A Dish Served Cold (4+5)
“How the hell did my phone wind up in that parking lot? Huh? Tell me, dammit! I lost that thing a month ago. A month ago!”
Kirkland Barrows glared at the two men standing a few paces away from him. Both of them were smartly dressed in expensive tailored sport coats and slacks and patent leather Italian loafers. Both men were in their early forties. Both hardened killers with no conscience. Yet both of them were distinctly nervous. Neither wanted to be in the same room when their boss was almost apoplectic with rage. Only god knew what might happen next.
Barrows kept pacing back and forth in front of the large set of French doors which filled the private library full of sunlight. On the other side of the doors were the well manicured lawns and gardens of his country villa. Through the glass one of Burrows’ lieutenants could see two men with Uzis strolling down the white gravel gardens. The boss’ country villa was more like a private country. Men with guns were everywhere. The boss liked his privacy—liked his security. It would take an army to break in here. An army of ninjas.
“Forty fucking million dollars! Forty million! That’s what this sonofabitch has cost me! And is he dead yet? Has anyone found out who this piece of shit is? What he looks like? Tell me! Has anyone?”
The taller of the two lieutenants glanced at the man beside him and then turned back to look at Barrows. With hands stuffed in his tailored slacks he shrugged and answered in a quiet voice.
“Apparently this guy wears disguises. First he’s a kid with stringy hair. Then he shows up at the warehouse looking like Frankie Harrison. The spitting image of Frankie. Problem is Frankie is in California. Been there for three days. In jail no less. Charged with disorderly conduct and assault.”
Barrows turned and glared at Mario Gibbons. Cold, murderous eyes took in the darkly handsome features of his number two lieutenant. Gibbons worked the gambling and drug trafficking aspect of the business. The Reed Hellion gang had been a part of that organization. He had been working a lot of hours lately trying to fill in and rebuild the hole created by this faceless madman. Doing a good job getting it rebuilt. Gibbons was aggressive, smart, calculating and ambitious. Just the type of man he wanted in that position.
“When do our friends arrive?” he rumbled still staring at his lieutenant with a face set for murder.
“Taggert comes in at six tonight from LA. I’ll pick him up at the airport and take him over to The Stanzi. I’ll fill in the details as we drive from the airport to the hotel.”
“Grundy is on the midnight flight,” the other man pitched in quickly. “He’s got a room at the Bristol Arms. We’ll pick him up and give him the full skivvy as well.”
“Do they know two of’em are hunting for this ghost?”
Both of his lieutenants shook their heads no for answer. Barrows’ eyes fell onto the rounded, pock marked face of Jesus Garcia. Garcia was a cold blooded sadist who loved his work. His main responsibilities were hijacking and transporting stolen goods, illegal arms sales, and car theft rings. On any given day his unit stole between fifty and a hundred high priced, expensive autos across the country and either shipped them off to buyers in other countries or stripped them down for parts. The illegal arms side of the business was seventy million dollars a year thriving business. And growing exponentially with each passing year.
“How did this sonofabitch get my phone, Jesus? It wound up missing a month ago. We went out to Rivera’s to eat and I remember distinctly leaving it on our table as I went to the men’s room. You were sitting at the table with me. When I come back it’s gone. Disappeared.”
“Boss,” Garcia quickly answered, lifting a hand up defensively and hurriedly speaking up. “I didn’t see the damn thing. Honest. I remember going to Rivera’s with you. I remember you getting up to go to the john. But your phone on the table? I swear I don’t remember seeing it at all.”
Barrows took in the full image of Jesus Garcia with gray slate colored eyes. Garcia was just as tough, just as effective, and just as ambitious as Mario Gibbons. But Gibbons moved with a calculated, well thought out plan. Sometimes Garcia moved too fast. Took risks. Most of the time the end results were spectacularly rewarding financially. But sometimes . . . sometimes . . . he moved too fast. Made mistakes. Mistakes which had to be quickly resolved before unfortunate tidings happened.
“Both of you, get out. Get out and find this sonofabitch. I want his head setting on my desk by Sunday night. You hear me? By Sunday night.”
Both men turned and left the library as fast as they could and yet not look as if they were running away. Barrows watched Garcia close the door behind him and frowned. Forty fucking million dollars! Jesus! Moving away from the French doors he walked across the room to a large mahogany bar built into one of the walls. Pouring himself a tall glass of scotch on the rocks he took a long pull from the glass before turning and staring out into the gardens.
Who was this ghost? Who did he work for? Was he a hired gun coming in to stir up trouble? Or was he just some nut case who decided to have his moment of glory before becoming just another corpse rotting at the bottom of the bay? Whoever he was he had to be dealt with and dealt with harshly. In his line of work he couldn’t afford anyone coming into his territory and messing with him.
Two miles away a lone figure sat in a White cab with a pair of small ear phones over his ears. One hand was held up to his right ear as he listened intently. A hand remarkably gray in color. Gray as in the color of a corpse. As he listened a grim sneer swept across his colorless lips. Reaching down he hit the Stop button on the small cassette and then pulled the earphones off and tossed them onto the front seat beside him just as someone hurried out of a jewelry store and opened the rear door of his cab and slid in.
“Can you take me to the corner of Harmon and Spruce streets, buddy? And fast? There’s an extra twenty if you can.”
Glancing up into his rear view mirror he saw a young man in his late twenties sitting in the back with a wide grin plastered on his lips. He was looking down at the small open box he held with an unusual gentleness with both hands. In the box was a big, sparkling diamond ring.
“Getting married, friend?” he asked, starting up the cab and throwing the gearshift down into drive.
“Hell, I hope so. But she’s got to say yes first.”
He pulled out into the light traffic and began speeding away. Glancing into the mirror again the dark, emotionless eyes looked at the young man and smiled.
“She’ll say yes, son. And keep your money. This ride is on me.”
Glancing up the young man saw the back of the cabbie’s head and grinned in pleasure.
“Hey, thanks. I can take Jenny out to lunch. Cool!”
Two men walked their way though the revolving glass doors of The Stanzi and entered the almost deserted hotel lobby together. One of the men was Mario Gibbons. The other was a smaller man dressed in slacks and a sport coat. Strapped over his shoulder and handing down his side was a heavy looking tote back. The man had a sharply angular face, long arms and legs, and large hands. He moved with a long striding gait. A gait which forced Gibbons to hurry in order to keep up with him. Neither man looked left nor right as they moved through the lobby and stopped in front of the check in desk.
From his vantage point of sitting on a bar stool in the small pub attached to the hotel lobby, he reached for his foaming glass of beer and watched Gibbons and the hired killer. The man standing beside Gibbons was about four inches shorter but not nearly as solidly built as Kirkland Barrows’ trusted lieutenant. Nevertheless the out of town talent looked dangerous. Certainly the reputation which preceded the man declared the man quite dangerous.
He watched the two move away from the check in desk and then disappear into an elevator. When the elevator doors slid shut he smiled, threw a sawbuck onto the bar and rolled off the barstool in one smooth motion. Walking out into the night he strolled around the corner of the hotel and then slid in behind the wheel of the White cab company’s Crown Vic Ford. In the darkness he found the ear buds lying on the seat and quickly threw them on. Punching a button on a small black box sitting on the seat a little red light exploded into life—as did voices coming through the ear buds.
“ . . . this chump has cost the boss big chunks of change. Big chunks. He wants the kid dead and his head delivered to him personally.”
“His head,” confirmed Gibbons. “Never saw Barrows this mad. I’ve seen him mad, sure. And when he gets mad he does crazy things. But I’ve never seen him this mad. Talking to him today I thought he was going to plug me or Garcia right between the eyes. Sacred the shit out of me, to tell you the truth.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen him that mad before. Know what you mean.”
There was the sound of a zipper opening and then the sound of ice rattling into empty glasses. Drinks were being poured. Gibbons was playing the role of host. And then the conversation began again.
“Any leads on who this guy is?”
“Nothing,” Gibbons grunted, sighing, after taking apparently a long pull from his glass. “I’ve got half my men out scouring the city. Haven’t come up with a damn thing yet.”
“Coming into the hotel—the guy sitting at the end of the bar drinking a beer—did you see him?”
“Wha. . . who?”
“The guy at the bar. Skinny looking kid wearing blue jeans and a White Cab jacket. He was drinking a glass of beer and watching us. Didn’t you see him?”
In the darkness of the cab a thin, deadly smile played across the faceless man’s gray lips. So he had been spotted. Good. Good. Pulling the ear buds off he tossed them into the seat and then started the car up and moved away from the curb slowly.
Now to attract the attention of the second hired gun.
Joseph Abrams paused in front of the double doors leading into the formaldehyde-smelling morgue and stared at the doors dully. It was a dilapidated old brick building—once a meat packing plant the city converted into a morgue. It had all the ambiance of a Soviet gulag. Or a concentration camp. And it always smelled. Smelled of formaldehyde and death.
What the hell was he doing here? John Urban was dead. Dead. He saw the body of his partner and his wife lying on the metal autopsy tables side by side. Saw the bullet holes in the man’s chest. Saw the gunshot wound which blew half the man’s head off. There was no possible way John could be alive.
Still . . . .
He couldn’t shake it off. This gut feeling that John was—somehow, someway—alive. The voice on the recorder. . . the voice speaking to him on the phone. Not John’s voice. Not even a human’s voice. An involuntary shudder shook his big frame thinking about . . . remembering . . . the sound of that voice. No. It didn’t sound human. It sounded like something a ghoul or a zombie might sound like. Yet what he said, how he said it, sounded so much like John. So . . . so . . . was it possible? Could John be alive? Come back from the grave? Maybe Doctor Maranaja could give him some answers.
Yeah. Maybe the attending coroner might have answers.
He looked at his watch and frowned. Few worked the morgue on the third shift. Just Doctor Maranaja and two or three assistants. Walking down the long, empty, fluorescent lit corridor leading to the coroner’s examination room and offices, Abrams felt definitely uneasy. The long corridor with the polished black tile floor and white walls and white ceiling was definitely creepy. Like the old horror movies he loved as a boy. Long corridors in spooky old castles, or dust filled ones cutting through long lost ancient pyramids. The anticipation of what lay at the end always got to him. Lots of times, as a young kid, even before the monster would jump out from some dark corner, he would run to his grandmother sitting in her favorite chair and hide behind her. Hide behind her, but unable to turn his eyes away from the television screen.
But he was no longer that frightened young child. He was a grown man. A twenty-eight year veteran of the city’s police force. He had seen it all. The gore. The blood. The bodies. The psychos. He had investigated homicides so maleficent, so strange, no Hollywood producer could think of something more horrific.
Still, here in the morgue—a seemingly deserted morgue—he couldn’t help but feel the heebie-jeebies. Past closed doors of offices with no lights showing from within, he walked. Past labs usually filled by techs but now barren and darkened. Not a sound, not even the whine of the air conditioner disturbing the silence.
Turning a corner he stopped in his tracks. The double doors in front of him led directly into a lab used for autopsies. Through the small rectangular windows adorning each door he saw the lights were out in the lab. Frowning, Abrams turned . . . . and stared directly into the dark eyes of Dr. Maranaja.
“Christ!” Abrams shouted, jumping back involuntarily, one hand coming up to brace against the cool wall of the hallway. “Where the hell did you come from!”
He had just appeared. Materialized out of thin air. Without making a sound. Like a ghost.
The doctor was a tall, gaunt creature slightly bent forward, with eyes that seemed to never blink and a sickly kind of a smirk permanently frozen on his colorless lips. Maranaja was Indian. Or Pakistani. Definitely Hindi. But he looked like a walking corpse. The usually brown flesh tones of someone from that part of the world strangely absent. Replaced with a kind of grayish blue color of the skin—again like that of a corpse. And those eyes . . . never blinking. Staring at you.
“What can I do for you, Detective Abrams?”
The voice quiet. Almost like a whisper. Yet strangely soothing—almost hypnotic. Abrams closed his eyes and took a deep breath and tried to collect his composure. The good doctor had just scared the hell out of him. Counting to three slowly he opened his eyes. And noticed immediately the thick medical file in one of the doctor’s hands.
“Perhaps you would like to re-read the files again, detective. My autopsy files on your old partner. I understand you have concerns, possibly questions, you wish to ask me.”
“How did you know . . . ?”
Maranaja smiled and shrugged gently.
“Word gets around. I understand you’ve been interested in a series of murders that have recently happened. Interested not in the victims themselves but with the person who has committed these foul deeds. Is that true, detective?”
Abrams swallowed and nodded silently as he reached for the files.
“I know John is dead. I saw him lying on the autopsy table in there. But I’ve had these . . . these phone calls. From a person who claims he knew John and knew why he was gunned down. But I get this . . . this feeling that . . . you know . . . that make me feel . . .”
“As if you are talking to a ghost?” the doctor finished for him, the unblinking eyes looking directly at Abrams, the doctor’s smile widening a bit. “I assure you, detective. The man you know as John Urban is dead. Dead and buried.”
“But . . . .”
“The world is full of mysteries, detective. Unexplained mysteries. Your Western Culture struggles with the concept of ghosts and spirits and wandering souls. But where I come from such things are accepted as a reality. Even embraced. Yet I can assure you the person you are talking about is a living, breathing, human being. A person made of flesh and bone. He is no ghost, detective. He is no wandering spirit. When you find him, if you find him, you’ll discover this for yourself.”
Abrams nodded, blinked, and realized they were standing outside the morgue. Standing on the landing where ambulances unloaded their cargoes and wheeled them inside. Standing in front of the doors he had just entered a few minutes ago. And he had no idea how he and the ghoul of a doctor came here.
“Read the autopsy reports, Detective Abrams. They are complete. They will remove all doubts. But if you do have lingering concerns please come back and consult with me whenever you like. I am always here.”
Abrams nodded, feeling vaguely numb, turned and walked to his car and opened the door. Throwing the files onto the passenger seat he looked up one more question to ask the doctor. But Maranaja was gone. Disappeared. Like smoke suddenly swept away by a stiff breeze.
“Jesus,” he mumbled, shaking his and sliding into the car.