A Dish Served Cold (1)

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Here’s the opening chapter of A Dish Served Cold.  The title is the first of a two-novella collection of ‘Smitty’ novels which will be out soon.

One
Rain.

Coming down in waving curtains of gray monotony.

A cold rain falling from a colorless gray sky.  A frigid slap, like that of a scorned woman, across the face of everyone which seemed to suck the life out of everything.  Along with the rain came an unwelcome breeze filled with ice pellets.  Sharp edged, vicious daggers threatening to pummel souls into a mindless narcosis.

Walking briskly he weaved in and out of the pedestrians around him, the collar of his heavy gray trench coat turned up to protect his neck.  Head down he used the narrow brim of his hat to protect his face as he stuffed gloved hands in his pockets. He was not in a friendly mood.  The people on the sidewalk seemed to be in the same disposition.  Everyone moved like frozen automatons, determined to get where they were going as fast as they could regardless of what happened around them.  Twice someone bumped into him as they hurried past him.  Rudely slamming into his shoulder and making him stumble.  Each time neither Cretan made any form of an apology.  Mumbling underneath his breath he kept on walking.

Smitty's Two For the RoadDowntown pedestrian traffic was heavy on this Monday morning for some reason. As was the street traffic.  It was the last Monday of the month and it always was this way.  People seemed desperate to get somewhere.  Desperation seemed to be the operative word.   The city.  The people.  The whole damn world.  Desperate.

Turning a corner he hurriedly opened a door to a coffee shop and stepped in, shaking the rain from out of the brim of his hat in the process.  The small place was packed with young down-and-out college students bracing themselves with a strong black coffee or some sweet mocha in preparation for the day’s coming classes.  Or young men, dressed in expensive business suits, fresh out of school with MBA’s and eager to begin making their fortunes by wallowing in the corporate rat race in some firm’s downtown office.

Holding hat in his hand he almost smirked as he looked at the corporate wunderkinds sitting shoulder to shoulder and lining the long bar sipping their brews.  The poor bastards.  Their young, earnest faces were just too damn eager.  He had an urge to grab the nearest one by the shoulder, whirl him around on his barstool, and slap the eagerness off his face.  Might as well do it, he thought to himself, as he nodded to the slim little brunette for a waitress behind the bar stretching out a hand toward him with a big cup of steaming coffee in it.

Slap some sense into you, boy.  Tell you to wake up and see the world as it truly is.  The only fortune you were going to make is for someone else.  Someone who already had a fortune several times over. Someone who doesn’t give a damn about you. 

Instead he took the coffee from the girl’s hand and slipped a five dollar bill into it before turning back toward the shop’s entrance.

That’s when the phone started ringing in his right coat pocket.  Ringing with an insistence.  Even vibrating against his leg each time it rang.  A strange sound.  A strange sensation. Hesitantly, confused, he glanced back at the smiling waitress curiously and then, with his free hand, reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the alien phone and looked at it.  It was a simple flip-phone.  A pre-paid device anyone could purchase for a few bucks at a drug store or in a shopping mall kiosk.  How the hell it got into his coat pocket totally mystified him.  It wasn’t his phone.  It wasn’t one of his grand kids’ phones.  Staring at it as if it was some cursed abomination he let it ring a couple of more times before flipping it open and lifting it to his ear.

“Now that you’ve got your coffee turn and look out the window.  See the White Cab with the meter up and running?  Get in and tell the driver you want to go library on James and Runyon streets.  When you get there go to the information desk and give them your name.  And oh. . . toss the phone into the trash receptacle beside the door on the way out.  It’s no use to you anymore.”

The voice.

A deep whisper .  Calm.  Unnaturally calm.

Deadly.

Somehow . . . someway  . . . coming through the speaker of the cheap phone was the calm but chilling voice of Death itself.  A sudden spasm of involuntary chills ran roughshod down his spine making him shake violently.

“Who is this?  What the hell is going on here?”

“You’ll find out, Henry.  Just get into the cab and tell him to take you to the library.  And throw away the phone.”

Henry.

He knew his name.  Knew his middle name to be precise.  Only three people knew his middle name.  His mother—his wife—and his partner.  Make that only two people.  His partner was dead.  Dead two years now.  Detective John Urban was shot down in cold blood getting out of his car in the parking lot of the apartment complex he lived in.  Dead from six bullets drilled into his chest and head.

But . . .

He said,  Henry.

Said in a certain utterance, a certain tone, so familiar to him.  Not the same voice as his old partner.  The voice was different.  But in the way it was said sounding so familiar.  As if. . . as if.

Frowning, snapping the phone shut he turned and headed for the door.  Opening the door he smacked the flap open to the trash can and dropped the phone into it as he put his hat on and stepped out into the rain.  Walking quickly to the cab he slid into the back seat and told the cabbie the address.

Some sonofabitch was playing with him.  Playing tricks on him.  Making him think John was alive.  Bringing up old memories.  Painful memories.  Whoever this bastard was he was going to pay.  Pay dearly for this prank.

The library on the corner of James and Runyon was a gray slab monstrosity complete with massive Grecian pillars littering the front part of the building.  Half way up the eighty steps leading from the street the library was a wide, paved landing.  In the middle of the landing was a fountain.  In the middle of the fountain was a massive replica of Michelangelo’s David—albeit a copy more modestly clothed—towering above the mere mortals who ascended or descended the library steps.

Bounding up the steps with an agility that belied his fifty-seven years he paid no attention to the fountain or its famous statue.  Entering the massive silence of the biggest library building in the state he stopped for a moment in the outer entrance to shake the rain off him and remove his hat and coat.  Carrying his hat and coat in one hand he moved through the set of glass doors which led into the main portion of the library itself and stopped to view the vast expanse of space and shelved books silently but intently.

A few dozen patrons were sitting at the long oak tables near the magazine and periodical racks.  A few more milled slowly through the stacks upon stacks of books.  Taking in everyone, one at a time, he studied each individual closely.  But no one looked familiar.  No John Urban came forward.  All seemed as it should.  Frowning, he began walking across the polished dark marble floor toward the main check out and information desk.

“Yes, may I help you?”

“The name is Joseph Abrams.  Detective Joseph Abrams.  I believe I have a package here for me?”

“Ah. Indeed you do, sir.” the young woman answered, smiling and bending down behind the counter to retrieve a large manila envelope. “You’ve been assigned reading room 12B.  That’s up on the balcony above the magazine gallery over there.”

“Thank you,” he said, collecting the envelope and turning to scan for the nearest elevator or stairs.

Sitting at the nearest table to the librarian’s counter was a young man in his twenties wearing soiled looking tennis shoes and dressed in clothes fresh from the racks of the Salvation Army.  Shaggy, wet haired, with a three day old beard—no where near the age or build of his dead partner.  Frowning he walked past the boy and headed for a set of elevators.

In the nearest stack of books roamed an old man in his late sixties.  Tall, thin, dressed conservatively, the man had a head of white hair neatly groomed who steadied himself on a dark ebony can.  No—much too old and too thin to be John.

When the elevators opened on the balcony he stepped out and almost into the smiling face of very young woman.  She was about five foot seven, voluptuous, with long brown hair and startling blue eyes.  Half embarrassed he stepped back and apologized and watched the woman smile pleasantly and disappear into the elevator.

No one else was on the balcony as he turned and walked down a narrow hall lined with small glassed in reading rooms.  Reaching 12B he opened the door, stepped in, closing the door behind him.  In his hand was the heavy manila envelope.  Inside he could feel the hard outline of a plastic box along with a thick wad of papers.  Pulling a chair back from the small table in the middle of the room he sat down and tore open the seal of the envelope.  Inside was a cheap tape recorder with a sticky note attached to the top of it.

“Play the tape, Henry.  Afterward take the tape with you and store it in a safe place.”

With a hesitant finger the big boned, balding homicide detective of twenty years reached up and pressed down on the Play button.

“Good morning, Henry.”

Again—that frightening voice.  So different . . . so cold.  Yet oddly  . . . so familiar.

“Forgive me for these cheap theatrics.  I know what you are thinking.  You think someone is playing a trick on you.  An elaborate trick and you’re mad as hell.  I know.  I can see that pulsating vein on your forehead beating now.”

Startled he threw a hand up and touched his forehead.  The vein was indeed pulsating.  He could feel it.  Angrily he hit the Stop button and looked out the glass windows of the reading room and peered into the other reading rooms across from his.  But they were empty.  Getting up he stepped out of his reading room moved down the hall and checked all the reading rooms.  And then toured around the balcony.  But there was no one to be found.  He was alone on the balcony.  The only one to occupy any of the reading rooms.

Angry, yet puzzled, he made his way back to the small cubicle and closed the door behind him before sitting down.  Punching the Play button again he sat back and folded hands together on the table in front of him.  He would listen to the tape through its entirety before he made another move.

“Listen, we haven’t much time and much has to be done.  Through a friend of ours I’ve come back to help you catch the murderers of your old partner.  Yes, Henry.  The man you knew as John Urban is dead.  Dead and buried.  If you need a name to scribble onto the folder of a criminal investigation, just write one word.  Smitty.  I’ve come back to finish up what was started.  I’ve come back to find the killers of John and his wife.  He and his wife weren’t gunned down in some random act of gangland violence.  No.  Your partner was gunned down because he had a contract out on his head.  Someone paid big money to end John Urban’s life.  Big money.  What I propose to do is bring his murderer to justice.”

Sonofabitch!

He knew it.  He knew his partner went down from a hit.  He knew it!  But there was nothing . . . nothing . . . for evidence to prove it.  The police commissioner sent in a team of investigators with orders to investigate and write up a report as fast possible.  To wrap it up and forget about it.  He protested.  He wanted more time to investigate.  But it was like talking to a brick wall.  No one was listening to Joseph Abrams these days.

“Henry, your partner was secretly working with the Feds.  He was a mole within the department.  The Feds were using him in their investigations on the commissioner.  They thought he was dirty.  John was recruited by the Feds to bring the PC and his mob boss down.  Apparently they were right.  Somehow the mob heard about the investigation and decided to take action.  John Urban was their prime investigator and he was getting close.  So they decided to take him out.

“The folder in the envelope contains the secret notes he kept in a safe place just in case something happened.  The mob doesn’t know about this.  Nor do the Feds.  As far as I know the Feds investigation unit have closed shop and gone back to Washington.  The Commish and his mob boss both think they’re in the clear.  But they’re wrong.  I know what they did.  All I have to do is provide evidence to prove what they did and give it to you.  In the next week things are going to happen. You’ll be hearing some rumbling from the streets.  That will be me.  By the end of the week I should have something for you.  I’ll talk to you Sunday night, Henry.  Give my love to Helen and the boys and tell Helen I do miss her coconut cream pie.”

Aaaaugh!

John loved coconut cream pie.  But . . . but . . . but he was dead!  Even the voice on the tape said he was dead!  Yet. . . yet . . . the reference to coconut cream pie.   Why?  Who?

Color drained from his face and his right hand started to tremble.  He felt suddenly like throwing up in a trash can violently.  He was finding it difficult to breathe.   Coming to his feet he felt his knees buckle.  Catching himself with one hand slamming onto the table he steadied himself and stood up.  Somehow he threw on the heavy trench coat.  Vaguely he remembered slipping the thick sheaf of papers—his partner’s notes—inside his coat.

Jesus.  Was John dead?  Could the dead come back to life?  But . . . but . . . if John was dead who was the person behind the deep, harsh whisper talking on the tape and sounding so much like his old friend?  Did he—could he—believe in ghosts?

 

From his vantage point behind the steering wheel he watched Joseph Abrams run across the busy street to the precinct station. The old detective ran with his head bent down so his hat could protect his face from the driving rain.  Sitting, watching, both hands gently wrapped around the wheel delicately—like the delicate grip of a surgeon—the dark eyes of a lurking Cobra watched the old friend of a friend and partner make his way through the traffic.  As he watched a thin slit of a pleasure creased his narrow lips.

His old friend was still alive.  Still a cop.  Still honest.

One of the few left.

But one dangerously close to the flames.  Something had to be done.  Someone had to step in and save him and his family.  Someone had to do the dirty work.  To cut the monsters down at their knees and bring some form of justice and retribution.

Joe couldn’t do it.  He was only a couple of years away from retiring.  And he wasn’t in Homicide any longer.  Those who pulled the strings wanted Joe safely tucked away.  Tucked away and incapable of snooping deeper into his partner’s death.  So now he rode a desk in Burglary.  As far away from the action as a cop in Homicide could get.

Yet there still were those who wanted to plant his old partner under a bed of roses.  He and his family.  Eyelids half closed as he watched the front of the precinct house through the rain.  The mask of a killer slid across his face as he thought about those who wanted to harm Joe and his family.  No one was going to harm this man.  Nor his family.

No one.

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