She glanced at her watch and frowned before looking up and staring out the glass of the driver’s side window of her car. He was late. He said he would be here sharply at 9 pm. It was now a quarter after nine and he hadn’t shown up yet.
The drumming of her well-manicured fingernails on the rim of the steering wheel indicated her impatience, and frustration, at the thought of being stood up.
An empty residential street. Well-lit by four light poles running down the sidewalk. Her car was the only one parked against the curb in either direction for more than a block.
On either side of the street were small brownstone homes and apartment buildings. Many with bright lights on. The night filled with the soft ambient sounds of neighbors and strangers living their own lives in their own domiciles.
She was dressed in an expensive designer’s dress gray on gray, with pearls around her neck, and black leather quarter-heels on her feet. Lying in the passenger seat beside her was a black leather purse of the same leather as her shoes. Inside the purse was a large envelope stuffed with fifty and one-hundred-dollar bills. A large, thick, envelope stuffed with freshly minted greenbacks.
Gray-blue eyes stared out into the night, searching the street, waiting for him to show up. Dammit. He said he would be here at nine sharp. Where the hell was this so-called legendary ghost of a detective and a rumored assassin? She had half a mind to leave. To start the car and drive away. She was so angry she was about to . . .
The sound of a cell phone ringing in her purse almost made her jump out of the car and start running in hysterics down the street. A weird sound. A phone ring she absolutely had never heard before. Ringing incessantly in her purse. Her purse.
Snatching the black bag off the seat she opened it and started digging. There! Buried underneath all the other dendrites most women carried. Underneath the heavy envelope was a plain-looking phone. Just a cheap phone anyone could buy at the local drug store or convenience store. Anger flushed from her system and replaced by a strange kind of creepy amazement as she pulled the phone out and threw it up to her ear.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you. But I had to be sure our meeting went off unobserved.”
A man’s voice. A strange man’s voice. More of a throaty deep whisper. Like something, one would hear from a boxer who had been punched in the throat and had never recovered his full voice afterward.
“How the hell did you drop this phone into my purse? I’ve had it with me since I got up this morning to go to the hospital. It’s never been more than ten feet away from me.”
“Think about it,” came the reply in that odd whispering sound. “Where is the one place someone might have tampered with your purse sight unseen.”
“Forget it,” she said, her voice filled with irritation and impatience. “People warned me you’re a bit eccentric. Effective. But eccentric. Well, that’s okay by me. If you can get the job done, I don’t care if you’re a freaking psychopath.”
“What is it you want me to do, Mrs. Roberts?”
“Last month a pervert raped my younger sister and left her for dead in an alley. In a fucking alley, dammit! She’s still in a coma fighting for her life. No one knows anything about the rape. No one knows who did it. There were no witnesses. The cops looked into the mess for a couple of days. They promised to track down the pervert and throw him behind bars. Told me they were lucky and found a good lead. But then, last week, they threw their hands up in disgust and said their only lead in the case was found hanging from a rope in his own apartment. With the only lead dead, they told me they could do nothing else until they found another lead. In other words, they just fucking gave up. I want you to find this sick bastard and bring him to justice. Frankly, after dealing with this city’s judicial system, especially the cops in this town, I’m going to be very open-minded about how you define justice.”
There was two, maybe three, seconds of silence and then the odd voice filtered in across the phone again.
“You have no leads, no suspicions, on who might have done this?”
“Nothing. I‘ve been in town for only a month. Since I got the call my sister had been raped. I’ve been bugging the detectives in charge of the case every day asking questions. I’ve been to the district attorney’s office every day. Badgering people, threatening to sue everyone, even offering bribes for something, anything, for some news. Nobody knows anything.”
“What is the name of the man found hanging in his apartment?”
“Tomlinson. Donald Tomlinson. He had an apartment in the Groveland Apartments down on Adolf Street. Apartment six.”
“Who was the lead investigator working?”
“An idiot by the name of Squibb. Detective Harlan Squibb. Know the fool?”
On the other side of the connection, there was a sound that could almost be described as an amused chuckle.
“As a matter of fact, I do. Your description of him is quite accurate, by the way.”
She sat in her car, alone, with the strange cellphone up to her ear and waited. In the darkness, the empty street was devoid of any life. Nothing moved. But in her car, she was a volcano about to explode. She wanted something done. Something has been done now to get the guy who had raped her sister. She was way past the point of being patient. She wanted vengeance, old fashioned biblical vengeance. And she wanted it immediately.
It was as if the strange voice on the other end of the line was telepathic.
“I’ll see what I can find out for you, Ms. Jones. Give me three days. By the way, are you agreeable to the terms of compensation for my services?”
“Half now. Half after the service has been rendered,” she said, nodding her head in the darkness of her car. “I’ve got the first payment here. As promised. But before I pay the second half, I have one final demand. It’s a critical one which must be met.”
“And what would that be?” came the whisper over the phone.
“I want to watch the man who did this to my sister die. I want to be there when he meets his maker. I want to look into his eyes just before he breathes his last breath and tell him I hope he burns in hell for the rest of eternity. This is non-negotiable. If this can’t be arranged, then I take my money and drive off. I’ll find someone else to do the job.”
For several seconds, almost an eternity itself, no sound came out of either person’s cellphones. But, eventually, the strange whispering voice spoke.
“Ms. Jones, have you ever killed a man?”
“Have you ever seen anyone die violently?
“Are you sure you want to do this? To watch a man die by unnatural causes?”
“More than you can possibly understand,” Ms. Jones answered, her voice filled with white-hot anger. “I love my sister. We’re the only ones left in our family. All she ever wanted to do in life is sing. She came here to follow her dream. Now, the doctors are not even sure she’ll recover mentally from the trauma inflicted on her. So yes, Smitty. I want to be there when that asshole dies.”
There was another long period of silence. But the whisper returned.
“Very well. Now, look to your right. Please.”
For some reason, the odd request didn’t bother her at all. They told her this Smitty was an odd duck. A mystery. Nobody knew exactly what he looked like. Nobody had ever actually found any form of evidence to peg the mysterious voice to a crime. All they knew was the guy called himself Smitty. And whenever someone hired him to do an investigation, results were obtained.
So, she turned her head and looked.
Directly to her right a set of stone stairs leading up to an old brownstone building. In the middle of the front wall was an old-looking wooden door. A big door with an old fashioned brass door handle and a large brass mail slot in the middle of the door at about waist high for a man.
“Slip the envelope into the mail slot and drive away. Three days, perhaps sooner, I’ll give you another call on this phone. You should have some news by then.”
For a response, she ended the phone call, tossed the odd phone into her purse, reached for the heavy money-filled envelope, and rolled out of the car. Five seconds later she rolled back into the driver’s seat of the rental and drove away.
Smitty, observing the woman from an upstairs apartment window across the street, watched the woman get out of her car, walk up the six stone steps to the front door of the empty building and slip the thick envelope of money into the mail slot before returning to her car. When the tail lights of the woman’s car disappeared down the street, he stood beside the window a few minutes longer and waited to see if anyone else might be curious as to what just took place. Satisfied all was well, the dark-eyed figure decided it was time to earn his keep.
Two hours later a fat little man dressed in a cheap blue suit straight off the racks of a men’s discount clothing store and holding a battered old briefcase in his left hand, gently knocked on the door of one Mrs. Arthur Kennedy who lived in Apartment 4, directly across the hall of Apartment 6, the apartment belonging to Donald Tomlinson.
“Who is it?” came a voice from the other side of the apartment door. An elderly woman’s voice. Faint and filled with pain.
“Mrs. Kennedy, my name is Alfred Smith. I am an insurance investigator for the Mackworth Insurance Company of Omaha, Nebraska. Do you have time to answer a few questions regarding your next-door neighbor, a Donald Tomlinson?”
The little man in the blue suit and armed with an old looking briefcase was bald, slightly overweight, wearing wire-rim glasses. He stood in front of the door to apartment 4 standing slightly stooped over. As if the briefcase in his left hand weighed four hundred pounds and was becoming a real strain to hold. Yet, if one was an astute observer, one would have noticed behind the wire-rim glasses a set of dark eyes that were clear. Extremely dark. Yet burning with a fire of intensity which, oddly, seemed so out of place for a meek, mild-mannered, slightly overweight insurance investigator to possess.
The door to apartment 4 opened and the image of a woman in her eighties, with blue-white hair, wearing a simple dress of gray cotton, with a floral full-length chef’s apron wrapped around her like protective armor, smiled into the face of the ersatz Alfred Smith of Omaha, Nebraska.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, to tell you this. But Mr. Tomlinson died not too long ago. By nefarious means, I might add. All very disturbing, mind you. Gave the entire building a set of jitters we’re still trying to overcome collectively. I hardly knew the man myself. He was such a hermit. Hardly anyone knew him. But I’m sure the police would be capable of telling you everything you need to know.”
“Yes, most assuredly,” nodded Alfred Smith/Smitty, as he mopped his sweating forehead with a hanky nervously. “But the company wants to be sure, you see. Mr. Tomlinson had a sizeable life insurance policy on him and we’re trying to find his next of kin. Just a few minutes of your time is all I need. Do you mind?”
“That would be fine, Mr. Smith. I was just baking some cookies. Fresh out of the oven. Do you like chocolate chip cookies?”
Alfred Smith smiled pleasantly and said he loved freshly baked cookies and followed the blue-haired little lady into her apartment respectfully.
Questions. There were always questions to be asked in any investigation. Questions asked/answers wanted. The nature of the beast. Who was Donald Tomlinson? What did he see? Why was he killed? Who might have killed him? Questions. All the answers revolved around the questions.
But everyone agreed. Smitty had one incredible, undeniable talent. He got results.
It wasn’t hard.
Mrs. Arthur Kennedy living in apartment 4 had all the information he needed. A half hours’ worth of pleasant conversation, a few delicious cookies consumed, and he knew precisely who killed his client’s sister. Poor Donald Tomlinson. He died because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He never saw the rape when it happened. But he was there, in the park, and saw the rapist walk away. Without ever realizing it.
Five hours later, when she nosed her Cadillac up to the ramp and out onto the empty rooftop parking level of the parking garage, she slowly drove to the middle of the empty parking lot and came to a halt. Killing the lights, she sat back in her seat and waited. She felt nauseous. Her hands were shaking. Her mouth was dry. She wanted to hurry to a restroom and throw up. But she couldn’t. He told her, in the truly unnerving whispering voice of his, she had to be there precisely at midnight. Not a minute before. Not a minute late. He said he was complying with her wishes. She wanted to see the man who raped her sister die. All she had to do was be here, at this hour of the night, and sit in her car and wait.
The rapist would come to her.
Ten minutes fled past her in the darkness. Ten, grueling, terrifying, horrible minutes of sheer silence. But when the darkness was shattered with a violent start after a set of headlights flashed full into her face, she could not help herself but jump in her seat in terror and let out a muffled scream. The headlights blinded her. Becoming brighter and brighter as the car drove directly toward her. The unseen automobile came to a halt only eight feet away from the front of her car. She heard the muffled sound of a car door slamming shut. The car’s headlights, one at a time, winked out momentarily as the driver walked in front of his car and circled around to step up to her side of the car.
She saw the gun first. The big, ugly, black monster of a gun as it tapped the glass of her window and made a motion for her to roll the window down. She saw the black-gloved hand holding the gun. And then she looked up into the face of the man holding the gun and almost fainted.
The smiling face of Homicide Detective Harlan Squibb.
“Well, well, well. So we meet again, eh Ms. Jones,” Squibb laughed, using his free gloved hand, holding a folded handkerchief, wiping his sweaty forehead before continuing. “You know, when I got the call telling me I was in serious trouble, I somehow knew it was you. The first time I met you I could see you were that type of a bitch. Someone who wouldn’t let go until she was done with it.”
He paused, wiped his forehead again. And that’s when she noticed the shirt underneath his sport coat. It was damp with sweat. Saturated in sweat. Her eyes shot up to his face again. There were dark bags underneath his eyes. Dark smudges which were not there three weeks ago when she first met him at the police station.
Terrified, wanting to scream, yet . . . yet . . . she found herself smiling. Just a faint echo of a smile beginning to paint across her expensive red lips.
“Tell me, bitch. How did you figure it out? You hired someone to do some digging for you? A private detective maybe? Who, dammit. Who did you hire? Tell me who was it and I’ll forget about not doing to you what I did to your sister before I put a bullet in your brain.”
“You raped my sister and you murdered that poor old man just because he was sitting in the park. You are a monster. A monster who should be dead. I hope you die a violent, mean, painful death, Squibb.”
“Ha! Nice speech, sister. But it’s not going to be you. Tonight, after I’m finished with you, you’ll be nothing more than just another statistic in a file we have back at the station for unsolved homicide cases. Just another dead broad sitting in her expensive car all alone on some rooftop parking garage. Jus . . .”
When it came, it came suddenly and violently. Squibb hacked out a cough suddenly in mid-sentence and stepped back from the car and bent over in pain. The gun in his gloved hand fell out and clattered onto the hard surface of the rooftop. Bent over, bracing himself with both hands on his knees, he heaved up everything he had for dinner just an hour ago and splashed it onto the parking lot. He tried to heave again, gagged and stood up. Eyes filled with terror, one hand grabbing his throat, Squibb staggered another step backward, clawing for a breath of air before sinking to his knees. Both hands went to his throat as he stared in horror at the woman sitting in the Cadillac. He tried to say something. But only a garbled, hoarse, screech came out of his mouth. And then he pitched forward, violently, and fell face-first onto the rooftop parking surface, twitching spasmodically before finally settling down into a portrait of death.
Stunned, speechless, she stared at the dead man for a full minute in silence and disbelief. Half hypnotized at the picture in front of her, she somehow opened her car door and got out, leaving the car door open. Moving in hesitant steps to one side of the body, she paused and then started to bend down and feel for a pulse. Her hand came out, but she never touched the body. A quiet whisper from out of the darkness stopped her.
“Don’t touch him, Ms. Jones. Our Detective Squibb apparently died from a particularly virulent form of food poisoning. Let’s not take the chance something like that could happen to you.”
She stood up, eyes staring at the ghost-like creature dressed in a two-piece dark suit materializing out of the darkness. He looked calm. Relaxed. Maleficent in his sartorial splendor.
“How . . . how did you accomplish this so quickly?”
He smiled grimly.
“Details, Ms. Jones? Very well. Squibb liked to walk from work two blocks downtown to a small café for lunch. Today, as he was walking down the sidewalk, a particularly beautiful woman dressed in a tight-fitting dress and wearing high heels accidentally walked right into him and almost pushed him over in the process. One of her heels stepped on his toes. The sharp point of a heel stepping on your toes is quite painful. Especially if you have bad feet like he had. When he bent over in pain the woman used a very tiny needle she held in one gloved hand and jabbed it into his neck. He never felt it. She helped him stand up, apologizing profusely in the process, and then kissed him on his cheek and sent him on his way. Seven hours to the minute later, he winds up here, dying a rather gruesome death. As you prescribed. I hope you are satisfied.”
She glanced down at the dead man and then back up to Smitty.
“Who was the woman? Did she know what she was doing? Do I need to pay her off to keep silent as well?”
“What woman?” the dark figure hissed back casually.
She stared at him in silence. There were a hundred questions she wanted to ask him. But she knew he wouldn’t tell her anything. Which, frankly, made sense. The less she knew, the safer she was. But she had to ask him one question.
“Why do you do this? This kind of work? Doesn’t killing people bother you? Can you sleep at night after doing something like this?”
Smitty’s eyes played across her face for a moment or two. And then he smiled grimly. Wickedly. Half turning, he answered her in his whispering voice.
“I do this because I am good at it. Go home, Ms. Jones. Drive to the airport and catch a plane home. You’ll not hear from me again. Understand?”
The smartly dressed man took two steps into the darkness and disappeared entirely from her eyes. Only his footsteps fading away into the darkness convinced her the man was indeed a man and not a ghost.