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A. David Henderson
I didn’t know my sister Stacy all that well, but what I did know of her I didn’t like. She called herself an “artist”, which I spell unemployed. She would work random jobs here and there, usually to catch up on past months bills or buy art supplies, such as coke and heroin. All the same, I was disturbed when I read that she had been found dead in her loft in Minneapolis, strangled. Disturbed, but not surprised.
I first learned of her having kicked off before the cops had released an ID. Unfortunately, I am listed as her next of kin, and so, my involvement in the case began. Knox and Russell dropped by my apartment at eight in the morning, faces grave as could be; they apologized for “calling so early in the morning”.
“Early, hell! You know damn well I’m up before you two stupenagles!” I said, lighting a cigarette. “Have a seat, boys. And coffee if you want some.”
“Bruce, we have got some bad news for you.” Russell began, clearing his throat and wringing his hands. “Stacy is gone, Bruce, there’s no easy way to tell you.”
“Well, that was a pretty easy way, don’t ya think? Besides, the further the better, as far as I’m concerned. I’m dog tired of her and her spoony friend boys. Why the sudden concern for her, Tom?”
“No, Bruce. She was found dead at three o’clock yesterday afternoon, her apartment was a wreck. She was discovered strangled, and there must’ve been a pretty fierce fight just prior. Broken dishes everywhere, tipped dresser, the whole bit.” Knox smiled. I felt the usual temptation to slam his jaw closed, but I refrained. The smile stayed on his face, and I could tell he wanted this moment to last forever. I have known William Knox for quite a few years, and we were partners for years. Knox always tries to get the better of a guy, but he has always hated me because he could never one up me.
He also hates me because I put a bullet in his hip. Ten years ago, old Willie tried to play down his role in the death of a whore, claiming he was on to a prostitution ring. I found him, alone with the body, and put a bullet in his fat carcass, claiming I tried to shoot the armed whore. It went off just fine, and I was pretty darn happy with the outcome, despite being kicked off the force. Someday, I hope to shoot him again.
“You know Knox, that’s a crying shame.” I grinned, successfully taking the snide smile off his face. “I suppose you were the first to respond?”
“That’s right.” chortled the fat one.
“What a disappointment, Willie, you didn’t get to kill anyone.” I grinned again.
“Would you two knock it off, already? This is our assignment, and we’ve got work to do before our leads get cold. Let’s go, Will.” Russell pulled Knox up by the arm, and ushered him towards the door. “Bruce, if you need anything, let me know. More importantly, if you think of anything…”
“Yeah, I know the drill, Tom. Thanks. Drop by tonight for a drink?” I asked.
“Sure thing. Take care, Bruce.” The big man grinned, and I grinned back.
Both men put on their Stetson hats, and let in a cold blast of winter air. I watched them walk to the car, and waited for them to drive off. I knew that they would head straight for Stacy’s flat, so I grabbed my hat and coat and headed for my own car. As much as I disliked it, I was knee deep in this one.
Stacy was a good looking girl, and she had no shortage of boyfriends. Most of them were evil, all of them were good for nothing at all, and that adds up to a lot of work for me. Joe Stemsky was her boyfriend when she was killed, making him the prime suspect for Knox and Russell. I knew Stemsky better than they did, and if one person on this planet was responsible for this act, the person was not Joe Stemsky. No man was ever so stupid over a girl as Joe was for my sister. Hopefully Stemsky would buy me some time.
I decided my first stop would be at Whitey’s, since she would drop in there from time to time, and her good friend Melanie was a waitress there. Besides, Whitey’s is a good place when you need a drink, and at nine in the morning I’m always thirsty. Mel was absolutely stunning; tall and leggy, with a deep and sultry voice. She and I had always had an odd sort of rapport, as there was an awful lot of tension every time we talked. In my mind’s eye, she was as attracted to me as I was to her, and that’s saying something.
I sidled up to the bar, and slid a stool out of my way. I always stand so I can watch the door. Every man should. I had never seen this bar man before; he was small and dodgy looking, with his hair combed back so tight, his bug eyes looked like they would pop into your drink.
“What’s your poison?” asked the weasel.
“Women, usually. This morning though, I’ll make it a bourbon sour and a pint of ale.”
“Pretty early to start isn’t it? Most folks…”
“I think I’ll decide what’s too early, pal.” I interrupted.
“Easy does it, man! All I was saying is...”
“I don’t care what you were saying, just get me the drinks! I didn’t come in here for companionship, I came for the bourbon. Hop to, kid.” Never did a boy jump so fast in all your life. I had about five inches on the punk, and easily sixty pounds on him. I cocked my hat over my eye a bit, and glared at him as he poured. “Where’s Mel at?”
“Her day off.”
“Where’s Wally? I need to find Mel.”
“He was supposed to be here today, but never showed. Wally took off yesterday afternoon, and the boss tried to phone him today, but no dice.”
It didn’t seem coincidental that Wally wasn’t around, and I figured I might have a hard time locating him. There’s two ways I figured it; either he took off to avoid the heat of the investigation, or we would shortly find him on the same boat as my sis took. The destination sure wasn’t heaven, either.
“Here’s a quarter for the info, and a dime for the service.”
“Gee, thanks, mister!” He guffawed, so I grabbed him by the shirt collar and hefted him over the bar, one inch from my face.
“No one likes a smart-ass, kid. Especially a stupid one.” I let him down.
I decided to walk to Wally’s pad, right up the street. I’d been there a few times before, and I remember the smell of that rat trap vividly. I wasn’t sure what I’d find there, but I was sure it wasn’t going to be pretty. An old railway track ran across the street right before his apartment complex, covered with graffiti. I hid behind a support beam, and unsnapped my shoulder holster. I scanned the front entry way, though the chance of anyone in there stirring at this hour was slim to nothing.
I slipped into the foyer, pulling my pistol from its holster. His flat was on the main floor, straight ahead. I listened for any activity in the nearby apartments, but all I heard was the buzzing of a dying fluorescent light bulb. The hallway looked just like Wally’s apartment; green floors with pea green tile floors and dark green tin ceilings. The hallway smelled the same, too. Nothing like the musty smell of feet, I’ll tell you.
I put my ear to the door of apartment #101, and listened carefully, pistol at the ready. Nothing but the hum of the fading fluorescent, now right overhead. I quietly turned the knob, but I knew his door would be locked. I had a choice, either I blew out the dead bolt, or I spoke to the landlord, and explained that I was an ex- cop with no search warrant. Not much of a choice, so I opted for option three, checking the perimeter for a window.
Once around the back of the building, I found a window leading to his place. I cautiously surveyed as much of the flat as I could see, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. I heard a woman’s voice coming from the north side of the building, so my attention turned in that direction. I snuck around the corner trying to make out some words, and when they were intelligible, they seemed inconsequential. Just as I was about to turn back to my objective, I heard Knox’s voice from just around the corner. True to form, he was shaking someone down.
“I know that Stacy Walls was here two nights ago, and I know it was loud party. I want you to tell me what you know, and I’ll let you go back to your filthy life as a slum lord. Got it?”
“I don’t know that name. I was at home that night, but there’s always a party, and they’re usually loud.” There was a noticeable quiver in her voice. This gal was a good looking one, no doubt about it. “Why should I have paid more attention to this one, detective?”
“If you were more wary, maybe a young girl wouldn’t have died last night, miss!” This was my cue to enter stage left, or else someone was going to lose a tooth.
“If you were more wary, Knox, maybe a detective with wet ears wouldn’t have been tracked so easily. Beat it, lady, I’ll handle this barbarian.” She walked away slowly, and I studiously watched her walk away. I was suddenly very glad that this dive was a key spot in the case. I turned towards the fat visage of the gumshoe. “What are you sweating out a young girl for? This isn’t the kind of case that involves the grocer, the beautician, the butcher, and the dog groomer; and it sure ain't ‘Wally did it, in the study, with a candlestick’ for the sake of Christ! Are you a cop, or are you a thug?”
“A good cop is a little of both, Walls.”
Not for the first time, I smacked him in the jaw, and pounced on top of him. I clenched his head in my hands, tempted to crush it. “Bullshit!” I replied.
I looked up at the window, only to see the face of the landlady, a slight smile on her heart shaped lips. She had her hair done in curls, the old fashioned way, like Veronica Lake. I wanted to take her out; to see her in a slinky evening gown. I made a mental note that this was now a priority. I had lost the urge to throttle Knox, and at that moment my cell phone rang.
“This is Walls.” I said.
“Russell. Have you seen Pudgy since we left your house, Walls? He was supposed to meet me back at the station ten minutes ago. He ain’t shown.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that I’ve detained him a little bit.” I said, letting his head drop into the snow. “You want me to tell him anything?”
“Tell him to hightail it to the precinct, the chief wants a word with us.”
“Done.” I said. I lit a cigarette, and prodded him with my boot. “Let’s go, Knox. Chief wants a word at you.” Knox scowled at me, and made an attempt to bowl me over, but I grabbed him by the shoulder and steered him toward the front of the building. I looked at the landlady’s window, she was still there, fairly pleased with the show. I winked, and followed Knox to the street. I waited for him to drive off, and looked at my watch. Ten bells; Wally may be stirring now.
I walked back into the foyer, still cautious. A good investigator is always cautious. I rapped three times at Wally’s door, fairly certain there would be no answer. “Open up, Wally. It’s Bruce.” I waited. There was no reply. I tried the doorknob, and to my surprise, it was unlocked. I heard a door open down the hall, and aimed my pistol, but I had it back in its holster before the landlady was in eye shot.
“Are you a cop, too? I figured you were, so I unlocked Mr. Norris’ door for ya.” She smiled the most demure smile I had ever seen. No woman with a smile like that could run a dump like this for long, so I knew she was new to the job. And with the accent I detected in the word ‘figured’ I knew she was from out east.
“I take it your husband runs this dive, ma’am?” I said, taking off my hat and wiping the snow off the brim. I looked up at her face, and my heart leapt for my throat. She smiled, not demurely this time, but one that beamed so bright I forgot the stuttering fluorescent above me. She had the most flawless teeth I have ever seen in my life.
“I’m not married, Mr…”
“Forgive me, Mr. Walls.”
“I’m Christina Bettis, my dad was the caretaker here for years. He passed away about two weeks ago, and I’m just filling in until the owner can find someone else to run it.” There was no trace of a smile now.
“I’m so sorry to hear that Ms. Bettis. If you should need anything, don’t shy away from calling me.” I smiled, she smiled back. “ Forgive me for changing the subject, but when was the last time you saw Wally around?” She told me it had been previous to the party, she hadn’t seen him since. She did remember hearing his voice above the others throughout the night.
“Doesn’t surprise me a bit. He was quite a carouser.”
“Do you think it was him who killed the young girl?” she asked, clearly worried about the possibility that a lodger of hers could be dangerous. I told her not to be frightened, but to call me if she saw anything suspicious. I repeated my desire for her to call if she needed anything, and we shook hands and parted ways. I lingered in the hall a moment after her door shut, and I cursed myself for acted like a love sick school kid.
Wally’s door opened with a creak, and the floor squealed as I crossed the threshold. The place smelled the same as ever, the only difference was that the place hadn’t been cleaned since the party on Monday. The apartment was actually pretty big, but the kitchen was at one side of the living room. Nothing looked amiss in the living room.
The bedroom was a big league mess; I had never been in there, but I imagined this was its usual state. As far as I could tell the carpet was made of dirty laundry and old newspapers. I put the collar of my camel hair coat over my nose to stifle the stink. “Someone should open a friggin’ window in this place!”
Wally never packed his things. There was no struggle. Nothing. I rang Russell to see if Wally had been picked up for exposing himself or some such thing. Nothing doing. Wally had just joined the legion of missing persons, and nobody cared, except for maybe his boss or his mother. Tom Russell told me that the chief wanted to see me, and that he was none too pleased.
“He says you’re biased, and that he doesn’t want civilians on the case, even one who used to be a cop. He’s also not too pleased that you shadowed Pudgy and accosted him.”
“I did no such thing, Tom, and you know it. I don’t even know how he knew to check on Wally, I figured he’d be busy at Stacy’s apartment and with Stemsky. How did he know, Tom?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. Look, the chief needs to see ya, and he is steamed! This is our case, Bruce, you know that. I’m sorry about your sister, Bruce, but I can’t let you interfere with the investigation. Remember that it’s the end that matters, not the means. Wally took off, didn’t he? I’d say that Stemsky is not a suspect since Wally split. Wally is our man, and I’m gonna bring him in, no three ways about it.” I had apparently got under his skin.
“Then you didn’t take Stemsky in?”
“Sure didn’t. Just come to the station, alright?”
“Give me a little bit.” I hung up. I didn’t need to be assigned the case to be on it, and I was on it. “How does Knox know Wally Norris?” Somehow, he’s got a lead, and it’s closer to the center of the case than I would have believed. I decided to hoof it to Whitey’s again, to discover if Pudgy had been in there. For the first time, Pudgy had gotten a leg up on me, and that stung pretty deep.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the little bartender needed to run home to change his drawers after seeing me show up again. He concealed his fright with scorn, like so many do. He wouldn’t be much help this time, either, but that didn’t stop me.
“I see the lush comes back to the trough!” he said, thinking he was cute.
“And I see the yellow runs all the way through.” Effectively knocking the smile off his face. “Listen, kid, have you seen a fat cop in a Stetson hat prowling around this area at all?”
“I don’t talk to cops.” He probably meant both Knox and I.
“I’m no cop, kid.”
“Sure. I’m not a bartender, either.”
“Too bad your dad was never around to beat you when you were young. If you were my son, I’d slap the taste out of your mouth.” I lit a cigarette, and ordered another pint. “Where’s your boss, son?”
“Not sure, it’s his day off.” He said, smarmy as all hell.
“Did ya just highjack the bar for the day? It’s like a damned ‘day off’ phenomenon in here. I suppose you take the orders, go cook ‘em, and then run out to take care of the folks at the bar?”
“It’s Wednesday, man, and business hasn’t been that good.”
“The help hasn’t been very good either. Have you seen a cop around here, or haven’t you?”
“I haven’t.” He wasn’t lying. Willie Knox had gotten his info elsewhere. What did they find at Stacy’s flat that could have given him the scent of something foul? I knew that had to be my next stop, assuming it hadn’t been entirely cleared and documented already. Assuming the chief hadn’t given them orders to prevent me from getting in.
Stacy’s place was on the south side of Minneapolis, quite a ways away. On the drive there I caught the news bulletin announcing the name of my sister; but to my chagrin, they also stated that a certain Walter Norris was implicated as a suspect, and that he had mysteriously disappeared from his Minneapolis apartment in the night. The only thing worse than a crooked cop with an iffy lead, is a media leak to boot. I needed to talk to Russell right away, and unfortunately, that meant a trip to see the boss.
Big John Smyth was the chief at the time, and his name wasn’t hyperbole. I weigh in at 6’5”, and 230 pounds, but Big John was one man I’d be leery of going one round with. Big John was not your typical homicide chief, either. He did a lot of his own dirty work, most said it was because his wife was much meaner than the mean streets. John was a sort of local hero, although he’s been known to take over a case just before it was broken open. I was not looking forward to this meeting with him this time.
The chief smiled slightly when I was admitted to his office. It was a pitying smile, but it was a smile none the less. He indicated a chair and asked me how business was going for me. I told him to get to the point.
“Bruce, why is it any time you cooperate with the police someone gets roughed up? You’re a loose cannon, that’s why. That’s also why you aren’t a cop anymore. You need to understand that you can’t interfere with this case, even if it was your sister. I’m very sorry, Bruce.”
“You’re not sorry, don’t give me that.”
“I am sorry.” His brow furrowed, and he sighed. “You were an excellent detective, Bruce, and I wish I could assign you to this case. I don’t want this to get ugly, Ok? Knox and Russell are good guys, and competent detectives. They’ll get to the bottom of things, and you’ll get the dirt without all the mess. Just stay away from them, would ya?”
“Knox is a heel, and he got me kicked off the force. Don’t feed me your double talk, I’m not biting.” I stood up, putting on my hat.
“Don’t get uppity, son! I can get you put away until after the case is solved, if I have to. Don’t make me.”
The next few days were very unproductive. Any lead I caught ended up being unrelated to the case. Mel and Wally still hadn’t turned up, and I hadn’t come across the trail of Knox or Russell. I decided to have a talk with Joe Stemsky, Stacy’s beau, to see which sordid character he thought would most likely be involved. I went to the lumber yard he was in charge of, thinking he would be among the missing as well.
“ Hello, Joe. How’s things?” I asked
“Not good, you know that. You don’t look too bent out of shape. It wouldn’t have been so bad to get to know her. She was a good girl, Bruce.”
“She was a coke addict, and I never liked the company she kept. Why are you standing up for her, anyways? Look how she treated you.” Stemsky was getting a little too misty for my tastes, so I switched gears and asked if I could buy him lunch somewhere. He accepted, saying he was almost done for the day. This pleased me, as people are always more free with the truth when you make with the free drinks.
“I didn’t do it, Bruce! I would never kill anyone, especially her!” he wailed once at O’Gara’s pub.
“I know it, Stemsky. Stop crying, would ya? I’m embarrassed for you.”
“It was Wally, I know it was! He always treated her like shit.” His mood put a certain country-western tune into my head. “There’s a tear in my beer, cause I’m cryin’ for you dear…you were on my lonesome mind.” I just wanted to cry in my beer.
“Cool off, Stemsky, I’m gonna puke! I can’t follow the case too close, or else I’ll end up detained. The only thing we can do is lay low until their investigation goes belly up. Then I can work on it uninhibited.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell the poor schlep that he would most likely be behind bars for the crime before I could really get on the case. And as was usually the case, my intuition was dead on. Next morning Joe Stemsky was arrested on suspicion of murder, and my good buddy William Stewart Knox was the guy who did the honors. I didn’t bother going to the trial, as I knew it would be chock full of bullshit, and my heart really went out to Stemsky, now facing thirty years with no parole. I knew the drill though, and it sometimes took a terrible thing like this here one to break a poorly run investigation wide open. I was now able to get into the case, and hopefully, find the real culprit.