Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
“Yeah, me. I was never a saint, but I once could have a beer or two with the boys. Not any more, though. I stayed too drunk for too long. It’s nice to meet someone who’s surprised by the idea. Most people remember me the way I was.”
“Drunk. All of the time.”
“For how long?”
“Over two years. I lost a lot of good things. Wife, house, career. You know. Everything, basically.”
She smiled at me, and moved over next to me. “And you . . . got better?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t easy. An alcoholic is never cured. You can’t really be, not when you are constantly confronted by the drug you’re addicted to. I can never have a beer with the guys again, not one. I can never drink a toast at a wedding. Sometimes
drinking is the hardest thing in the world. But I know that if I do drink again, my life, the one I have now, and any life that I ever will have, is over. I might as well go sit in front of the liquor store with my hand out.”
Which is where I very nearly ended up last time.
She looked down. I thought for a few minutes that I had offended her. Maybe hanging out in front of the liquor store didn’t seem like such a bad occupation when you were selling your body to strangers. But every kind of addiction has its own private hell. Sometimes it isn’t easy to empathize with someone else’s.
“I hope that you don’t mind, but since I’m being so nosey already, I was wondering about the scar. How did you get it?” She blushed a little, but her eyes looked like they had in the photograph, dark and full of wonder. She then nervously reached up and traced the scar on my face with her fingertips.
My hand went reflexively to the crescent-shaped scar that ran from the corner of my right eye to the corner of my mouth. Our hands touched briefly; her face reddened slightly. A powerful feeling came over me, and I remembered the feel of the knife in my face. I tried to keep my voice light and impassive.
“Oh, that. Handsome devil, aren’t I? I got that going above and beyond the call of duty. That’s what they said anyway. Or maybe I was being a damned fool. I caught a man, a rapist. He had been breaking in on women out in Mountain Brook. The Mountain Brook Slasher, the media called him. He always struck at night while they were alone. He always struck married women. He used to slash their faces. He cut my face while we were struggling, when he was trying to get away.”
“I remember hearing about him. That must have been terrible for you.” She hesitantly reached out and touched the scar again. It felt like a butterfly had landed on my face, her touch was so light. “It doesn’t look ugly. It just sort of gives your face . . . history.”
“I like that, I’ll have to remember it. The good thing is, I was his last victim. He fell on his knife when we fought. He later died of peritonitis in the hospital.”
She gasped and started suddenly. She looked very afraid. It wasn’t from my story.
“It’s Steve,” She whispered. “He’s home.”
It was then that I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. She had heard them a few seconds before me. From her expression of fear, it wasn’t difficult to figure out why she had developed such heightened senses.
Steve threw the door open without preamble and strode jauntily into the room. As he had seemed from a distance, skinny and pockmarked. Seeing him up close revealed additional charms, including long unwashed hair and a perpetual sneer. He also didn’t smell very promising.
He took us in with a smug glance and continued toward the kitchen. “Don’t let me bother you, bro. It’s cool,” he mumbled as he went by.
“Steve, this man isn’t . . . I mean, he’s been sent by my parents. They want me to come home.”
Instantly, the acne-ravaged features became a dangerous cardiac red. He bared his yellow teeth at me. “What? Get the fuck out!”
He approached me threateningly and I stood up. There was a noticeable size difference, to my advantage. He stopped, but still snarled menacingly. “I don’t care who sent you. You can forget it. She’s not going anywhere!”
“That’s not your decision, and it’s not mine. If Lena wants to leave here, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
His eyes narrowed and he shifted them toward Lena, as he changed his approach. “So this is your idea. I should have known.”
He started running at Lena, his hands curled into bony little fists. I grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him into the wall. He tried with a surprising burst of energy to squirm out of my grasp. He managed to turn and bring his fist up. I grabbed his wrist and
Steve decided to stop struggling and become cooperative.
His smell really was repellant. I wished silently to heaven that there was a way to beat the hell out of him without actually touching him, but I knew that would solve nothing.
“I’m going to let you go, Steve. Okay?”
His reply was a grunt and a barely perceptible nod. “And if you make the slightest move toward Lena or me I’m going to stop being so understanding, because I really don’t like you very much, know what I mean?”
After another sullen nod I slowly released my grasp. Steve walked over to the door and turned back to Lena.
“You fucking bitch. I’ll fix you. And you too, motherfucker!” Then he was gone out the door.
“Charming young man.”
She stood looking after him. “I feel so sorry for him. I used to really love him.”
“Nobody can blame you if you hate him.”
“No, I don’t hate him.” She had a vague light in her eyes. She seemed far away again.
“We aren’t fit judges of those who do us wrong.”
She promised me she would be gone from there by that night before Steve came back. When we parted, she was smiling again.
It was obvious either way that I would have to wait for Harry to contact me again. I certainly wasn’t going to call or visit his apartment any time soon. For the time being, I decided to go back to the office to give Lena a call. The phone was ringing as I came through the office door. When I picked it up, a voice that I’d never heard before began speaking immediately.
“Yeah. Listen, you’re that private eye looking for Itchy Danny Weber?” It was a statement, in a direct, uncaring tone, practiced in its apathy.
“That’s right.” I could hear the calculating meanness in the voice of the other man. As I listened I knew from his detached, authoritative tone that in his world there were assholes and chumps and himself. I didn’t have to wonder into which category I had been placed.
“Well, I know where he’s hiding out, if you’re still interested.”
“Okay, so do you want to tell me?”
He told me, and I suddenly had the feeling that I had already seen the man to whom the voice belonged. In the back of my mind I matched the curt, military voice with the policeman-like appearance of the man driving that mysterious Ford. A person who, it seemed, had miraculous knowledge of a case that I had only agreed to take a couple of days before. Moreover, I had discussed that case only with the two clients.
Something made me open the desk drawer and stare down at my sleeping .45 automatic. There was more going on here than I had been told. Slowly, like a man in a trance, I picked it up and dropped it into my coat pocket.
* * *
I drove over the bridge at Little Shades Creek, to the 1200 block of Dodge Drive, the address the voice had provided. I was not so much surprised as annoyed to see that the beige Ford was parked on the sidewalk along the other side of the street as if I was meant to see it.
I walked up to the beat-up building, a decrepit apartment complex, one of a long row of such buildings. It loomed quiet and sullen in the cold rain. I noticed that the landing had no light, and the battered front door was slightly ajar. No homeless people were gathered there, no aging winos lamenting their lost dogs. In this part of town on a night like tonight, that was strange indeed.
It was just a little
inviting. I remembered set-ups like this from growing up in the projects in Westmoreland Heights, and from working there later as a patrolman and detective. They were the perfect place to lie in wait for someone. I had seen many little old ladies who had been relieved of their Social Security checks, their honor and very often their lives in such dark vestibules.
The mysterious caller had stated Danny had been staying in number 23. I tried the call box, but there was no answer. It was also very dark in the hall. I pushed on the door and it swung slowly open. At that instant, I heard the creak of a board above me. It was in the darkest end of the hallway. Not wanting to, but knowing I had to, I stepped into that pool of darkness and my hand slipped of its own accord into my pocket to find the cold comfort of the Smith and Wesson.
I pulled the gun quietly and flipped the safety off with my thumb. I tested the stairs, not willing to give my location away by stepping on a creaky board or kicking an empty beer can. Whoever was at the top of the landing moved slightly, but then quickly became motionless in the darkness. I silently flattened against the wall. I hoped that I was invisible, but really didn’t think so.
I crouched as he fired the first shot, which went high and to the right. In the small hallway, the noise was horrific. I heard the window at the end of the hall shatter. I dropped to one knee and raised my gun, sending one his way. He began firing wildly, and I heard heavy footfalls as he came down the stairs. I rushed up toward him, blood rushing through my ears. Another shot came from above, out of the darkness of the stairwell, then another. Something struck the wall near me. Tiny splinters bit into my cheek.
I fired three shots in a spread, using only the sound of the footfalls and gunman’s intuition for my aim. I felt him rush past me, and I heard a choked gasp, the kind you hear people make at funerals and weddings. There was a tumbling sound, and suddenly my assailant was no longer above me, but below.
My heart pounding like Charlie Watts, I went back down into that black space. He had tumbled back down to the door and was lying on his face on the stairs, life flowing out of him. One of my three wild shots had caught him in the throat.
The moon suddenly cast a spectral beam down onto our mad little tableau through the window the dying man had shot out. Had he waited ten seconds more, he would have seen me plainly. Then it would be me lying there.
I turned him over. No hate or pain or anything else showed on his face in the dim moonlight. It was the face of the man in the Ford. There were doors opening, and people at the top of the stairs now. I shouted at the blank faces. “Call an ambulance!” but I knew it would never get there in time. The dying man worked his hands, opening and closing them, as though he saw his soul leaving his body, and longed to catch it and hold it in his failing grasp. Then he stopped moving at all.
I felt his pulse. There was very little there. Then that little bit became nothing. I reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin brown leather wallet. I opened it, and sat down heavily on the stairs, next to the man whose life I had just taken. Inside the wallet there was a badge, and an identification card. The man was Detective Blake Hazelwood, Homicide, of the West precinct.
After the paramedics had come and gone, the police took me aside to ask questions. I was relieved of my .45, and was sat down in the back of a squad car and told to wait. Eventually, a big, bored looking patrol cop in a wet rain slicker and plastic cap cover came and opened the car door. He stood in the cold rain and regarded me dourly.
“I’m going to have to take you down to the precinct . . . Mr. Longville.” He consulted his clipboard for my name. “We need to determine exactly what happened in there tonight. The detectives down there, they got some questions for you.” He took out a laminated card, and began to read.
“You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you say can and will be used against you . . .”
As he went on, my eyes wandered past him. Two men rolled a gurney out with a body on it, covered by the inevitable white sheet. They slid it into the back of a waiting van, pulled out of the drive and went off into the night. A terrifying, yet familiar realization crept over me. I had just killed another police officer.
The interrogation room was pretty much what I expected. There were four of them, all big men, and all with the same bored, careless air about them. I was hustled into a gray back room where a radiator sizzled and squealed in the corner. They glared at me for a moment, then ignored me while they talked in low hushed tones. Finally they left me to sit in the hot stuffy room for what seemed like a month. After a time, one of the four came back in, a young-looking, sandy-haired man.
He turned a chair around backwards, sat down, and glared at me intensely. I could see the freckles on his face, and I could smell the spearmint chewing gum that he worked over mercilessly in his cheek. He was trying his best to look tough, I decided. His face was misted with sweat from the clinging heat of the little room.
“Can we get this show on the road?” I asked suddenly, keeping my voice even, just to show how intimidated I was.