A Dish Served Cold (8+9)

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Hooch’s was doing well tonight.  Paying customers filled the smoke-filled bar in a tight mass of relaxed inebriation.  From the six flat-panel TV screens various sporting events were being televised.  But no one was listening. 

The cacophony of conversations was a muted but constant background noise.   As he walked into the bar, Smitty turned  his head to the right to check the bar and then turned left to see where his prey were perching themselves.

The kid, a small-time hood who worked for Kirkland Barrows as a basic grunt, was sitting on a barstool popping handfuls of peanuts into his mouth and working on the forth or fifth bottle of beer.  A thin smirk played across his lips.  The kid had no idea he was being used a decoy.  Just a dumb kid who thought he was a tough hood.  The perfect patsy.

Magnano-switchblade

Looking to his left as he moved past the kid and headed for an empty bar stool, he saw both Taggert and Grundy sitting at a table with bottles of beer sitting on the tables in front of them.  They were sitting alone at their respective tables.  Sitting alone and keeping their eye on the kid.  Didn’t even flicker an interest when he entered the bar, walked across their respective lines of vision, and sat down on the far corner barstool.  Ordering a beer Smitty kept his eyes away from both the kid and the two hit men.  There was no need to watch them.  He knew what was going to happen.  Knew precisely. Thirty minutes went by before he looked down at his Rolex strapped to his wrist.  At 11:45 pm the kid reaches back, pulls out his billfold, and throws two twenties on the counter and tells the bartender to keep the change.

Standing up the kid turned and headed for the front door of the bar.  Lifting a beer bottle to his lips Smitty waited.  Two minutes walk by and then Taggert gets up from his table and leaves.  A minute later Grundy rises.   When the door closes behind Grundy he waits for a minute more and finishes his beer.  Nodding to the bartender he stands up and walks back to the pub’s restrooms.  Bypassing the men’s room door Smitty lets himself out of the pub’s rear door and blends into the blackness of a back alley.

All players were in place.  The plan functioning smoothly.  The hunt was on.

Taggert kept a block back separating him from the kid.  His prey was half stumbling, bouncing off the cold stone exterior walls of buildings like a drunk.  The kid was blitzed.  Barely sober enough to walk in the driving rain.  Taggert grinned.  Plucking him into a dark alley and killing the kid would be easy.  Child’s play.  The rain almost guaranteed no one would bother him when he went to work. The only real work he would have to do was using the knife to cut the kid’s head off.  Bloody work.  But the payday coming when he delivered the kid’s head to Barrows would more than make up for it.

He followed the kid for three blocks.  Three blocks through the rain and cold.  Waiting.  Waiting for the right moment to strike.  It came soon enough.  Stepping down into the mouth of an alley that bisected a city block the kid stops and bends over.  And throws up violently everything he had drunk and ate for the last four hours.  Again and again, throwing a hand up to brace himself on a stone wall in the process.

Taggert began walking faster.  He thought the alley would be the perfect spot to ice the kid.  No prying eyes.  No witnesses to worry about.  Reaching inside his trench coat he decides to forget about the 9 mm.  Pulling the hunting knife free from its sheath he grips it firmly as he steps off the sidewalk just behind the kid.  Starting to lift the blade up to make the killing blow . . .

From out of the side of an eye he sees a black form moving.  Moving out of the alley.  Moving fast and toward him.  Taggert turns to confront the new menace.  But it’s too late.  A tire iron slams across the front of Taggert’s face.  The force of the blow instantly breaking the man’s nose.  He bends over in blinding pain.  As he does another blow with the tire iron across the back of his neck drops him to his knees.  Dazed, more unconscious than conscious, vaguely he feels a hand grab the back of his trench coat and pull him violently into the darkness of the alley.  And then . . . blackness.  Total blackness.

The kid, retching one more time violently, stands up and turns around.  His stomach is rolling the dry heaves.  He feels as if he’s about to die.  He can barely stand.  Blinking the unfocused eyes of a drunk in the darkness he frowns.  For the life of him he thought he heard noises behind him.  Something hard smacking into something—what?  Bone?  Flesh?  But there’s no one around.  The alley opening is as dark as the pit of a black hole.  The rain is falling out of the sky so hard the streets are beginning to flood.  There’s not a soul to seen.

Jesus.  He’s sick.  As sick as he had ever been.  He needs to go to bed.  To sleep this off.  He’s so drunk he’s starting to hear things that aren’t there.  Turning, he moves on down the sidewalk.  One more block and he’d be home.  Home and in bed.  Jesus.  Was he drunk.

Grundy frowned.  Two blocks in front of him was the long, lanky frame of the kid staggering down the sidewalk.  But a block behind the kid was a lone figure.  A lone figure wearing a hat and a trench coat.  A guy obviously trailing the kid.  A form that moved in a way that made him think he might know the guy.  Maybe.

Who was this guy?  Why was the guy as interested in the kid as he was?  And then it hit him.  Another hitter.  A second hitter Kirkland Barrows hired as insurance.  The bastard.  Barrows always played this trick.  Always brought a second hitter in to do a job.  Just in case.  Just in case the first hitter screwed up.

But not tonight, buddy.  Not tonight.  What Barrows was paying out to get this kid’s head was more than enough to absorb the addition of taking out someone else in the process.  Be damned if he was going to allow another hitter to step up and take his payday away from him.  The way he saw it was a two-for-one deal.  He’d take out the competition first.  And then the kid.  One less competitor to worry about in the future.  One insanely obscene paycheck in the end.

Grundy smiled and started walking.  Keeping a half block behind his first victim.  The rain was vicious.  Cold and vicious.  It seemed like with each step it increased in intensity.  By the time two blocks go by, he could barely see the kid in the darkness.  Hands in his pockets his right hand was curled around the butt of a Heckler & Koch 9mm.  His left hand gripped a surgeon’s scalpel.  Barrows wanted a head.  He’d get one.  Maybe two.

Four blocks up from the bar Grundy saw the kid stop and bend over and start throwing up in the opening of an alley.  He grinned suddenly and started running.  That’s where the first hitter was going to strike.  In front of the alley.  He was going to take the kid out, drag him into the alley, and then do the grisly work.  If he moved fast enough he’d find the first hitter bent over working on the kid’s neck.  Wouldn’t even hear him step up behind him and pop him one with his silenced 9mm.  Both would be dead before they even knew it.

Sheets of rain momentarily hide the kid and the first hitter in front of him.  By time he got up to the alley there’s no one in sight.  Everyone must be in the alley.  Pulling his 9mm from his coat pocket he stepped up to the opening of the alley and cautiously peeks around to take a look.  Dimly in the darkest recesses he sees a figure kneeling over a body, back turned to him.  Grinning . . . thinking this was going to be so easy . . . he steps into the alley and moves through the rain up to just behind the kneeling figure.

Lifting his weapon up to take a shot—his eyes adjusting to the deeper darkness—he suddenly realizes something’s wrong.  Very wrong.  What he thought was a body lying on the alley’s grime infested street was not a body.  It was a long box.  A box with a coat hanging off it.  From the mouth of the alley in the rain and darkness it looked like a body—the kid’s body.  And the first hitter—something was wrong there was well.  The guy wasn’t moving.  He really wasn’t actually kneeling.  Someone had propped a shoulder up against a trash bin in just the right position to make it look as if a person was kneeling.

Grundy panicked.  Knew he had walked into a trap.  Knew he had to leave, and leave fast, before the cops.  He knew the cops were coming.  Knew this was some crazy trap.  Knew he had to turn and run.  So he turned.  Turned and bent over to start running.  And died instantly.

A black form was standing immediately behind him. A black form with a large serrated knife in his right hand.  The moment Grundy turned, the knife came up and buried itself to the hilt into Grundy’s chest just below the sternum.  He staggered.  His legs failed him.  For about a half second he felt something warm and salty tasting in his mouth.  Surprise—complete and eternal—filled his mind.  He blinked once. Tried to focus his eyes onto the image of the dark figure in front of him.  But it was too dark.  Too dark.  A darkness that would last for eternity.

Smitty held onto Grundy’s body and lowered it gently to the alley.  Leaving the knife sticking out of the dead man’s chest he stepped over the body and moved two steps toward the unconscious, badly battered figure of Taggert, and bent down.  Picking up the crow bar he turned and walked back to Grundy.  Kneeling, Smitty placed the crow bar into Grundy’s dead hand and then curled the dead man’s fingers around the cold steel.  There had to be fingerprints.  Clear fingerprints that it was Grundy who handled the crow bar in this alley fight.  Satisfied, Smitty stood up and started walking briskly to the alley’s opening.  From inside his coat he pulled out a cell phone, flipped it open, and speed dialed a number.

“Police?  Good.  I need to talk to Detective Joe Abrams . . .”

Nine

Gently . . . so gently . . .Joe Abrams put the phone receiver back on its base and stepped away from the desk.  His face was as pale as the fresh wrappings of a mummy.  Looking to his right his eyes fall on the form of Noel Sergeant standing beside the desk.  A look of intense interest in the man’s brown eyes.

“That was the commissioner?”

Joe Abrams swallowed, ran a hand down the front of his face, and nodded.

“He’s chewing your ass out for these series of murders?  What the frack!  We’re in Burglary.  Not Homicide.”

“He thinks . . . he thinks I . . .we . . . need to take over the investigation.  Somehow he heard about me asking questions about John . . John Urban.  About me possibly tying the murders together with a ghost.  He told me to assemble a task force.  Detectives . . . patrol officers . . . the works.  He wants this madman found and brought to justice.  No excuses.”

“But Joe, hell, you haven’t been in Homicide for more than fifteen years.  How the hell do they expect you to come up with anything?  Homicide’s been working on it for almost a week and they’ve found nothing.  Nothing but dead bodies.”

“But this guy calls me, Noel.  Calls me whenever he does something.  Like last night.  Called me to let me know one bad guy was dead.  Killed by another bad guy.  Rival hit men.  How did he know all that?  How did he know that one was hunting the other? Where we could find them?  Jesus.  He sounds so . . .so . . . familiar.  He almost sounds like my old partner.  But that can’t be.  It just can’t be.  I know John is dead.  I know it.  I had to identify his body and his wife’s body.”

“So who is this guy?”

“Somebody.  Somebody who knew John.  Somebody who knows me.  Somewhere, somehow, there’s a connection.  An intersection that has me, John, and this killer all coming together somewhere from out of our past.  It has to be.  There’s no other explanation.”

“Unless you really do believe in ghosts.”

Abrams looked at his younger partner and frowned.

“I don’t.  Not really.  Do you?”

The younger detective opened his mouth and started to say something smarmy—something flippant.   But the look on the face of his older partner stopped him.  Grinning, he shrugged and began shaking his head.

“I dunno, Joe.  I dunno.  Who the hell is this guy?”

Joe Abrams frowned, glanced down at the office desk filled with files, names, reports—all they could find about his old partner—and shook his head.  For a moment he stared at the paperwork.  And then, as if making a decision, reached inside his sport coat and pulled out an ink pen.  Bending over the desk to scribble some names he stood up a moment later and handed the paper to his partner.

“Here.  Here’s who we want on our task force.  Give’em a call and tell’em we’re having our first session as a unit at 0950 hours tomorrow.  Tell’em this comes straight from the commissioner.  And don’t be late.”

Noel Sergeant took the paper, nodded, and said he’d get on it just as soon as he came back from the men’s room.  Joe watched his partner walk out of the empty squad room.  With Noel’s departure he was the only one left in the wide, long squad room.  Only a couple of fans and some ambient city noise assaulted his senses.  Outside the rain rattled against the windows.  The goddamn rain.  Was it ever going to quit?  Making a face he reached across his desk and slapped the empty coffee cup in one hand and turned to walk over to the small squad room coffee pot.

The room quiet.  The rain falling outside.  The soft hum of small electric fans sitting on one or two detective desks.  Pouring something black and hot and more or less labeled as coffee Joe curled fingers around the steaming cup and turned  . . .

Dr. Maranaja.

Standing directly behind him.

Standing not more than a foot away. Long, slightly bent over—a cadaverous looking creature.

“Jesus!”

Involuntarily Joe jerked and stepped backwards.  Completely startled—coffee flying in a high arc over his right shoulder and splashing against the dirty plaster walls of the squad room.

“Christ, doctor!  Are you trying to kill me?  That’s twice you’ve scared the shit out of me.  Another jolt like that and I’ll have a heart attack.  Swear to god!”

“My apologies, detective.  But I thought I had to come and see you.  I feel a disturbance.  A disturbance in the afterlife.  Dark forces are stirring up the slumbering souls.  Things are about to happen.  Terrible things.”

The detective took another step back from the strange looking man in front of him and forced himself to regain his composure.  And then—deliberately—turned and reached for the coffee pot one more time.

“I thought you were a physician.  A man of science.  But here you are talking to me like some character out of Star Wars.  A disturbance in the afterlife?  What the hell does that mean?”

A patient, sad . . . almost mocking smile of tolerance spread across the colorless lips of the doctor.   Watching the detective pour his coffee and sit the coffee pot back on the small burner before turning around to face him again, the doctor watched the detective with tolerant interest.

“You are right, detective.  I embrace Western science completely.  But nothing in science compels me to abandon what my ancestors have known and accepted for centuries.  I may add that science is beginning to explore the possibilities my ancestors have accepted for all this time.”

“That there are ghosts?  That our soul never dies?”

Abrams stepped past the doctor and walked to his desk.  Anger and frustration clearly written on his face. Doctor Maranaja followed and then slowly eased himself down into a chair beside the detective’s desk.

“What the hell?  You want me to believe John Urban has come back from the dead and is killing everyone who was involved in his murder? In his wife’s murder? Is that what you are telling me?”

“As I said earlier detective,” Maranaja responded with a soft, tolerant voice.  The voice of a parent speaking to a child. “Your friend is dead.  Physically dead.  His soul resides in the afterlife.  His physical presence cannot return to the living.”

“But his ghost can,” Abrams said, finishing the doctor’s unsaid sentence.

“Yes.  In a way, detective.  In a way.  But not in the way you think.”

Abrams, pulling back his office chair, sat down and sat the coffee cup down and started to say something.  A caustic remark that he didn’t have time for this kind of hocus-pocus blabbering.  But a hand, with long, boney fingers and a narrow palm came up and silenced him.

“Give me a few moments to explain, detective.  I think you will find, in the end, something of worth in it.”

Eyes blazing Joe Abrams held back a hot retort, glared at the strange physician for a moment and then nodded.  Reluctantly.

“Thank you,” the doctor smiled and laid a small file onto Abram’s desk.  A file that Abrams never saw the doctor carrying earlier. “For a moment, detective, let the Western scientist in me ramble on a sentence or two.   Accept, if you will, the idea that our souls—our consciousness—our thoughts are electro-magnetically charged particles that are formed and maintained in a compact magnetic field. That compact magnetic field being our bodies.  Our souls are our consciousness.  Our thoughts are only a tiny part of the total package which makes up our unique magnetic signatures.

“While we reside in physical form, this magnetic field maintains itself in one specific, concise magnetic frequency—much like a radio wave’s frequency is different from, say, a television broadcast frequency.  But when we die, detective—when we die, this frequency changes.  Higher or lower in frequency I cannot tell.  But it changes.  It becomes, for the majority of us, unreachable and undetectable to our senses.  We don’t die, my friend.  Not in the way Western science defines as death.  We change.  We ascend—or descend—into a different magnetic frequency.”

Joe Abrams stared at the cadaverous looking man sitting in the chair beside his desk and said nothing.  Said nothing.  But the anger in him—the fear—the uncertainly which had for almost a week now filled his consciousness with a pounding intensity was gone.  Completely gone.  And relief . . .waves of relief . . . filled his mind with an odd form of sensual pleasure.

“Ah, I see I have struck a certain chord detective,” the doctor whispered softly and nodding.  “You begin to glean what I am trying to convey.  Shall I continue?”

Joe Abrams nodded.  His full attention centered directly on the good doctor.

“Those of us who see, or feel, ghosts are not seeing or feeling the supernatural.  We are seeing or feeling something tangible.  Something real.  I mentioned magnetic fields and radio waves and frequencies.  Indeed, that is what we are.  But for us—for the living—some of us are receptors.  We are radio receivers who can, for some unexplainable reason, become aware of these frequencies our departed friends have ascended to.  We make contact with them either directly or indirectly.

I have noticed those who become closely attached to others . . . parents to children, husbands to wives, close friends—and sometimes, sometimes—even fierce enemies . . . unconsciously develop the mental antennas which locks in on the frequencies of the dead.  Can feel their presence . . . their emotions . . . their thoughts . . . from beyond the grave.  Much like you have, detective.  You—and the person who is exacting his revenge on those who killed your partner and his wife.”

Joe Abrams stared at Doctor Maranaja for a few moments, his mind filled with impossible thoughts.  A part of him wanted to reject everything this strange man was saying.  A far larger part of him was telling him the odd looking doctor was absolutely correct.  He could feel John Urban’s anger.  His anger at being so brutally gunned down.  His burning desire to exact revenge.  Yet . . .

“I know, detective.  I know,” the doctor smiled, nodded sagely as he rose slowly from his chair.  Yet as he did, one boney finger from his left hand folded open like a switch-blade and tapped the folder he had sat down on the desk beside him.  “You want to know who this other soul is on this side of the afterlife exacting his vengeance.  Perhaps this file from Personnel will help you.  Good bye, detective.  I must return to my work.  But let me say that you must be careful.  This man who is in contact with John Urban’s emotions is a very powerful entity himself.  And very talented.  Very talented indeed.”

The long, slightly bent over doctor turned and started walking to the door leading out of the squad room.  As he turned his eyes fell on the white, color drained face of Noel Sergeant.  Maranaja smiled, nodded, and slipped past the speechless—perplexed—startled younger man without saying a word.

Noel Sergeant heard everything.  Heard everything the doctor said to his partner.  The doctor, smiling and slipping past him, knew it.   Knew he had heard everything.  Knew he had been standing in the doorway like some muted dimwit taking it all in and not making a squeak.  Blinking eyes, trying to get his thoughts in line, the younger detective stared in the direction the strange doctor disappeared into for a moment or two and then, numbly, turned back and looked at Joe Abrams.

“Jesus.  What was that all about?”

But Joe Abrams didn’t hear his partner.  Wasn’t even aware of his return.  He was deep in reading the Personnel folder Maranaja had left behind.

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