The night began with the Rolling Stones: Midnight Rambler…
I’m talking about the midnight rambler/An everybody got to go. . .
The raucous, defiant anthem of my youth seemed to be just what was needed on this hot, raucous night. Fingers drumming on the steering to the beat of the song, driving the 440 Dodge RT Challenger convertible, it was a quarter past two in the morning and it was as hot as hell. The city’s streets were empty in the part of town my partner, Frank Morales, and I were driving through.
Well I’m talkin’ about the midnight gambler/The one you never seen before . . .
We were driving down a dark street on a dark night.
On simmering concrete lined by menacing monolithic warehouses.
And dead bodies waiting for us just up the way.
Two of’em, lying in the middle of the street, face down, with big holes in the back of their heads. Lights from six different patrol cars converged on the bloody mess, their red and blue idiot lights filling the night with a nightmarish surrealistic painting. As we rolled up to the crime scene I had a bad feeling about this. Like maybe the night’s violence was just beginning and Frank and I were going to be in the middle of it.
Climbing out of the car Frank and I had enough time to walk to the front of the convertible when Patrol Sergeant Dennis O’Keefe met us with a scowl on his lined face like that of a Bull Terrier.
“What a fucking mess, Turner. Two dead. One of’em is Venny Drelling. The other is one of Drelling’s goons. Shot in the back of the head execution style. Hands tied behind their backs. And get this—each of has their little pinkies on their right hands snipped off.”
Oh brother . . . not him. Not tonight.
Venny Drelling was a street punk who was making a reputation as a small time gang leader dealing in prostitution and drugs. Occasionally he contracted the services of his gang out to some of the more established, more mainline gangs to do their dirty work—work they had removed form themselves years ago. Sliding hands into my slacks I growled something underneath my breath and lifted a quizzical eyebrow toward Frank.
“The sonofabitch is back.”
Who’s back?” O’Keefe asked, a dumb look of frank curiosity filling face.
“A Russian hit man,” I growled, looking back at the bodies and shaking my head in anger. “Been in town before. Left a few people dead before he went back to Sevastopol. Took three or four fingers—trophies—with him. Name’s Pushkin. Yuri Pushkin.”
“Mean sonofabitch. Ex-Spetznas—their version of an Army Special Forces. Served in their political assassination unit,” Frank added.
I nodded and pulled a hand to rub the rubble of my chin. It was two in the morning and I was way past my morning shave. And hours away before climbing into bed. But the thought of climbing into fresh, clean sheets and going to sleep was the last thing I had on my mind.
“Pushkin doesn’t blow into two to knock off a guy like Venny Drelling on a whim. Somebody’s paying him big bucks to do their wet work. Something’s going down. Something big.”
O’Keefe, a nineteen year veteran on of the force, all of it working the streets in the patrol division, shrugged his shoulders.
“Haven’t heard a word about anything big, Turn. Heard Denny and another low life street thug by the name of George Jones were fighting for turf over on Troost Avenue. “
“George Jones? Tall, thin black kid with a gold front tooth? Runs a couple of bookie joints up there?” Frank said, eyes lifting up and toward O’Keefe.
“That’s the one,” nodded the patrol sergeant as behind us we heard the howl of meat wagons coming to collect the dead. “Want us to go bring him for questioning?”
“Oh, absolutely,” I nodded, turning back toward the 440 RT. “Give us a call when you got him?”
O’Keefe nodded as he watched us crawl back into the convertible. Starting the big monster of an engine up I wheeled it back in reverse and got away from the scene just as the two ambulances came rolling to a stop beside the dead.
I’m talkin’ about the midnight rambler/Well honey it’s no rock’n roll show . . .
“We need to get a handle on this, Turn. Get it quick before Pushkin goes on his killing spree. He never leaves just two behind.”
“I know. That’s where we’re going now. To talk to someone who might give us a heads up.”
The drive across time was fast and not without running a few red lights—and of course, not a cop around to give us a ticket. Sliding up to the curb in front of a run down Thai grocery store Frank and I got out of the car, looked over the silent darkness for a moment or two and then moved quietly down the side of the building and turned a corner. A three story wooden addition had been added onto the building in back. Apartments mostly for Thai and Vietnamese immigrants. Glancing at the rattletrap of a building, noting no lights were on and everything was quite, we turned to the back of the brick grocery store. Lifting a knuckle I knocked twice, waited five seconds, knocked two more times. And then I stepped back and allowed Frank do to his thing.
Did you see me jump the garden wall/I don’t give a hoot of a warning . . .
There came the sound of the door being unlocked. Someone inside opened it as far as the chain would allow and one bright eyeball revealed itself. About the time we saw the eyeball Frank lifted an open palm up and slammed it hard into the door. My partner is about six foot three—roughly the same height as me. But about one eighty pounds heavier. And it’s not fat, brother. It’s natural muscle. When his hand smacked open the door it smashed back into the face of the guy standing behind it and knocked him cold. And then fell off its hinges and dropped onto the slumbering thug lying on the floor.
We stepped over him and moved through the dim light of the back of the grocery toward a door which had bright light seeping out of its edges. Almost to the door a baby gorilla opened it hurriedly with a gun in his hand, stepped out and quickly and closed the door behind him.
“Who the hell . . .”
I didn’t let him finish. Slapping his gun away with one hand, brought the other around swiftly, slid my fist past his cheek and used the flat of my elbow to smash into his jaw. The guy’s legs buckled and he staggered back a step. But all the fight went out of him when a right knee came up and planted itself in his nuts and lifted him halfway to heaven. Catching him by his belt and his shirt collar I turned him around and threw him at the door like a battering ram.
The door splintered open bashing against the wall and the baby gorilla went skidding unconscious across the floor. In the middle of the smoke filled room was a large round table with about eight men of sundry nationalities sitting around it smoking cigars and cigarettes. On the table, surrounded by an array of beer and whiskey bottles, lay maybe five or six thousand dollars in hard cash. They still sat around the table holding their cards, cigars and cigarettes threatening to drop from their lips, too stunned to even get up.
I grinned and nodded at two men. One was a city commissioner we knew quite well and the other was the second deputy assistant to the newly elected mayor. A couple of others were prominent businessmen and conspicuous church members of a mega church downtown while the rest of them were small time hoods and drug dealers.
“Gentlemen, game’s over. Grab your shit and get the hell out,” I said, reaching down and taking the cards out of the hands of the man we came to see. “And be happy we don’t haul all of you downtown under arrest.”
That’s all it took to clear the joint. In about twenty seconds there wasn’t a soul to be seen in the room other than the sleeping baby gorilla and Stue Taylor sitting at the table, arms folded across his chest, a thin smirk of amusement on his lips.
“I’ll give you one thing, Hahn. You and Frank know how to make a dramatic entrance.”
Behind me the sleeping gorilla began to stir and groan. But Frank used a foot up against his head to put him back to sleep. Not gently, I might add. I kept my eyes on Stue. It wasn’t beyond him to accept the odds and do something foolish. But he sat there loose and relaxed dressed in his sharp rags and waited for me to say something.
“Got a crazy Russian hit man in town who’s already knocked off Vince Drilling and one of his bodyguards. Left them lying in the middle of the street with their brains blown out and hands tied behind their back. Cut off their right pinkie fingers before he left. Sounds familiar to you?”
The smirk on his lips didn’t change but there was a flicker of concern in his eyes. Yeah, he was familiar with Yuri Pushkin. A few years back he almost became one of Pushkin’s trophies.
“Tell me what’s going down. Why kill Drelling?”
The man didn’t like me. In fact, if he thought he’d get away with it, he’d just much shoot me as talk to me. Taylor was into gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, and money laundering. He had a talent for taking money and making it disappear for the mob. Because of his connections he was a fountain of information to tap into—if you used the right method to tap into it. Puskin was that kind of tap.
“Turn, if this gets out that I told you anything, I’m as good as dead. Maybe that’s what you have in mind.”
“Coming in here like this? I don’t think so. If I wanted your bosses to know you’ve squealed on them a couple of times in the past you’d been dead along time ago. Now, about Pushkin.”
The blond, balding man of about forty with piecing blue eyes and the body of an athlete looked away for a moment and twisted his face into a scowl. He didn’t want to say a damn thing to me. That was plain enough. He knew something—something important—was going down and he wanted to keep quiet about it. But the mad Russian was a factor apparently he hadn’t heard about. Hearing it changed the dynamics of his thinking considerably.
“There’s word going around a very prominent politician is going to get hit sometime tomorrow. In front of hundreds of people. An outside specialist was said to have been hired to set up the event. The idea is to send a message to the rest of the city’s politicos. Mess with this guy and this could happen to you.”
Who’s going down?”
The guy shook his head and reached up with an ear and pulled on it, grinning suddenly. A grin I didn’t like.
“Don’t know, speculation is it’s our newly elected mayor. That’d be just fine with me. The bastard’s made enemies. Far more enemies than he needs in his newly elected digs.”
Yeah, I agreed with that. The mayor came to office on the promise of cleaning up this city. Going after the hoods and the mob. Taking out corruption within the city’s infrastructure. And the funny thing is he had a way of convincing everyone he could do it. Would do it.
“So why kill Drelling? Where does he fit into this grand scheme of things?” I asked, eyeing Taylor.
“Haven’t got a fucking clue, Hahn. And couldn’t care less. As long as I’m not involved, it’s okay by me.”
“Stue, I get this impression you’re lying to me,” I sighed, shaking my head and almost smiling. “Why do I have this impression? Why would you want to hide something from me?”
“You stupid shit head,” Taylor growled, his grin widening in pleasure. “Part of this show is being done for your benefit as much as for the mayor’s. Whoever brought the Russian in wants the job done just a certain way. He wants it done and done with you in the middle of the fracas. He wants you to know about it from the get-go. And he wants to watch you suffer. The word is he doesn’t want you dead. Not yet, at least. But he does want you squirm. To understand there’s not a damn thing you can do about it to stop him. Or the Russian. All of this—all of it—is being down for you, buddy.”
Well I’m talkin’ about the midnight gambler/An everybody got to go . . .
We left the gambler sitting at the drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. Climbing back into the R/T we sat in the early morning darkness for a few seconds, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts. Hell. It didn’t take a freaken’ genius to figure out who was behind this little trip into megalomania. Nathan Brinkley.
Politician. Personality pure and refined. Charismatic. Killer. He owned the city. He owned about half of the city government. He owned a huge portion of the state government. He was close personal buddies with the governor. Contributed often, and in large amounts, to the governor’s political coffers. Called the state’s attorney general by his first name. Had a crime organization that infiltrated into every aspect of the city’s underworld.
Everybody loved him. Handsome, photogenic, suave. It was hard not to like the guy when you were standing beside him. I found myself succumbing to his wiles every time I did. But for all his qualities it didn’t change the coldness of his heart. He was, at the core of his being, a cold blooded killer. Frank and I have been trying to bring him down for years.
I’m called a hit-n-run raper, in anger/Or just a knife-sharpened tippie-toe . . .
“We have no idea what Pushkin looks like,” Frank’s voice rattled in the darkness. “Haven’t a clue where to start looking for him.”
“Let’s call Yank and tell him what’s going down,” I said, reaching inside my sport jacket and grabbing the cell phone. “See if we can get the mayor to a safe place.”
“Won’t happen,” Frank answered, shaking his head in the darkness. “The guy said often he wasn’t going to be intimidated by the crime bosses. He purposely schedules his weekly news conferences in the main lobby of city hall for everyone to attend. Come hell or high water they guy’s gonna keep his promise.”
I nodded in agreement. Yeah, the mayor was that type of guy.
Yank was Lieutenant Demitri Yankovitch—our boss down at South Side Precinct. Good boss. Tough as nails. Looks like a thin Bela Lugosi –if you know who that was.
“O’Keefe found George Jones,” the lieutenant said as I held the phone up to my ear. “Dead. Messy knife job. Whoever did it cut him up pretty badly before they killed him. Took his right pinkie finger. And get this, used Jones’ phone and called the newspapers to tell them a gang war was brewing up on Troost and the latest victim was named George Jones.”
“Advertising,” I said. “Pushkin’s boss wants the word out fast. Wants the city’s fathers to wake up and look at the morning papers. Get a hint what’s gonna come down if they start getting any ideas of their own.”
“Agreed,” Yank’s dry whisper answered over the phone. “So how do we save the mayor and stop this? How do we find Puskin?”
“I have an idea. But you’re not going to like it.”
“Then don’t tell me. Just do it and let me worry about what happens afterwards.”
Refrain; oh don’t do that, oh don’t do that
oh don’t do that, oh don’t do that . . .
Frank and I are cops. We’ve sworn an oath to protect the city and its citizens from the troglodytes who inhabit the night. We go after the bad guys and bring them justice. We’re supposed to follow the rules: obey the laws. Read Miranda rights. Gather forensic evidence and present it in a step-by-step procedural process. Play fair.
But sometimes the time comes when you have to severely bruise the law. Batter it around like a red-headed stepchild. Sometimes the only way to find justice is to it press close to the precipice of injustice.
Sometimes . . . sometimes . . . whether we like it or not, the ends do justify the means.
So. Right as dawn was beginning to turn the sky pinkish white with a new summer day—we sat across the kitchen table from Nathan Brinkley. A rudely awaken, irritable, disheveled Nathan Brinkley. It took some effort on our part to convince a household of goons we had to talk to their boss—and talk to him immediately before the mayor’s scheduled nine a.m. news conference. Won’t go into details as how we convinced our arch enemy to see us personally. Suffice to say he wasn’t happy about it. Nor were several badly bruised goons of his.
“Yeah, crazy. I’m crazy,” I said, grinning and looking at the city’s de facto leader as he poured himself a large cup of coffee with a scowl on his face. “We’re here to save your miserable life and you’re accusing me of being crazy. That’s just swell.”
“What the hell are you talking about? And do it fast, I haven’t time for chitchat. I’ve got to be with the mayor this morning at his news conference.”
A smile almost played across the charismatic man’s lips. His eyes were dark and penetrating as he lifted his cup and glared at me. A smug, satisfied look.
“Want cha’ to take a look at these photos, Nathan. You might find them interesting.”
From a file folder I withdrew three 6X9 photos and laid them out, side by side, and slid them across the table. The photo of Nathan’s left was that of a lovely raven haired girl of about twenty wearing a bright white sky suit, skis leaning against her arm, as she waited for a ski lift chair somewhere up in the Swiss Alps. The middle photo was that of a ninety year old woman sitting in a wheelchair at a table and reading a magazine. The third was that of a little boy of seven or eight dressed in a soccer uniform and trying to kick a ball into a net. All three were obvious photos taken with a powerful zoom lens. From afar.
Daughter. Mother. Son.
The cup in Nathan Brinkley’s hand dropped to the table, coffee splashing angrily. Brinkley stared at the now stained photos, color draining from his face, and then cold, hard eyes came up and locked in on mine.
“Thirty seconds, Turner. Thirty second to tell me what this is about. The clock is ticking.”
I looked into his face and chuckled amusedly.
“You silly bastard. You think you’re the only one who can play dirty? You think you call all the shots? Got those photos off one of George Jones’s friends. You know George . . . one of the punks who used to work for you and who you had Yuri Pushkin butcher last night. Ah, shut up. Don’t deny it. ‘Course we can’t prove it so you’re fucking safe. For now. But you hired the Russian to come in here and do a job for you. Turns out the Russian has some plans of his own. Apparently he took those photos. I think the guy is thinking about expanding. Maybe about becoming a full partner. Maybe taking over.”
For several burning seconds Brinkley stared at me in cold silence. His eyes were piercing. His complexion as pale as a corpse.
“What is it you want, Hahn.”
“Puskin. We want Puskin before whatever is to happen this morning happens.”
“And what if I don’t believe you—assuming, of course—I know anything about this Yuri Puskin.”
The dimples in my cheeks deepened as I smiled. I had him. Had him nibbling on my hook. As I hoped I might.
“You know who he is. You know what he is. You two are spiritual kin. You play with that kind of heat you should expect to be burned. And he’s tough enough to get what he wants if something he wants comes to mind. Can you afford to take that chance with a guy like Yuri Puskin?”
Silence. Long—drawn out—incredible silence.
“You’re thirty seconds are over. We have nothing more to discuss. Get out now. Leave my house and never come back.”
Brinkley swept a hand across the table and scooped the three photos off as he turned and stalked out of the kitchen. A dozen goons appeared and we were rudely escorted out of the house. Pushed out of the compound wall surrounding Brinkley’s home we took our time straightening ourselves up and wiping the blood off our lips—just friendly gestures—and Frank eyed me quizzically.
“Think he bought it?”
“We’ll find out in about a half hour. If we get phone call and an address.”
“When he finds out we’ve pulled a fast one on him he’s going to go ape-shit. He could get mean.”
I nodded in agreement. And then shook my head no.
“Maybe. Maybe not. He’s got to figure out how we knew about his daughter living in the Alps. About a son he’s never mentioned to anyone. About his mother. And then he’s got to wonder just how far someone might go if they were truly wanting to hurt him. Everyone one’s got a weakness, Frank. Everyone. Even megalomaniacs like Nathan Brinkley.”
Well you heard about the Boston/Honey, its not one of those . . .
Driving in traffic toward city hall my cell phone rang. Sliding it open I lifted it to my ear.
“Bennet Building. Seventeenth floor. Office 1701.”
The bait had been taken.
We whipped around a corner and through a red light, horn blaring to scattered pedestrians, and hit the gas. It took about ten minutes to get there. Sliding to the curb in front of the building we got out and started walking toward the rotating glass doors.
“He’ll see’em coming. Disappear long before they get up there.”
Frank glanced at his watch. It was a quarter past seven.
“An hour and forty-five minutes before the conference. Call Yank and tell’em to delay?”
I shook my head no as we hurried through the crowded lobby toward the bank of elevators. The ride up to the seventeenth floor was long and slow. No one else was in the elevator but us two.
Stepping out onto the floor we paused and gazed down the long hall. Black tile, freshly polished, glistened soft white light. Shafts of sunlight cut like hot torches through several officer doors. The floor was deathly quiet. The usual flora and fauna that made up this world had not arrived yet.
We walked down the hall and came up to 1701. Neither Frank nor I made any attempt to open it. Our previous encounter with Yuri was a learning experience. The pro would have the place wired. Anyone entering the empty office—it had to be an empty office with a direct line of sight through a City Hall window and straight to the small podium where the mayor and other dignitaries would be using—and he would know.
So we jimmied open an office door down at the end of the hall and stepped in. We had a good view, the door partially open, to see anyone coming down the hall. Not to our surprise we found the office we were standing in need of an occupant.
Forty-five minutes later we heard a door softly shut and then heard the odd squeaking sound of a wheel in need of some 4-in-1 oil. A figure dressed in a set of gray coveralls with big words splashed across his back advertising a janitorial firm came into view. The guy was pushing a large cart that held a very large trash can along with several brooms and mops on it. He was a tall man, thin, with sandy blond, curly hair. He had the wiry body of a long distance runner. He moved past the door and slowly made his way down to 1701. Stopping in front of door the guy looked down each length of the hall and then quickly opened the office door. Glancing up and down the hall again he pushed the cart into the empty office and closed the door behind him.
Frank and I came out of the office, guns in hand, and moved down the hall. We didn’t hesitate. Frank used a foot to kick the door open and we went in low and fast. We were expected.
I heard Frank grunt in pain, turned, and saw Yuri Puskin standing behind Frank with an arm wrapped around Frank’s neck and a 9 mm Heckler&Kock pressed against Frank’s temple. A thin smile of amusement was on Puskin’s handsome boyish face as watery blue eyes stared at me.
“Frank, Turner—good morning. I thought you might be calling.”
Surprise. Pushkin spoke excellent English with only a slight hint of his origins. My second surprise came from Frank. It was the first time I had ever . . . ever . . . heard him grunt in pain from being hit by someone.
“It is a pleasure to meet you two at last. Of course, it would have been better under different circumstances. Drop your gun, Turner. Or you’re friend dies.”
“Drop my gun and we’re dead anyway, Yuri. If I’m checking out, I might as well go down blazing.”
I brought the gun up and leapt to my left at the same time. The moment I moved, Frank moved. Say what you think about my hulking friend. But the guy is deceptively fast. Faster than Yuri anticipated. Pushkin’s 9mm spit twice, the shots bruising our eardrums. I felt a bullet tug at my sport coat as I hit the floor and rolled on a shoulder before coming up with the .45 cal. Kimber in hand and firing.
Frank was fast. A brute with strength and quick reflexes. But Puskin was faster. Frank had dislodged himself and was turning to take on the Russian with his bare hands. But Puskin’s training kicked in. A foot to Frank’s knee, a karate chop toward the man’s neck and Frank should have gone down in a ball of squirming pain. The blow to the knee hit solid. The karate chop to the neck was partially blocked. At the same time Puskin kept shooting toward my direction. Twice his nine spit out flame and hot lead. Twice the bullets missed me by just millimeters. But his shooting kept me moving and I couldn’t get another shot off at him in the process.
It ended in a draw. One of Frank’s big hams for a fist plowed into Puskin’s ribs and I heard the man grunt in pain and his nine clatter to the floor. At about the same time I heard Frank grunt again in pain and stagger two steps back. That was enough. Pushkin, weaponless, was out the office door and gone before either of us could come to our feet.
Blood running down the side of his head, Frank took a step back to stabilize himself and then brought a hand up and covered his ribs with it.
“That sonofabitch knows how to throw a punch. You all right?”
I was. But my sport coat had two bullet holes in it. One on either side of the jacket just an inch or two away for the coat’s second button. Apparently hit while open and while rolling around on the floor.
“Christ, you’re lucky. I don’t remembering reading about Pushkin ever missing.”
“Yeah, lucky,” I nodded, holstering the Kimber and turning to look at the long barreled .50 caliber sniper’s rifle Pushkin had brought with him. “So’s the mayor. If Pushkin used that on him they’d been nothing left to bury.”
But we weren’t finished with the Russian just yet. Hours later, sitting with Frank at a diner eating lunch—and happy that mayor and dignitaries . . . including Nathan Brinkley . . .had survived the day, my cell phone rings.
“Well played, my friends. Well played. Until next time. Dasvedanya. ”
And if you ever catch the midnight rambler
Steal your mistress from under your nose
Go easy with your cold-finger anger
Or I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby. And it hurts . . .