     "You're right. I didn't think it."

     "But my patience is waning."

     Silence. Not the comfortable kind.

     "This isn't a request," he said.

     During the course of my career, from the time when I hung my shingle almost fifteen years ago and started taking clients, I've had more than a few occasions where someone tried to back me down by talking. Most of the time - for practical purposes I'd venture to say all the time - said people are bluffing. Floyd Rose had been bluffing. It had taken more than talk to show him so, but that's because I can read people, and ones like Rose will never accept anything but action from a woman.

     Then there are people like Gary Smalls. These are the one-in-a-million crowed. They make the most successful politicians, generals and admirals, and yes, organized crime bosses. In those areas they are the elite of the elite. And when they try to back you down, they are never bluffing.

     Gary Smalls watched me.

     "You understand, don't you?" he said.

     "Yes."

     "Good. Are you ready to listen?"

     "Yes."

     He paused for another puff from his cigar.

     "You are going to find my son. And when you do you are going to notify me, and I will take care of it from there."

     "By take care of it you mean kill him."

     "I mean I will take care of it. Any meaning you choose to put into that phrase is yours alone."

     "I don't know if I can do it."

     "Why not? You will be compensated."

     "I can't find someone just so they can be murdered."

     "Your brother, Duane May, is a resident of Bend, Oregon. He currently works at the Harrington Mill, though he has a degree in agriculture obtained from the University of San Francisco in ninety-four. He was engaged for a brief period of time to Holly McCullough. The engagement was ended three months prior to the wedding date."

     There was no way I could misread the intended meaning behind the brief bio of my brother.

     "He is your only surviving family."

     No way.

     "I'll need more information on your son if you want me to find him."

     "When you leave one of my men outside will hand you two envelopes. One contains all the information you should need to be able to find my son. The other contains payment for your services."

     "I won't take money for this."

     "It's not an option."

     I waited to see if there would be anything else. Smalls leaned back in his chair after tapping ash into a tray on his desk.

     "Get the fuck out of my office," he said.

     I rose and went to the door.

     "If I find something you don't want me to know along the way?" I said.

     "I wouldn't worry about it."

     Outside the office, the same man who had driven me handed me the envelopes. I didn't open them. My .38, sans bullets, and cell phone were also returned to me.

     They escorted me down stairs to the ground floor. The other man opened the door leading outside for me. "Have a nice night," he said. The door was shut and latched before I could reply.

     "I guess I'm finding my own way home," I said. 

12

 

     I walked for a block until I found an intersection identifying where I was and called a taxi. It was close to four in the morning when I arrived home.

     Bagel was waiting for me. Bagel is a mutt I found wandering the street outside my apartment three years ago. He was munching on a scrap of dried moldy bagel when I saw him. He was all black, though he had the shape of a border collie.

     He didn't run when I approached. Instead he came up to me, grinning like most dogs do. My heart broke and from that point on I had a dog.

     A day later when the vet asked me his name, all I could think of was the dried scrap I'd found him with. Thus, Bagel he was dubbed.

     He was all wiggles this morning. I let him out, lest the wiggles be because of an overfull bladder instead of joy upon seeing me. I watched him scamper down the steps and squat in the front lawn. He looked around nervously while he peed, then, finished, plastered the grin back on his face and charged back up the steps to me. He was still wiggling, and that made me feel good.

     "Get a little worried?" I said. "Thought I wasn't coming back?"

     Bagel pressed his side against my leg and looked upward, panting.

     "Yeah you were worried. Don't deny it."

     We went inside. I fed him, which distracted him long enough so I could sit down and peel open the envelope - the one with the information in it, not the money - and take a look.

     I should have been exhausted, but I could tell sleep wouldn't find me for another few hours.

     And it would have been foolish of me not to take Smalls's warning seriously.

     I dumped the contents out on the dining table. It turned out there was just a single folder, not very thick, inside. Opening it, I saw the first page was a copy of a police report. Clipped to it, up in the corner was a picture of the person I assumed was the son in question. I put it aside and read the report.

     Smalls Junior - or Raphael (a name I couldn't help thinking was pretentious, even for a crime-boss) - had been quite busy during his twenty-three years.

     His first arrest occurred at the ripe age of twelve, for stripping a stereo from a bait car. When the cops caught up with him a block later and tried to apprehend him, he managed to brain one of them with the radio and make it another half-block before being tackled.

     Things only got better from there. Theft was his specialty, it seemed, though he had three arrests with no convictions for suspected rape. Lack of evidence it turned out.

     All three of the witnesses seemed to have sudden cases of sketchy memory when put on the stand. It made me wonder if Papa Smalls had decided to intervene. Theft could carry a light sentence depending on a few variables. Rape and sex crimes didn't really carry such an option.

     But now Smalls wanted his son dead.

     I had no doubt that execution was what waited for Raphael when I found him.

     Or for my brother (and myself) if I refused.

     From across the kitchen, Bagel crunched his food happily, oblivious to such things as murdered hookers, and inexplicably vengeful crime-boss fathers.

     I took another look at the picture of Raphael. He obviously was his father's son. The bone structure was too similar to discount that. But his skin was far lighter. Almost white. In fact if he'd been built with a smaller bone-structure, he'd look like any other tan Caucasian.

     His hair was shaved down to bare scalp. His ears were gaged with huge disks, and a centrally located pockmark below his lip hinted at a prior piercing there, too.

     Below, just before the picture cut off, I could make out hints of tattoos just below his clavicles. The photo was a mug-shot. The only article of clothing visible was a wife-beater undershirt. `

     Raphael's expression was bored, as though he'd been through the process too many times to count. Judging from his size (Six-six in height, according to the measure on the side of the photo) it was taken recently. He wasn't thin, either. Definitely proportional and then some to his stature.

     There wasn't much else to the packet, and I wondered just how Gary Smalls expected me to go about finding his son based off the minimal information here.

     Then I saw the name of the officer on the first report: Louis Credo. I thumbed through to the next report.

     Credo.

     The next.

     Credo.

     The next.

     Louis Credo.

     I closed my eyes and rubbed at my forehead. Sleep might just come quicker than I thought.

     My cell buzzed on the table where I'd placed it next to the paperwork. I didn't recognize the number when I picked it up.

     "Yeah."

     "I forgot to tell you something."

     Gary Smalls.

     "Yes?"

     "I'm going to need him by tomorrow morning."

     "Why?" I said, but he'd already hung up.

13

 

      Maybe sleep wasn't coming so fast after all. I looked at my phone for a few seconds, then dialed.

     "Hello?"

     The voice on the other end was groggy, thick with sleep.

     "Good morning, Louis."

     Labored breathing, then: "Do you know what time it is, Mel?"

     "Time for you to tell me about Raphael Smalls."

     This time I couldn't hear him breathing during the silence.

     "You there?" I said. "Or did you fall asleep on me?"

     "Fuck you, May."

     "Last names now?"

     "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't hang up."

     "I want to know why your name is one a bunch of police reports regarding Raphael Smalls."

     "How would you know about that?"

     "I think the bigger concern is what I'm going to do if you don't start telling me everything. Now."

     "No."

     "No?"

     A sigh.

     "Relax, Mel. I'll give you what you want, just not right now."

     "You waiting on something special? Because I'm on a bit of a schedule here."

     "What do you mean?"

     "I mean I just had a conversation with Senior Smalls that was less than pleasant. And I'm not giving you any more than that until you give me your end of things. So when do you start talking?"
     "Okay, okay. Tomorrow evening. I'll make sure to be off early."

     "I'll come to the station."

     "No, not there."

     "Why?"

     "Do I really have to tell you?"

     I thought about Louis's habit.

     "No," I said. "I guess not."

     "Outside the quarry off East Parkland. Six O'clock."

     He hung up.

14

 

     A funny thing about the human psyche: death is never a real threat until you start seeing the infamous white light at the end of the tunnel. What I mean is a person can know something is dangerous, might very well kill him or her, and do it anyway. A teenage boy might be threatened by an angry father to stay away from his daughter otherwise he might kill the boy. Chances are the boy will go ahead and pursue the daughter anyway.

     Because death is never real until you face it.

     That might explain why shortly after hanging up with Louis, I staggered to the couch in the living room and passed out. As I drifted off the sensation of Bagel putting his head on my lap managed to penetrate my disengaging consciousness.

     Then I was gone.

     Even though I had been told by Middleton's most powerful crime boss I had essentially a day to live unless I got cracking on his request.

     Fear is a powerful motivator, but fatigue is an equally powerful sedative.

     I woke just before three in the afternoon. Some people can't sleep with sun shining in their faces. I've never had such a problem.

     Rested didn't exactly describe how I felt upon awakening. I was groggy, out of it, and my tongue had a sand-papery texture like I was hung-over.

     I dragged myself from the couch, though, and made it into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee.

     Bagel heard me and came padding down the hall from my bedroom. He looked at me, then the front door.

     "Yeah, yeah," I said.

     I went the door and let him out. My clothes shifted uncomfortably on my body. There was a grimy, worn sensation to my bra and underwear that was distinctly uncomfortable.

     Bagel took his time doing his business, so I left the door open for him and went to pour myself a mug of wake-up juice.

     The bitter liquid felt good as it hit my tongue. This and a shower would get me going again.

     Leaving the door open I went down the hall to my bathroom, removing clothes as I went, leaving a trail.

     The shower did its intended work, washing away the rest of the groggy sensation. I left it short and sweet, though the temptation to linger under the stinging spray was strong. I didn't have time for that. Rested, the sense of a ticking clock was more urgent.

     Wrapping a towel around myself I stepped from the bathroom to see if Bagel had finished his business yet. He had, and was lying in the living room going to work on a rawhide.

     I hadn't given him a rawhide. The ones I had were kept on a high shelf in the kitchen, out of his reach.

     "Where did you get that?" I said. Maybe one of the neighbors had given it to him. He was a friendly dog and would go up to anyone, panting and wagging his tail.

     Bagel looked at me from the corners of his eyes, but didn't divert his attention from the rawhide.

     A neighbor could have given it to him, sure, but something wasn't sitting right. There was a nagging, inarticulate voice in the back of my head and the only message it conveyed was something wasn't right.

     A chill, separate from the evaporating beads of moisture on my skin, wriggled and slithered up my arms and down the base of my spine.

     The door still stood open and I went to close it.

     On the ground, just inside, was a picture. I stooped to retrieve it, holding my towel in place as I did so.

     A dead girl, recognizable as Mary Hollisworth, gazed at something out of frame with glassy eyes. Bruises were visible around her neck. Her face took up most of the frame, and I could see nothing that stood out to me about the corpse that I didn't already know.

     I flipped the photo over and saw the note.

     Ask Detective Credo about her. You shouldn't have slept so long.

     That was all.

     I shut the door and went inside. This time Bagel didn't even look up from his treat.

     "Traitor," I said.

     His chewing noises followed me into the bedroom where I put on fresh clothes. When I returned to the living room he was waiting for me at the end of the hall, grinning.

     "Finished already?"

     He wasn't. I could see the half-chewed thing on the floor behind him.

     Bagel was never the most intelligent mutt, and he proved it again by moving as if to come to me and walking into the wall. He staggered back and looked at the barrier as if he couldn't figure out where it had come from.

     I giggled. This was a common occurrence with him. He was always bumping his head on things while focused on something else.

     "Come on, goof," I said. "Here."

     I squatted, patting my thighs.

     He came toward me again and fell on his face.

     My laughter was reflexive. It cut off almost before it started. Strangely, it sounded like I'd barked. I was up and running to him then.

     He vomited a thin, milky substance onto the carpet as I knelt beside him. It wasn't a projectile thing, though. The stuff just kind of poured from his mouth, which hung open.

     Bagel convulsed once, and more white stuff poured from his mouth. I screamed. My dog lay still on the hall carpet before me. I reached out and touched him. He was warm, soft.

     And unmoving.

     Sightless eyes, a mimic of Mary's in the picture, now sat atop his head.

     "Jesus," I said. "Oh Jesus."

15

 

     I paused long enough to wrap Bagel in a garbage bag and take his body to the trunk of my car, I remember that. During the entire time a crazy jingle from a commercial I'd seen once upon a time repeated itself over and over in my head: Hefty-Hefty-Hefty . . . wimpy-wimpy-wimpy!

     Then I had my gun, heavy in a side-holster under my jacket, and I was screaming South on the freeway toward Smalls's office.

     My phone rang.

     I let it ring until it went to voice mail. I pressed harder on the gas.

     The phone rang again.

     Fumbling, one hand on the wheel, I took it out. The number was restricted. I brought it to my ear.

     "You better have your affairs in order," I said.

     "Don't do anything you'll regret," Smalls said.

     "Regret? Regret? You killed my dog! "

     Spittle flew on the last one.

     "I didn't think you were properly motivated. Turns out you still aren't."

     "I'm motivated all right."

     "To do something you shouldn't."

     I was still in a rage. Adrenaline still squeezed my chest in its fist, urging me on. But logic was beginning to make an appearance.

     "You're having me followed right now."

     "Since last night when you went home. Followed and watched."

     "And because I wasn't moving fast enough you did this?"

     It was the coldness in his voice that did it. He truly did not care that he had extorted and murdered (albeit a dog, but my dog, and one I had loved) to get his way.

     He had the power to do anything he wanted and get away with it. Anything.

     I eased up on the gas. The car slowed.

     "Good girl," he said.

     Someone behind me honked, and I switched into a slower lane.

     "Did you get the picture?"

     "And the note."

     "Good. Talk to Credo tonight. Ask him about that, and anything else you require."

     "Okay."

     "I'm glad you're cooperating."

     I was quiet.

     "I need you tell me you understand, Melissa."

     There was a tone of warning in his voice.

     "I understand," I said.

     "Goo -"

     "Now let me tell you this."

     "You're not in a position to -"

     "If you harm anyone else I care about, if you touch my brother or threaten him, if you do anything else that even reminds me of what you've done today, I will kill you."

     "Not wise."

     "You wanted me on this case for a reason. I'm on it. Keep what I said in mind."

     I hung up and turned off my phone.

16

 

     Louis had said six o'clock. It still wasn't quite four yet. I saw no point in ditching my tail - I hadn't yet tried to spot it. Smalls would invariably provide another one. That, or he had multiple ones on me already.

     And I had pushed my luck enough with that little stunt on the phone. I wasn't one-hundred percent sure there wouldn't be repercussions for that either.

     One thing at a time, though. I'd worry about what Smalls might or might not do later.

     I didn't feel much like eating, but decided I'd better force something down anyway. I took an exit a few miles up the freeway and drove until I saw something that looked edible.

     The sign out front proclaimed it as the STEAK FACTORY. The building itself could have been in better shape, but it wasn't bad, and neither was the neighborhood. Across the street was a children's park. And judging from the amount of kids and their families I saw, people weren't afraid to visit.

     Plus, the smell wafting from the building was doing a number on my salivatory glands. I went inside and had to immediately swallow, lest I drool on the floor. Generally not a good impression to make.

     "What'll the lady have?"

     The man behind the counter asking was short and bald. Something like a friendlier looking James Gandolfini. His name-tag read SAL.

     "Never been here," I said. "What do you recommend?"

     "Hey I make it, it's good. You saying something I make ain't good?"

     He was grinning at me.

     "Nah. I'd never do that to you, Sal."

     "The lady knows my name. And a pretty one at that. I think I die happy tonight."

     "If your food taste half as good as it smells you'd be depriving us all."

     "Circle of life my dear. It happens to everyone."

     He must have seen my face crumble before I could repair it to its false cheerfulness.

     "Hey now. Pretty lady having a bad day in my shop brings bad luck."

     "Sorry," I said. I was already regaining my composure.

     "'S okay." He leaned forward. "Sometimes ya gotta let a little out now and then. Hear?"

     I nodded.

     "Now. What'll it be?"

     "You still haven't told me what's good."

     "Ahh."

     He made a fist and shook it at me, but he was still grinning.

     "Tell you the truth, you can't go wrong with the classic. Give you a small cheese-steak. How's that sound? I make it with swiss instead of the regular glop. I think it tastes better that way."

     "Sounds good, Sal."

     "I'll have it out for ya in a minute."

     He left the register and I watched him go to work on the griddle for a moment. Peppers, onions, steak, and something from a homemade seasoner which I guessed would be his own recipe. The cheese would go on last. I wasn't from back east where the famous sandwich originated, but I still knew that much.

     I took my seat, not wanting Sal to feel like I was watching over his shoulder.

     My seat was a booth by the window. I watched the kids play on the jungle-gym across the street. The noise of their playing - shouts, screams, laughter - reached me faintly through the glass.

     Once, I had played like that. So long ago it felt like the first chapter in a very long book; you wade through enough pages and your starting point fades to a barely recognizable thing surrounded by fog.

     But I had been that happy child once. Before everything had gone south.

     Duane had saved me.

     More than once, come to think of it.

     I owed him.

     "Food for the lady."

     Sal slid a plate containing the best looking and best smelling sandwich I'd ever seen in front of me, breaking my train of thought.

     "Get you anything else?"

     He stood back with his hands clasped behind him, like an artist admiring his latest work before it's dissected by the masses.

     "No thanks," I said.

     "Well then you enjoy. And don't let it keep you down," he said. "Things? They always get better."

     "Thank you," I said, touched. "What do I owe you?"

     "You tell me your name and say you'll come back, it'll be payment enough."

     I knew better than to try and argue my way into paying. When you're presented with a genuine gift, even something as small as a sandwich and an act of kindness, you don't take away from it by trying to buy it.

     "Melissa," I said. "And I'll definitely be back."

     "Ah, good. That's what an old man likes to hear."

     He went back to the kitchen. After a while I heard him scraping the grill and cleaning up.

     I lost myself in the food. It tasted every bit as good as its scent promised. For a few wonderful minutes, my mind was clear.

     When I was finished I brought my plate up to the counter, intending to say goodbye to my new friend. He was gone, however, leaving a sign with a little paper clock on it saying he was out for a smoke and would be back in ten minutes.

     It must have been a good neighborhood, or Sal was very well liked, or both, for him to leave the store unattended like that.

     I still had over an hour to kill before finding my way to the quarry. A good portion of that would be eaten by the drive there, but I could take a few minutes.

     I wandered across the street and sat on a bench at the outskirts of the park and I watched the kids. I felt like, if I thought about it hard enough, I could remember being that happy.

17

 

     I pulled into the quarry at a quarter past. Late.  As the Charger grumbled to a halt I looked around and couldn't find Louis's car. Glancing down I saw the light on my phone blinking, indicating I had a message.

     "It's Credo. I'm running late. Wait for me."

     I hung up and shoved the phone in my pocket. I wasn't surprised by Louis's lateness. He'd said he'd try to be here and get off work early, but come on. One little thing could come up and Louis would stay until that little thing was resolved or was stable enough to wait until the morning.

     And, knowing that, it meant I could be here for a while.

     Clock ticking or no, there was little else I could do. I'd had no real leads thus far, and what little information I did have had circled me right back to Louis. So here I would wait.

     Gradually, the sun dipped lower on the horizon until it disappeared all together. Hulks of rock-mining and processing equipment changed from friendly, familiar yellows, to ominous shadowy hulks, gargoyles of the modern age.

     The air began to cool and the familiar glow of the city against the sky appeared. It was nighttime in Middleton.

18

 

     Smalls was at the window shining a light in my eyes. In his other hand he held a gun and I knew he meant to kill me with it, finding his son be damned.

     "Melissa wake up," he said.

     I opened my eyes and Smalls disappeared. He was replaced by Louis, who was crouched low and peering into my window with his light.

     "Fall asleep waiting for me?"

     The hand not holding the light snuck around to his back and reappeared a moment later, empty. Had he been holding something?

     "No," I said. "Inspecting my eyelids for dirt."

     "You always drool when you inspect for dirt?"

     "It helps with concentration."

     "Got it."

     He flicked his light off and backed away from my car. I stepped out and stretched.

     "What time is it?"

     "Ten. A little after, actually."

     "Jesus, you said you'd be here by six."

     "I'm a public servant. Things tend to happen that make me late."

     "Mmm."

     "Take a walk with me," he said.

     I figured he had something to say that was going to take a while. Introspective people like Louis don't just spill the beans like that and go on their merry way. They have to work up to it.

     Louis was a good cop, like I said. I was willing to trust him on this.

     "Okay."

     We started aimlessly wandering between the hulks of machinery, the gravel crunching under our feet. We were a little removed from the city itself, but the glow served to illuminate us enough that we didn't need his light.

     I let him lead, and I didn't say anything, knowing he would speak when ready.

     He did.

     "I think I knew I'd be having this conversation with you."

     "What conversation? We haven't talked about anything yet."

     He ignored me.

     "When you stepped into my office yesterday and told me who you were representing, I knew it."

     "So why didn't you say anything then."

     "Don't know. Why does anyone do anything stupid? I'm sure it never seems so at the time."

     "I'll give you that."

     I had been thinking of rushing headlong toward Smalls earlier today. I'd had every intention to barge up to his office and blow his brains out.

     "I think every cop, at some point in his career, has at least one case that will stick with him for the rest of his life."

     "Yeah?"

     "Yeah. Raphael Smalls was that case for me. Only it didn't stick with me in the same way it might stick to someone else."

     "Explain."

     "A cop might see a baby or a kid shot by a stray bullet from a gun that was never intended to go off, see?"

     I wondered if he'd seen that, too. I held my tongue, though, and simply nodded.

     "That kind of thing will haunt you, keep you up at night."

     "Okay."

     "Raphael Smalls haunted me in a different way."

     "How so?"

     "He wouldn't go away."

     Our pace had slowed, we were just meandering now. Louis steered us to an outcropping that jutted over a three-story drop into a rock pit. Hands in his pockets, he stood there a moment, then sat, dangling his feet over the edge. I joined him.

     "I don't know what reports you have," he said, "but you obviously have enough of them to know he and I have a history."

     "Kind of why we're here, right?'

     He chuckled.

     "Right."

     "So."

     "The first time I arrested that kid I was young. Not a rookie, really, but not outside two years on the force, either."

     "Still getting to know the system."

     "Exactly. I was responding as back-up on that call where he took out the other cop. He acted like nothing more than a scared kid who'd acted out of panic. I bought it, too."

     "The report says you arrested him."

     "Oh I did. But I had this idea that I could be the one who turned this kid around - set him on the right track."

     "Too much TV on your part?"

     "Or something."

     "So what happened? Not much you could do to get him off the hook after assaulting an officer."

     "Not for that charge. But remember he was underage, and this was before the days kids were tried as adults. I visited him a few times in jail, brought him reading material. Stuff I thought would help him. At the time I thought he was buying into it."

     "But he wasn't."

     "No. Looking back it's obvious. He was just watching me, learning what he could before he told daddy about me."

     "Daddy?"

     "Smalls senior."

     "Oh."

     "I got a phone call one day just a couple weeks before Raphael was going to be let loose. Smalls was polite. He thanked me for looking after his son, for 'rising above' as he called it. Needless to say I was surprised that this kid was the son of a crime boss. Weird, though, that info didn't floor me. I just kind of accepted it and listened."

     "What did Smalls say?"

     "He had a round about way of leading up to it, but I imagine he gave me a run-down similar to the one he gave you."

     "He told you he'd go after the people you cared about if you didn't do as he asked."

     "You've always been a smart one, May. I've always been single, but my folks were alive at the time. By the time they passed on he'd gotten me hooked on the white stuff."

     I must have made some surprised noise because he turned and looked at me, a crooked, close-lipped smile on his face.

     "You aren't the only one holding a secret of mine."

     "What did he want you to do?"

     "Watch out for his son."

     "The reports."

     "Yes. Most of those cases I wasn't actually the arresting officer, but Smalls's influence and money changed hands with enough people on the force that I usually wound up writing the reports."

     "But there were so many of them. If he kept getting arrested how did you writing the reports help him out?"

     "Did you read any of them Mel? In every single case there is some extenuating circumstance to make whatever happened not quite Raphael's fault. At least not enough to give him a heavy sentence."

     "The rapes."

     "Circumstantial evidence in the report, combined with the women changing their minds on the stand."

     "I saw that."

     "Yeah. It got less frequent for a while. He went out of state and fucked up some guy in a bar. Used a knife on him and got five years. He wasn't extradited, so there was no way I could have any influence on it."

     "But his dad could."

     Louis nodded.

     "That's why he got out so soon."

     "Yes. And now he's back here."

     Louis picked up a stone and tossed it into the pit. It vanished in the dark and struck a few seconds later. It bounced twice, then stillness returned.

     "So what about Mary?"

     "What do you mean?" he said.

     "Smalls told me today to ask you about her. Might be a good idea to spill that, too, while we're being so open."

     He snorted.

     "I'm being open, Mel. You're just listening."

     "Either way. I'm not threatening anything. Smalls is obviously able to keep either of us under his thumb. He wants me to know this, and you to tell me. So how about it?"

     "Not much to know," Louis said. "Hollisworth is the last name of one of Smalls's ex-wives."

     "Not . . . "

     "Not Mary herself. Her mother."

     "Jesus," I said, as the implication sunk in. "You think Raphael did that to his sister?"

     "I'm willing to bet his dad does. Why else would he want you to find him instead of letting the cops handle it?"

     I shook my head, ran my fingers through my hair. "But why go through all that effort to protect him, using you and god-knows how many other people if he was just going to kill him now?"

     "My guess?"

     "Yeah."

     "Raphael crossed a line with Mary. Smalls probably sees him more like a sick dog than a son now."

     "And how does he see a daughter he allows to become a prostitute?"

     "A liability. She was probably only a step-daughter. Smalls has been married so many times she was probably only ever a blip on his radar until this happened."

     "So now he's just trying to clean up a potential mess before it gets out of hand."

     "Again, just my guess."

     We sat together in the relative silence (sounds of traffic, and the din of city noise still reached us) for a few minutes, then I heard soft laughter. I looked over to see Louis, pistol in his hands, laughing quietly to himself.

     Except now, looking back, I'm not sure it was laughter at all rather than thinly disguised sobs.

     "Louis," I said. "What are you doing with that gun?"

     He continued to laugh, louder though.

     "You know," he said. "I didn't know what was going to happen tonight, but you learn early as a cop to be prepared for whatever you can."

     "What's that mean?"

     My own hand was inching toward my .38, still snug and impossibly far away in my shoulder holster.

     "It means I brought this knowing I might use it."

     "On me?"

     His laughter cut off. We were both quiet.

     "Or me," he said finally. He was turning the piece over and over in his hands. He looked out beyond the quarry to the city-scape beyond. "Sometimes it gets to be too much," he said.

     Most people would be concerned for a friend’s well-being at this point. Words like that make it seem like you're not planning to be long for this world.

     But Louis wasn't a friend.

     "I know," I said.

     I got up and left him sitting there. He didn't say anything else.

19

 

     My head wanted to spin. There was too much random information. It all somehow tied a father, a son, and a prostitute together. I had rumors, stories, and almost no real facts.

     And according to one very powerful man, I had only a few more hours to figure it out and keep on living.

     I once had a friend who was a paramedic. When I asked him if he ever got overwhelmed dealing with peoples' crises all the time and how he handled it. He answered with the first three letters of the alphabet. ABC: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. If those things are handled, you were doing okay, he told me. And if he ever felt lost, he went back to A to see how it was doing. Square one.

     I realized as I was heading out of the quarry, that I had yet to even look at my A, my square one.

     It was a stupid mistake. Rookie, even. In a case involving a death or a missing person, you start at the epicenter and work your way out. Common sense dictates it, years of procedure and results back it up.

     I hadn't started at the dumpster where her body had found because the scene was days old, and the police report had said the entire thing had been confiscated anyway. So that trail would have been too cold to be worth the time.

     But there was another starting point I'd had yet to consider.

     Amanda had shared an apartment with Mary. Even before Amanda's death I should have gone there. Stupid, stupid mistake.

     It's amazing how, even with your own death approaching, and the clock ticking louder and louder in the back of your head, you can still feel embarrassment.

     I still remembered the address from the information Amanda had given me. The Charger's tires screeched as I took the on-ramp at eighty and continued accelerating long after I was on the freeway.

     The damned part of it was that this trail might be cold now, too. But there was nothing left to do at this point. I had to check A.

20

 

     Amanda's and Mary's apartment was located a few miles South of North Park itself. I suppose it's economical to live close to work. I didn't know if they'd brought clientèle home - I hadn't asked.

     The district itself was old residential. Old. The building in which they'd lived was a six-story structure, and, looking up at it as I stepped out of the car, I wondered who was paying off the building inspectors.

     Smalls, probably. He seemed to have his hand in everything else going on.

     I went inside.

     The hallway smelled of cooked meat and fecal matter. The carpeted hallway I was navigating seemed to squish faintly under my steps, and I found myself glad the indoor lighting was so dim.

     An elevator and a staircase waited at the end of the hall. I hit the elevator button and the device began to rattle and shack. From inside, the cables ground and squealed, growing louder as the elevator approached.

     I took the stairs.

     Their apartment was on the fourth floor, and I was winded by the time I stepped off the landing into the hall. I hadn't smoked in almost a year, but over a decade of sucking ash prior to that had taken its toll and my respiratory endurance was still recovering.

     Half-way down I found the right door. I almost expected to find crime-scene tape blocking the entrance, but there was none.

     The door didn't even creak when I pushed against it and went inside.

     Apparently the manager didn't know two of his or her tenets were deceased. I had expected to find a cluttered mess; dishes piled up, floor un-vacuumed, scattered debris everywhere.

     I found none of that. When I switched on the light I saw a loveseat facing an old antennae TV. A scatter rug lay in the center of the living space, covering what it could of a hardwood floor. The room smelled pleasantly of incense. More, it felt like a home.

     They'd lived in a shithole. About that there was no question. High-class hookers might tell you they like their job. Hell, they might even view it as a calling, and if that's so I wish them the best. But what these two young women did, who they worked for, where they did it . . . in that I could find no appeal.

     Still, they had done with it what they could. There was something touching and heartbreaking in that.

     Two doors stood on either side of the opposite end of the living room. I went to the closest one first.

     Inside I found a double bed covered by what was obviously a homemade quilt. The nightstand next to the bed held a picture of a girl with a man who looked like he could be her father. They were standing in front of a waterfall backdrop.

     It took me a few seconds to realize the girl was Amanda, several years younger. So this was Amanda's room.

     There was little else to it. No pictures on the walls, clothes still in the small closet. Nothing stood out.

     I told myself I'd come back for a closer look in a few minutes. I wanted to see Mary's room. Mary, the reason this had all started. Someone had wanted her dead, and now other people were dying in her wake.

     Start at the epicenter.

     There was more furniture in her room than Amanda's; a futon with a single comforter as a cover, an armoire, a chest that looked old enough to have been brought over with Columbus shoved against one end of the futon.

     I started with the armoire. A few clothes on hangers. They looked like work outfits. Two jewelry boxes below those.

     The shelves below contained folded clothes that looked more every-day. Nothing out of the ordinary.

     I went to the chest.

     Surprisingly it was almost empty, for something as large as it was. Most of the stuff was junk: old hangers, a black shoe with a broken heel, a couple skirts.

     And atop it all, an unfolded manila envelope. I picked it up and turned it over. There was no return label or address.

     Opening it, I pulled out the contents. Two smaller envelopes came out with two pictures. One was small, hardly larger than a Polaroid. It looked like snow on a TV with no reception. The other was larger, unmistakably a sonogram. In the upper left hand corner was Mary's name, with her contact information below.

     I frowned. Amanda had said nothing about Mary having a child. I wondered where the kid was, who was taking care of it.

     Then I saw the date of admission below Mary's contact info. Three weeks ago.

     "Jesus Christ."

     Hand trembling, I set down the sonograms and picked up the first of the smaller envelopes. Neat feminine handwriting had addressed the front. I didn't recognize the address, but sure as hell knew the name above it.

     Gary Smalls.

     Inside was a single note, handwritten on cheap stationary.

     I read the message to Gary Smalls from his step-daughter, Mary Hollisworth. She said she knew she wasn't his daughter, and that he'd never thought of her as one. And then I read the last few lines:

     I know I'm not your family, but this baby is. Please do whatever is in your power to protect it.

     Implications rushed at me, jumbling them all at once. Was Smalls the father? What did she mean "protect it?" That last one made it sound like she was scared of something other than a new mouth to feed.

     I opened the second envelope - this one unaddressed - and found another note. This one was much shorter, and was made out to Amanda.

     The cops can't do anything. The rape kit didn't produce any evidence even though he didn't wear a condom. It's bullshit. But I'm still scared. He knows about the baby and he said he's going to kill me.

     Below there were a few crossed out words, like she'd meant to keep writing but hadn't been able to think of what to say.

     I put the two notes together and studied them. In one she identified Smalls as being related to her baby. In the other she made it clear that she had been raped and that said rapist wasn't happy a child had been produced from his efforts.

     And then I knew. I knew

     I had my cell-phone out and was about to dial Louis when the lights went out.

21

 

     There is no such thing as total darkness in the city. Some sort of light will find you no matter where you are. My eyes adjusted almost immediately.

     The front door banged against the jamb, and I froze in the darkness.

     "I smell a rabbit in the brier patch."

     The voice came from the living room. It was male, throaty. It followed with a giggle. I heard madness there.

     "What are you doing snoopy little rabbit? This isn't your place."

     I didn't answer. He might know I was in the bedroom, but I wasn't going to help him pinpoint my exact whereabouts.

     Footsteps going into the kitchen. The clink of metal against metal. More footsteps coming back this way.

     Silence.

     Then breathing.

     I couldn't tell exactly where my unknown visitor was, except that he was much closer than he had been a minute or two ago.

     I could picture him out there, facing the two bedrooms, trying to decide which one to enter first.

     My own breathing sounded like a tornado in my ears. I opened my mouth and that seemed to quiet the noise a little. I probably looked like a suffocating fish, had anyone been there to see me.

     The metallic clinking noise I'd heard meant he probably had a knife. Of course I didn't know that for sure, but his intentions didn't seem friendly so far and I was assuming the worst.

     His footsteps sounded. They were going away from me. I heard the door to Amanda's room open.

     I waited, wanting to see if it was a ruse.

     Then I heard him moving around inside the other bedroom.

     I bolted.

     My legs uncoiled, snapping me forward like a bullet through the chamber of a high-powered rifle. I tried to put the layout of the apartment in my mind, not so much to help me navigate in the dark - I could still see well enough - but simply to will myself to the door faster.

     He was waiting for me.

     I don't know where the sounds in Amanda's bedroom came from, but somehow he'd faked them and was laying in wait, a lion in the grass.

     His shadow loomed huge to my left. I didn't think a person could grow so big.

     Something detached itself from the larger shadow and struck out at me. His fist.

     Grunting, I ducked away. He still managed to clip my shoulder and numbness exploded there, shot down to my fingers. The arm became dead weight.

     He lunged - I felt more than saw it - but I was already past him, hurtling toward the door.

     I was out into the hall a second later. Light from the spotty fluorescents above showed my a direct path to the stairs. 

     They also showed my pursuer exactly where I was headed.

     The door I'd just exited through splintered behind me. It sounded like a wrecking ball had gone through it.

     "Where you gone, rabbit!"

     His footsteps behind me. They were thunder, grenades, everything I feared, coming for me.

     I've never been one to scream. Even as a kid I never let loose that way. Oh, if something scared me I'd jump. If it scared me enough, I'd even cry afterward, just to shake the stress away.

     Now, a scream bubbled, boiled in my throat, threatening to spill over through my lips.

     I clamped down on it.

     It's been said predators can smell fear. Maybe that's true, I don't know, but if this one could smell mine I sure as hell didn't want him to hear it, too.

     I let out a shout and crashed into the stairway door, took two steps, and leaped.

     My resulting crash at the first landing echoed through the stairwell. Pain knifed from my knees down to my ankles. I was up and taking the steps two and three at a time before I could think about possible injuries.

     Something behind me boomed loud enough I thought my ears might have popped. The stairwell shook.

     "I can jump, too, raaaabit!"

     That spurred me forward, and then I was jumping again. A couple steps, leap to the landing. A couple more, and another leap.

     I hit the ground floor and took the hall out to the street, keys in hand ready to fire up the charger and get the hell out of there. But I stopped short. Instead of my charger and the street, I faced an alley and the side of an opposing building.

     I'd turned the wrong way out of the stairwell. It's long been one of my problems. Outside my sense of direction is pretty good. You put me in a building I don't know, turn me around once, and I'm lost.

     I looked both directions to see if I could figure out which way to turn.

     There was tapping on the glass behind me.

     He was there, peering out of it; leering at me. He opened his eyes wide and shot his tongue out, waggling it in an obscene gesture.

     Thinking time was over. I jumped into the alley and sprinted. My lungs were already burning, but I figured they could stand to burn some more considering the alternative.

     The alley was short, and I burst onto a roadway. It was the wrong the one, however. My car might as well have been miles from me.

     Across the street was a warehouse, abandoned from the look of it. Just like half the buildings in this area.

     "I seeee yoooooou!"

     I didn't look behind me, just ran. There was a warehousethere, so I went to it.

     I ran around the side of the warehouse and went for the first door I saw. I tried the latch.

     Locked. Of course it was locked.

     Scanning the ground around me I saw a rock sizable enough I thought it would do the trick. I scooped it up and brought it down against the door handle. There was a sharp clang and the rock tumbled from my wrist.

     Not enough force. The handle was bent, though, so I'd done something.

     Flexing the fingers of my dead arm experimentally I found I could at least exert some motor control. Sensation was still absent.

     Using both hands this time, I picked up the rock again and slammed it down against the latch. It broke so fluidly that for a moment I thought I had missed completely. Then I saw the broken handle lying on the ground. 

     I tossed the rock and kicked the handle away and pushed my way inside.

     Dust swirled. The entire place smelled of must. No one had occupied this place for months.

     A minimal amount of light filtered through from windows high above. It was enough to see by.

     "You can't hide in there, rabbit!"

     The shout was from the street, but it was loud enough I knew he was closing.

     Shit.

     There was no place to hide in here. A quick glance around revealed that much.

     I pulled my .38 and slunk away from the door. If it was going to come to this, so be it.

     These days most would think an automatic pistol, with rounds chambered from a clip held in the butt would be preferable as a portable weapon.

     Sure. But gun fights, especially with pistols, aren't as sure-shot as you might see on TV. It takes years of practice specializing with a pistol to achieve the kind of accuracy that might benefit you in a shoot out.

     Automatic pistols, even the best ones, still jamb and are harder to fire than revolvers. Those don't jamb near as much, and they're a lot steadier in your grip.

     I've never been an expert shot. I'll take reliability any day.

     The monster barreled through the door and swung toward me like he had a homing device telling him exactly where I was. He roared, charged, arms wide.

     I fired.

     The shot echoed through the metallic interior. And my sight vanished in the ensuing white-out from the muzzle flash.

     I fired and the gun barked again.

     I thought I heard him shout in surprise, but I couldn't be sure because he was upon me.

     There was a change in air-pressure, much the same way you can feel something large moving near you in the water.

     It was the only thing that saved me, and it was simple reflex. I went limp, my knees buckling, and one of his arms snagged my wrist, which wasn't quite out of the way yet.

     The .38 was wrenched from my grip and I felt bones and tendons twist against each other. I glanced frantically at the ground and saw my one hope.

     Luck must have decided to cut me a small break after the door handle incident. On the ground, not two feet from my foot, was an old aluminum flashlight. Probably long since dead, but I wasn't going to use it for illumination purposes anway.

     I lunged.

     It was just close enough. My fingers snagged it, pulled, and I felt the heft of its weight in my grip as I brought it arcing up toward his face.

     This time I screamed, letting loose all my fear, all my strength in the blow.

     The flashlight shattered, and my wrist was released.

 

22

 

     It should have worked.

 

23

 

     Instead, he blinked, then swung.

     This time he didn't miss.

     I felt no pain. Instead, my jaw went numb just like my arm, and the lights went out.

     The pain came later, though it couldn't have been much later, because I started to roll back toward the land of the waking as he was dragging me across the floor.

     Forcing my eyelids open had suddenly become a task more difficult than any I'd faced in my short life. Olympic weightlifters had an easier time moving heavy poundages around.

     Blurred images swam before me, then slowly focused. I was on my back, sliding feet-first over the cement floor. My shirt had rolled up in the back and every few feet my bare skin scraped on the rough surface.

     I saw arms hooked around my ankles. Massive arms, attached to an even bigger torso. I tried to kick away.

     He didn't turn, didn't flinch.

     "Don't struggle, rabbit. I'll hit you again."

     I didn't want that. And any fight I might have been able to put up would have been useless anyway. I relaxed and let myself be dragged.

     His destination was an aluminum chair at the other end of the building. He picked me up like I weighed no more than the rodent after which he'd decided to name me.

     Nausea hit me as he propped me upright. He held me steady, almost gently, as my head flopped before coming to rest with my chin toward my chest.

     "It's amazing what you find laying around old buildings," he said.

     I tried to ask what he meant, but it only came out, "whugh."

     He chuckled, and moved around behind me.

     My arms were pulled to my back, bent at the elbows to accommodate the sides of the chair, and my wrists were taped together.

     I was breathing deep, willing the oxygen to my brain, forcing myself awake.

     He came back around before me. He didn't say anything at first. What he did do was reach down and grab his shirt. Slowly, as though he were trying to be seductive, he peeled the shirt up and over his head. His chest was massive, tattooed, and sat atop a belly that might once have been equally muscled, but now was starting to gain a little more adipose girth.

     The tattoos on his chest formed a spire up to his neck and branched out to both arms. His ears were pierced all the way up on both sides and the lower piercings were gaged to a size one or two, putting gaping holes in the cartilage.

     Bending over he smiled and wagged his tongue again.

     "Do you know who I am, rabbit?"

     I nodded. This time my head didn't swim so much.

     "Who, little one? Who am I?"

     "The one and only," I said. "Raphael Smalls."

     Laughter burst from his mouth and he stood upright, throwing his head back with the apparent mirth of the comment.

     "That's right. That is right! By God you're smart."

     He stooped again, placing his hands on his knees and jutting his face out so it was close to mine.

     "Now," he said. "Who. Are. You?"

     "I'm nobody."

     "Nobody owns a nice little .38 special and is snooping around in a place that ain't hers, Nobody?"

     I shrugged and he grinned.

     "Yeah, I think I heard mention of you. Little miss Rabbit Nobody looking for clues."

     "You've heard of me, huh?"

     "Oh, possibly."

     He stood and scratched is chin, parodying a musing gesture.

     "Word got down to me that my daddy hasn't been too happy with me lately and hired someone to come find me so we could have a little chit chat. That ring a bell?"

     "Sounds vaguely familiar. I wouldn't say he hired me, though."

     "Mmm. Yeah, ol' Pops has a way of persuading people, doesn't he?"

     "He does."

     "He does, he does. So, what are we going to do about this?"

     He twirled his finger in a downward motion in front of me.

     "Looks like you've already done it."

     "No, no. I've just propped you up a little. What are we going to do about it?"

     "Not much I can do," I said. "But how about you tell me why you killed Mary Hollisworth."

     "Figured that out, did you?"

     "Something like that."

     "Yeah, I imagine that got under Pops's bonnet."

     "You did it to piss off your dad?"

     He made a dismissive gesture.

     "Awe hell. I did it 'cause she had a baby by me. Or was going to."

     "Not a fan of kids, huh?"

     More laughter.

     "You think you know so damn much, right?"

     "No."

     "Mary was my sister. I grew up with that bitch. We were close."

     "Sounds like it."

     "Shut up and listen."

     "Okay."

     "She came on to me the first time."

     "The first time?"

     "You know teenagers," he said, no longer hearing me. "Hormones and all that. We figured since we weren't really brother and sister wouldn't make much difference. Started fuckin' around, you know? A little booze, a little hash."

     "One thing leads to another?"

     "Yeah. Yeah, exactly. ‘Cept she decided not to go further. You don't do that to a guy after getting him all worked up. You just don't."

     "So you decided to take it further."

     A grin was spreading across his face. His tongue shot out and lapped once at his upper lip.

     "She didn't fight much. Just a little at first. I didn't lay into her as hard as I did you, but I let her know I was there. That was my first."

     "Sounds romantic."

     "Maybe not to you."

     "So you had her whenever you wanted after that?"

     "Only one other time. Bitch's mom left Pops high and dry. Didn't know what happened to her for the longest time."

     "Poor guy."

     "Keep it up. You'll only be talking for a few more minutes."

     I wanted to say something to that. I really did, but I came up short.

     "Imagine my surprise when I came home and found her under the care of my good buddy Mr. Rose. You've met him I'm sure."

     "He's a peach, just like you."

     "Cept I ain't a pussy."

     "Of course not."

     "Floyd told me it was on the house."

     "Don't imagine anyone would try to charge you."

     "She knew me. That was the best part. She knew me. I could tell because she was afraid the whole time. Just laid there and looked at me like I might snap her in half. I wanted to."

     "But you didn't."

     "Why spoil the fun? I'm not like those fuckin' pervs that'll snuff a chick when they're with her."

     "Not a gentleman like you."

     "Saw her a couple times after that. Then one day she lays it on me that she's pregnant. Bitch had horrible timing."

     "She told you in the heat of the moment, huh?"

     "Right before. It was her fault. She shouldn'ta done that."

     His head drooped for a second, like he was thinking - or sleeping. A still giant.

     Then he looked up at me and said, "So."

     "So."

     "Figured out what we're going to do with you yet?"

     Adrenaline surged. I was fully awake now, heart galloping along in my chest, eyes widening.

     "That's okay," he said. "I figured it out for you."

     He came forward, fists clenching, erection straining at his pants.

     I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what was about to happen, only to fling them open again at the horror of going through it in self-imposed darkness.

     "Like to watch, huh?"

     He reached for me.

     Behind me a door crashed open. Raphael's head jerked up and he snarled. He shoved me aside and I crashed to the floor,  tangled the chair. Pain in my other arm now, but at least I could still feel it.

     I turned my head to see what was happening.

     Raphael had already covered most of the distance to the door. Two figures stood there, legs braced, arms held out before them.

     Flashes of light shattered the darkness, simultaneous with booming reports.

     Raphael flinched to the side, stumbled. Then he was upon the first figure.

     There was another shot and the bodies blurred together. Someone screamed.

     Another shot and the second man went down. He didn't move.

     I blinked, trying to focus. Raphael was standing up, holding his stomach. The other two men lay motionless at his feet.

     Squirming, I begin to wriggle my way free of the chair. He hadn't taped me to it, and that was another bit of luck. If he decided to come back this way at least I'd have a running start.

     He did start toward me, just as I got my arms loose of the chair. I swung over to my back and brought my arms under my legs. In the next motion I was standing.

     But I needn't have worried. As I watched, Raphael staggered again. He was close enough that the blood pumping from the open wound at the top of his abdomen was visible.

     A slow, watery breath escaped from his lips. Then he toppled, folding in on himself like some giant tree at the hands of multiple loggers.

     It didn't take long for the blood to pool under him.

     I went over and nudged him with my foot. He didn't move. Something was jutting out from under his massive shoulder. I bent and picked it up, trying to find a comfortable position for it with my bound wrists.

     My last piece of luck for the night, as it turned out.

     "Knew you'd find him."

     I recognized the voice.

     Gary Smalls was coming over to me. He had lingered outside, no doubt, letting his men enter and face the danger first. 

     "That's a big wrench you're holding," he said, stopping on the other side of his son's body.

     "It's not too heavy," I said.

     "Yeah, I imagine someone as petite as you would be stronger than she looks in this line of work."

     "Imagine that do you?"

     "I do."

     We faced each other.

     "My brother will be left alone," I said after a few seconds.

     Smalls nodded.

     "I was hoping my son would have taken care of you before we came in," he said.

     "What's that mean."

     "Not much, really. Just a little more work for me in the long run. Nothing unmanageable."

     His arm twitched at his side and I saw the gun he'd been holding against his leg.

     I remembered reading somewhere that several studies by law enforcement agencies had shown an assailant could close a distance of six feet and inflict serious harm before a cop could draw his gun and fire.

     Smalls already had his gun drawn, but he was a hell of a lot closer than six feet.

     Time for a new study.

     I leaped, using the dead Raphael's chest as a springboard, and I swung.

     Smalls saw what was happening, I saw the realization dawn on his face while I was mid-air.

     The wrench arced down.

     His gun fired.

    

24

 

     I don't remember anything until the hospital. Apparently the cops found me hovering over Gary Smalls, wrench still in my hands, a mixture of his blood and mine still dripping from the tool.

     He'd managed to shoot me through the shoulder that was already dead from Raphael's earlier blow. Antibiotics, sutures, and wound care were all that was required at the hospital.

     Maybe the wrench hadn't been my last piece of luck for the night.

25

 

     Louis found me on the beach where I'd told him I'd be. He came and sat down next to me. We didn't say anything for a long time, just watched the sun drop lower and lower far behind the crashing surf.

     "What're you going to do?" he said, finally.

     "Think I might take a trip up to Oregon, see my brother."

     "Think he'd like that?"

     "He better."

     That earned me a laugh from Louis. A rare thing and somewhat of a compliment.

     A few more minutes of silence followed. Then Louis said, "Melissa are you okay?"

     "Why wouldn't I be?"

     He was about to say something when I cut him off.

     "I was being sarcastic. Yeah, I'm okay. Seven dead bodies if you include my poor mutt. All because some girl who'd had a bad turn in life asked for my help."

     "It's not your fault."

     "I know. Doesn't make me feel any better, though."

     "You going to keep working?"

     I shook my head. "Not at this," I said.

     "Going back to school?"

     "I'll work in a Goddamn coffee shop for all I care."

     Louis began drawing circles in the sand with his finger. A gust of wind came along and ruffled my hair. The breeze felt good on my face.

     "Why do I get the feeling you're not coming back for a while?"

     "Because you're a good cop and you're listening to your instincts."

     "That's just a Hollywood cliche."

     "Not with you it isn't."

     "Mmm. So when are you going to be back?"

     "Don't know that either."

     Louis rose, brushing the sand off his trousers.

     "I'm hungry. Come with me to get a bite?"

     "Not hungry."

     "Suit yourself. Hey, Mel."

     I looked up.

     "You drop me a line when you're back in town."

     "I will."

     He turned and headed back up the beach toward the parking lot.

     I faced the ocean again. The sun was a half-circle against the horizon. As a little girl I'd always wondered why it didn't shoot up plumes of steam as it sank into the water.

     Knowing how things really work didn't make the scene any less beautiful now.

     I wished that was true of all things.

About the Author and Photographer: Brian Merklin (right) wrote this story based on a series of photos take by Jeff Buckner (left). They're cousins, but didn't see each other growing up all that often. Despite this they grew up to have very similar tastes, interests, and a freakishly similar sense of humor. Brian now lives in Las Vegas and Jeff lives in San Diego, CA.

About the Author and Photographer:

Brian Merklin (right) wrote this story based on a series of photos take by Jeff Buckner (left). They're cousins, but didn't see each other growing up all that often. Despite this they grew up to have very similar tastes, interests, and a freakishly similar sense of humor. Brian now lives in Las Vegas and Jeff lives in San Diego, CA.