Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
SEASON OF THE WITCH
The Roland Longville Mystery Series #1
Written by Timothy C. Phillips
©2012 by Timothy C. Phillips
Published 2012 by The Fiction Works
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission, except for brief quotations to books and critical reviews. This story is a work of fiction. Characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
Birmingham, the city of my birth. Sometimes I wanted to burn it down. She was the hallowed ground of all my successes and failures. I had sworn, years before, to protect and serve her, to lay down my life in her service if need be.
In those days, I was an idealistic young police officer. I am free from that oath now, at least technically. But I still walked her streets in the dead evening or the red-eyed hours of morning, and I loved her and I hated her, and I could never let her go.
So. This is the story I have to tell. Maybe I’m like the Ancient Mariner with his head full of death. Maybe, like his tale, mine has a lofty moral. Or maybe this is just a story about what happens when rats run out of room in their cage. I wanted things to turn out different. It started badly, though. Things that start that way usually end that way.
The whole thing started with a lie, and a lie is a particularly deadly kind of beast that not only breeds its own kind, but its offspring are ever larger and more deadly monsters. It breeds them to protect itself. Behind every lie is a sad story, some little betrayal.
Life is full of sad stories and little betrayals. Friends, lovers and a thousand other people we meet on our long hard trip into the darkness do us wrong. Or so it seems. The sad truth is we usually betray ourselves. The doom we bring is usually our own. We struggle in this world, trying to feel like we fit in somewhere, drive ourselves hard to find that next piece of the puzzle that is going to give it all clarity and make some sense of the Big Picture. We sit here in Sodom and Gomorra, playing the game, biding our time, waiting on the bang, or the whimper.
Death comes calling pretty often on the streets, and it is usually a brutal little visit. It comes quickest to the slow and the weak. They enter into the city’s great grinding heart unprepared, get lost in its endless, mad and secret maze. Those who die here, like anywhere else, are of no special kind. They are not especially weak or naive; they come in all varieties, from all walks of life. Just like the people in this little yarn.
They come from the small towns, and the farms, because they want all of the things that only the city can give them, things that their humbler homes cannot. Some find these things. But the city is pitiless in this regard. For everything that it gives with one hand, there is always something else it takes away with the other. It could rain without ceasing for a million years and not wash clean the way things are in the ghettos and the slums, where those without choices lay down in the darkness, in their torturer’s cold embrace.
Like every metropolis, there are the same old games. There are rackets, scams and vice, which come like incantations from out of the darkness itself. The lines and the deceptions are as old as the curse of which they are a part. There’s always a demand, and lies always get believed. They get passed down to the victims from the predators. The victims that survive become predators in their turn, and the cycle goes on, growing, claiming its endless number of victims.
I know, because I have seen these sad sagas unfold. I have wandered the dark alleyways, I have chased the fleeing thieves and rapists, held the bleeding victims, and felt the knife of the hunted man. I have heard the mothers weeping, I have seen the hired killers do their bloody work, and go free to kill again. I have seen the innocent die, and the guilty walk free in the light of day. I make it my business to see.
My name is Roland Longville. I am a private detective.
Winter had come, and the streets had died. The Magic City had quieted down—or so it seemed. It had really just taken its portable evils inside. Icy rain streamed down the windows in long slow rivulets, like a mother’s tears of heartbreak. My office was on the second floor of the venerable Brooks Building, the former jewel of the similarly named Brooks Plaza. Both were named for the Brooks family, a wealthy clan of nineteenth century industrialists who had left their name on many places and monuments in Birmingham. But times change; I was the building’s last remaining tenant.
In the summer, the streets below would overflow with a symphony of automobile engines and wailing sirens. The shouts and laughter of the children from the housing projects from far up the street would float up to my dusty windows. Even the vacant buildings of Brooks Plaza would seem to contain a better spirit, although no living inhabitant had troubled most of them for many years. This part of the city had died long ago; most of the businesses had moved away when those projects had gone up.
In addition to my office, the only place that could be loosely described as “Open for business” in Brooks Plaza was Sally’s Diner. It was an old-fashioned coffee and sandwich shop across from my building, within view of my office. I was a regular there most mornings, stopping in to enjoy the black coffee and resigned silence of Sally’s aging patrons.
My pilgrimage from the life of police officer to that of my current line of work is a dirty little story that I seldom tell. Put it this way, once I had let someone down when they were counting on me. The short story is, an officer had lost her life. Some people blamed me, and others didn’t. None blamed me so much as I blamed myself. I took to the bottle, and spent what seemed an eternity in its blinding embrace.
In the end I left the force. Sometimes I missed my old life, with its myriad intricacies, and its sense of brotherhood. The feeling of belonging to the right side had also been important to me, in a world grown so ambivalent. I missed all of those things, usually when I wasn’t up to my neck in my own troubles, and could afford to wax romantic. Chiefly, I missed the people who were part of that life; there were too few of them left after the transition.
I listened to the wind, looked outside at the deepening darkness. The evening had descended, with millions of ghosts, as I sat reflecting on my own. The weather outside was rotten; for days the city had been held in the remorseless grip of a winter storm front. It had laid siege, and it showed no sign of remorse.
Off in the distance, a lonely train gave a long moan, and grumbled over the giant trestle that divides downtown Birmingham neatly in half. Far across the city, above its aura of mist, I could see the glow of the light held aloft by the statue of Vulcan. It glowed a dim red in the distance, signaling that someone had died in traffic that day.
I had been in a reminiscent mood of late. Bleak weather had always brought the darkness out in me. I thought about my ex-partner, Detective Lieutenant Lester Broom, and how a visit was overdue from one or the other of us; we owed each other our lives a few times over. I also wondered what Patricia, my ex-wife, was up to nowadays; I hadn’t heard from her since she had left Birmingham, two years before. Sometimes I felt like I still loved her, but it didn’t eat at me as much as it once had. Mainly, this was because I tried desperately not to think of her.
Life contains too many pieces of our existence that get crossed out for one reason or the other. Sometimes it’s others that cross us out; sometimes it’s the other way around.
I generally never used to be the maudlin sort, but then, I used to be the drinking sort. When the mind is not numbed occasionally, by whatever means, it wanders into whatever dark corner it pleases. My drinking went a long way toward explaining many of my own lost bits and pieces of my life. At the time it didn’t seem to matter. By giving up the bottle, a person learns to live with their phantoms.
I pondered two cases that I didn’t want. I had gotten involved with each of them because I can’t resist helping someone who has been taken advantage of. Well, that’s what I like to think, anyway. Maybe I tell little lies about my motivations to myself. It’s also possible that I’m a big, softhearted sap. A solid case could be made for that theory.
The situation had crept up on me over the last few weeks. I had taken the first one because I have come to realize that some things are more important than whether it is the kind of case that I find most savory. Maybe. I had gotten to a point where I had to make a decision. I could listen to my conscience or do what my client had asked. It was then that my second case had come calling.
So there I sat, listening to the wind, when I heard the outer door creak, and a careful footstep in the deserted lobby. I figured it might be a homeless person, seeking shelter from the cold. One couldn’t lock the outer door of a business, even on an abysmal evening like this one.
But any footstep in the hall might be the Angel of Death,
a tiny little voice spoke inside my head. I slid open the top drawer of my desk where I keep my .45 Smith and Wesson, my only insurance against man’s inhumanity to me. I put my hand on the pistol; the gunmetal was cold and calming against my skin.
Then Harry shuffled in. He was a slender, handsome young man, but he walked like a ninety-year old. I recognized him immediately, and smiled to myself at my fear while I slid the drawer shut. I tried to remember. Had it been four? No, five years. Back when I had a wife, a badge and a law enforcement career. Another ghost, but this one had come to visit in the flesh. Harry fixed me with his earnest, slightly insane smile, and I found myself returning it despite my black mood.
“Surprise.” He extended has arms to each side, like a wizard appearing magically. He then opened his coat in a mock-serious attempt to show he was unarmed. Harry had always been able to dispel any sort of gloom, whether real or imagined. I stood up and held out my hand.
“Harry, how have you been?”
He pulled off a thick, brown mitten, and put a warm hand in mine. “Fine, except I’m a little gimped up. And you?” He gave me a wink that came from long association. His voice was amiable and carried a detectable Yiddish accent. His skin was a tan shade of olive despite the cold. He walked with his head thrown back, taking it all in. Harry was Long Island’s gift to Birmingham. How he had ended up here, I had never known, or had long since forgotten.
I had known Harry since he had been a teenage troublemaker, when I had been a cop up on the North Side. It was a strange but amiable relationship. There had been plenty of delinquents, but at least back in those days the kids waited until they hit their high teens to start committing crimes.
Harry, however, was somehow different. He had been like bad money, in and out of the North precinct for one petty charge or another. But the truth was, I liked him. As a matter of fact, most of the cops at the North precinct had been able to forgive him for his seeming inability to comprehend the law. He was hard not to like. He hadn’t hated us for busting him, like the others. He seemed to regard it as the price of doing business. He had always seemed like a nice kid, just cursed with bad value judgment. But that had been a while back. He still wasn’t someone that I would expect to waltz into my humble office.