Exclusive Excerpt: From author Jessie Chandler’s “Operation Stop Hate”

Exclusive Excerpt

Operation Stop Hate

by Jessie Chandler

 

Prologue

The second gunshot came less than a minute after the first. The sharp report faded, replaced by the frenetic sound of music drumming through Sony headphones. They covered the ears of a young man who moved with slow, deliberate steps down an empty hall. Blond curls brushed the collar of a black Carhartt jacket, and worn jeans hung loosely on his thin frame.

He peered carefully through the narrow, rectangular windows on each classroom door. Inside, students cowered alongside terrified teachers. As he systematically checked one room after another, he tonelessly hummed to the thumping rhythm in his ears. Halfway down the hall, he froze in front of one of the windows. After a moment, he raised a hand and tried the doorknob.

School protocol dictated that in the event of a threat involving potential or realized violence, the teacher’s task was to lock down their classroom. The teacher within had followed directions.

The boy wrenched violently at the knob. The door shuddered under the onslaught.

He stepped back, aimed a black handgun between the knob and the doorjamb and pulled the trigger. The deafening report of the gunshot sent the still classroom into a blur of movement. Kids screamed, scrambling for cover. The teacher charged toward the now-splintered entry at the same time the shooter slammed the sole of his scuffed boot in the center of the door. It swung violently inward, into the woman. She bounced off the door and skidded across the floor.

The boy calmly stepped over the motionless teacher and scanned the room. He reached up and tugged his headphones off, leaving them slung around his neck, the pounding bass now clearly audible.

The shooter focused on a thin teen in jeans and an untucked, green flannel shirt. “Hunter.”

A wide-eyed, longhaired girl who’d been standing near Hunter backed slowly away.

Hunter made a choking sound and his face blanched. He raised his hands. “No, Mike, please. What’s—”

The gunshot shattered the air. Hunter spun as if a hand reached down from the ceiling and twirled him like a top. He crashed into the girl. Both went down in a flurry of arms and legs. The panicked shrieks of thirty terrified students reverberated through the classroom.

Mike exited without a backward glance, humming once again. Three doors down, he paused and tried the doorknob. This one turned. He pushed the door open.

A chubby man with a fringe of white hair stretched his arms protectively in front of a number of students who huddled like lambs behind him.

Mike looked past the teacher and locked eyes with another student with a buzz cut and an athlete’s physique.

“Billy.” Mike’s voice was glacier cold. “Mr. H., please move.”

“Mike,” Mr. H. said, “this isn’t what you—”

“Please, just move.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Move it!”

Mr. H. lunged toward Mike. Blood spewed as the report of the shot hammered through the room, the concussion almost a physical force in the enclosed space.

Kids yowled. They scrambled over desks and each other in an effort at self-preservation.

Mike calmly skirted the fallen Mr. H. He stopped in front of Billy, who was backed up against the windows that overlooked the parking lot.

“What are you doing?” Billy’s voice sounded like someone had kneed him in the nuts.

“What am I doing?” Mike echoed faintly. He raised the gun. “You know what.” Mike’s body quaked and he shouted, “No more!”

“Please—”

“Shut up.” Mike stepped closer. He pressed the barrel of the gun into Billy’s sternum.

“Mike!” a voice shouted from the doorway. “Please, please don’t.”

He cast a glance back at a tall, plump girl who stood on the threshold. She breathed heavily, eyes wide. Like rats deserting a sinking ship, kids squeezed past her and ran down the hall. Mike let them go.

“No, Livy, not this time.” Mike refocused on Billy. Over his shoulder he said, “Get out of here. You don’t want to see this.”

“Dude, come on.” Olivia took a couple of steps inside the classroom. “It doesn’t have to be like this. They’re not worth it.”

“Olivia, go!”

Billy’s eyes flicked between Mike and Olivia. “Yeah, Mike, come on—”

Mike dug the barrel harder into his chest, and Billy grunted in pain.

Mike’s voice dropped, hardened. “Hunter and this asshole did something to Otis. To my goddamned dog. We had to put him to sleep last night.”

“Oh, God,” Olivia whispered on an exhale.

Billy said, “Come on, man. I swear I didn’t—”

“Shut up, fucker. Paybacks are a bitch.” More gently, he said, “Get out of here, Livy. Do it now.”

Olivia backed away, stumbling over an upended desk. A thunderous blast chased her out the door. Glass shattered, the sound almost lost in the din of screams echoing in the hallway.

At last, nothing remained but the tinny beat of heavy metal rock music.

Cover Final Stop Hate JPG

Chapter 1

Raindrops pounded the ground. I forcefully shook my head before stepping through the back door into my apartment, which was half of an ancient, two-story Northeast Minneapolis duplex. Built railroad-style, the apartments had a long hall that ran along the outermost wall, going through the unit from the front door straight to the back door. The kitchen, the living room, and a half-bath opened off the hallway. On the second floor, two bedrooms and a full bath were situated off of a duplicate hall.

I shrugged out of my wet jacket and hung it up. April showers might bring May flowers, but they didn’t do much more than make me cranky. The week had been grueling, and I looked forward to an unexpected weekend off.

Mail injected through a slot in the door by the postal carrier was strewn haphazardly across the foyer. I scooped up the envelopes and brought them into the kitchen.

At the table I flipped through the mail. Two credit card applications landed in a shred pile. A Target bill and a reminder that my teeth were overdue for cleaning went into another.

A pink envelope had the return address of one E. Knight. Eli was a redheaded Tasmanian devil, an ex who’d recently decided she no longer wished to hold that status. After what the tramp had pulled on me, that status wasn’t about to change. Ever.

In the midst of an intense four-year relationship, I’d come home unexpectedly early one afternoon and walked into our bedroom to the shock of a lifetime.

Eli and a woman she worked with were sprawled in our bed, between our sheets, doing the horizontal mambo. After my brain caught up, I flashed the gun in my shoulder holster and sent them both packing, dressed in nothing but their birthday suits.

As they scrammed down the stairs and out the front door, I picked up the clothing they’d dropped and threw it out the bedroom window. The neighborhood gossiped for the next month about the two naked chicks scrambling around my front yard attempting to cover themselves while trying to gather their stuff.

That was nearly two years ago. Eventually, for whatever reason, Eli decided she wanted another go. Ever since I’d come home from an assignment in New Jersey last winter, she had been a pain in my ass. I figured sooner or later she’d knock it off, but five months had passed, and she hadn’t let up. She’d recently taken over the helm of the advertising agency she worked for when we were together. The little womanizer had the gall to claim she’d slept up the ladder for me. For me? Yeah. Whatever. She was a certified nut job wrapped inside a power-hungry barracuda.

I gazed at the stack of pink envelopes on the table and then at four empty vases—vases that had held red roses before I pitched them directly into the trash—sitting on the kitchen counter between the refrigerator and the microwave. All the flowers had come in the last week. Maybe it was time to admit my ex had lost her mind.

I ripped the newest missive open and pulled out a single sheet of scented stationery. The smell brought unbidden memories of times best forgotten.

Cailin,

Why are you shutting me out? I’m finally at the top, and you’re meant to be here with me. I’m the only one who knows how to love you, and you know it. Let me give you all of me. I love you, Cailin. I know you love me too.

Eli

I tucked the note back into the envelope and tossed it onto the growing pile of undying love. It was past time to call her on her bullshit, but I’d put off a confrontation hoping she would pull her own head out of her ass without help.

I threw the rest of the junk mail in the recycling bin and dialed Northstar Gallery.

“Northstar,” a distracted-sounding voice answered. My heart thumped, like it did whenever I heard Alejandra—Alex to those she knew and loved—Rodriguez speak. My girl was always quick to make it clear she wasn’t to be confused with the ex-Yankee baseball player. While she had bigger figurative balls than half the Yankees put together, she came by her strength naturally. Every night, when I lay down and held Alex to me, I thanked the gods and goddesses for bringing her to me.

My responsibilities as a special agent for a small branch of the Department of Homeland Security called the National Protection and Investigation Unit took up the majority of my life. The Federal Government wasn’t creative enough to come up with a new set of job titles for the NPIU, so we were stuck with the same ones the Feebs used. Beyond that, though, were some major differences. The NPIU had three main goals. The first was to assess, track, and stop homegrown terror plots by analyzing and acting on information gathered by a number of agencies at all levels of government. Information collection proved exceptionally tricky. Just ask those folks at the National Security Agency.

Currently, the NSA was under fire for overreach in their efforts to collect international intelligence. I didn’t know how the mess would end, but no matter which way it went, the reputation of the United States had taken a serious hit. I was glad I worked mainly on this side of the pond.

The second mandate was to be available to any agency who requested our assistance, terror-related or not, so long as imminent danger to the American public was established.

The last, and in my opinion, most critical mandate was to improve cooperation—sharing of vital information between city, state, and the federal agencies in an attempt to bridge the negative attitudes departments often held against each other.

The pervasive cooperation problem reminded me of a pack of dogs fighting to mark their territory by seeing who could lift their leg higher. The truth of the matter was, all too often, no one was getting any relief.

I’d been caught in one of those leg-lifting battles last September. Two of us had been sent to New Jersey to help the ever-shorthanded East Coast Bureau investigate a threat involving the Holland tunnel. The bright spot out of that mess was Alex. We’d begun dating, and she allowed herself to be dragged to Minneapolis when the assignment ended. I was still shocked she was here.

Alex cleared her throat and repeated, “Northstar.”

“Hey.”

“Hey, yourself.” I heard the smile in her smoky voice. “What’s up?”

“Aside from being whiny from loneliness, I figured you’d like to know I got another letter.”

Alex let out an exasperated sigh. “What did it say this time?”

“Same shit, different day.”

“Jesus Christ. What’ll it take for her to get the hint? Get a restraining order. Shoot her. Something.”

Alex was only half-kidding. Eli had been incessant since we’d come home. She had an obsessive streak, but in the past she eventually grew bored with whatever her current obsession was and would fixate on a new one. Why she wasn’t doing that this time was beyond me.

In the deepest recesses of my gut, a part of me felt wholly inadequate because I couldn’t find a way to successfully rein in my ex-lover. The chats I’d already had with her had no impact. Maybe a restraining order wasn’t a terrible plan, but the idea that someone who worked in law enforcement couldn’t take care of their own shit was pathetic. I needed to be firmer. On occasion, my pride did have a nasty habit of getting in the way of common sense.

“Shooting Eli sounds like a splendid idea,” I said. “I don’t get it. She should’ve moved onto something else months ago. This is excessive, even for her.”

A buzz in the background became a jumble of loud voices. “It’s because you’re irresistible. On that note, I gotta run. Some briefcase-toting chicks in designer power suits just walked in. See you tonight.” Alex disconnected and almost immediately another call lit up my phone screen. Bad sign—my workplace was on the line. I had a hunch my weekend was about to go up in flames.

“Sorry for the call, McKenna,” my direct boss, Supervisory Special Agent Allen Weatherspoon said without preamble. Weatherspoon was a decent guy and still remembered what it was like to run hot in the trenches. When his agents had a rare weekend off, he was loath to interrupt. He had a wife and three kids and liked to keep to a regular schedule himself. If the SSA was expressing an apology to me on a Friday evening, something very bad must have happened.

“There’s been another school shooting.”

“Oh, shit, no.” I wasn’t sure if I said that out loud or if the words only echoed in my head.

The previous week a shooting occurred at Steven’s High School in Minneapolis, and we’d been called in to assist. Minnesota hadn’t seen a school shooting since the Rocori High shooting in Cold Spring in 2003 and the Red Lake massacre in 2005.

The Steven’s High shooter had killed himself after dropping four students and the vice principal. The investigation into the incident was ongoing. There didn’t seem to be any effective federal solutions, thanks in part to a government that couldn’t agree on anything and a noisy portion of the public terrified of losing their right to bear arms.

“Where?” I asked.

“Gray Academy Charter. Minneapolis has asked us in, and Nakamura’s on her way. Coordinate with the responding agencies and the locals. You know the location?”

“The alternative school? 31st and Nicollet?”

“That’s the one.”

“Is it secured, or is the shooter still on the loose?”

“Secured. The shooter took out two kids, a security guard, and at least one teacher. Funny thing, he was waiting on the front steps of the school when the cavalry arrived. He stood up, hands in the air, and turned himself in.”

“Weird. I’m on my way, sir.”

I texted Alex that I’d been called out and that she was on her own for the evening. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be home anytime soon.

***

Twenty minutes later I parked near the entrance to Gray Academy. The structure was imposing—the early twentieth-century brick building had housed the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company, and many of the city’s streetcars had been built there in an era long since gone.

The wind had picked up, and I shivered with an inner chill the warmest heater wouldn’t chase away. Dusk was eerie, far earlier than usual at this time of year thanks to low-lying, battleship-gray clouds and the nonstop rain. Mother Nature seemed to be weeping for what had taken place.

Squads and ambulances, their red and blue lights flashing, were parked within the cordoned-off parking lot. Across the lot, on the sidewalk next to the street, three dozen gawkers had gathered. Reporters crowded together in a designated area, their bright lights shining and cameras ready to roll.

Yellow crime scene tape wound from tree to signpost to garbage can around the school. A number of crime scene guys hovered over something on the ground to the right of the front doors. Intensely bright police spotlights flooded the area.

I caught the attention of one of the officers valiantly engaged in staving off the morbidly nosy. When I flashed my NPIU credentials, he said, “It’s an ugly one, McKenna.”

“They all are.” I ducked under the crime scene tape. Trampled brown grass ended at a sidewalk leading to a flight of ten stairs and the wide, double doors of the school’s entrance.

Five people had gathered halfway up the stairway. I recognized my NPIU counterpart, Agent Rosie Nakamura, by her short, angular profile. Beside her stood the Minneapolis Chief of Police, Howard Helling, along with MPD Officers Manuel Martinez and Bryan Peterson who were a couple of Minneapolis Homicide guys I’d worked with in the past. They moonlighted on the MPD’s Special Response Team. I didn’t know the fifth man.

Peterson and Martinez reminded me of a mixed up Laurel and Hardy. Martinez was laid back, rotund, and balding. A thick, black moustache hovered over his upper lip. Bryan Peterson’s thin, six-foot-tall frame was topped by a mop of straw-colored hair.

Martinez said, “Would be nice to see you, McKenna, if we were at the bar.”

All business, Peterson said, “Let’s get the intros out of the way. Agent Cailin McKenna, Principal Nyland Nash.”

He jerked his head toward a solidly built man with salt-and-pepper hair. I reached for Nash’s hand and gave it a quick shake. His paisley tie had been loosened, and the knot sat crookedly at the base of his throat. Sweating and shaky, he looked like he might lose his marbles any moment.

“Miles Johnson,” Peterson continued, “is running the scene along with MPD’s crime lab. Here he comes now.”

Johnson took the steps two at a time. “Hey.” A man of few words, he was the head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s Forensic Crime Scene Team. I’d worked with Johnson a couple of times. He was a decent guy and had a great nose for finding shit that was often overlooked.

I gave him a nod and turned to Helling. “Chief.”

Every time I saw Chief Helling, he reminded me of Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad—minus the terminal cancer diagnosis. His face vacillated between bluish-gray and reddish-green in the reflection of the flashing lights. The stress of dealing with a cancer of a different kind that encompassed our entire city had to be monumental.

Might as well get on with it and maybe we could get out of the drizzle. I asked, “What have we got?”

Principal Nash found his voice. “A little after three this afternoon, one of our students opened fire.”

In report mode, Miles Johnson picked up the narrative. “We have two dead.”

Chief Helling crossed his arms, his face anguished. I would not want to be in his shoes.

“Three wounded,” Johnson continued, “including the security guard at the front door who was shot in the upper thigh, one teacher who was knocked unconscious by a door the shooter kicked in, and another teacher who was shot in the abdomen. The dead are two seventeen-year-old male students. The injured have been transported to Hennepin County Medical Center, and the deceased are still in place. The shooter has been taken to the Juvenile Detention Center.”

Helling said, “Students awaiting pick up are in the library, along with a few kids who came forward wanting to talk to us about the shooter. We need to find out what they know. One fortunate turn of events is one of the kids is the shooter’s best friend, and she’s willing to talk.”

Rosie asked, “Do we have an ID on the shooter?”

Peterson flipped open a notepad. “Michael John Lorenzo, age sixteen.”

The air suddenly thickened. I felt like I was choking in a vacuum of disbelief. “Michael Lorenzo?” Cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck. For a second I thought I might go toes up in front of everyone.

“Cailin?” Rosie asked. “What’s wrong? You know him?”

It would be easier to think if the roaring in my ears subsided. “I know a kid, a teen, with the same name.”

Off-duty, I occasionally picked up off-the-record cases, cases typically outside the scope of my job. Behind closed doors, I admitted to sometimes wielding the power of my badge in ways my bosses might not approve of. Most of those cases involved trying to pull runaways and homeless kids off the streets and get them somewhere safe. Provide them resources they might not know were available. The MPD had a small unit assigned to do just that, but they were often swamped. I was more than happy to lend a hand when I could. The intent was noble enough in my eyes, and that made it easy to rationalize away my legal indiscretions. How many Michael John Lorenzos could there be attending this particular high school?

I snapped my mouth shut. “I pulled a Mike Lorenzo off the streets and helped him get placed in foster care. He attends Gray Academy.”

“McKenna.” The chief faced me. He pensively tapped his chin with a finger. “Since you might know this boy, maybe you should be the one to talk to this friend of his.”

“Who is it?” My voice still sounded thin.

Martinez consulted his notebook again. “Olivia Chapman.”

“Goddamn it.” The words were out of my mouth before I could censor myself. I tilted my head back to the dark sky. “The shooter is my Mike.” A second later I returned my gaze to Helling’s. “A year or so ago he told me he’d actually made a friend. Her name was Olivia. Yeah, I’ll talk to her.”

“Where are the teachers?” Rosie asked. She was one of the NPIU’s high tech, detail-oriented computer magicians, and she approached life like she did her work, with a single-minded focus.

Chief Helling said, “Teachers are in the gym. Martinez, head downtown. Make sure the foster parents are notified.” He pointed at Rosie and Peterson. “You two go with McKenna. Johnson, get back in there and make damn sure no one is contaminating the crime scene. I’ll have enough people crawling all over me without having to deal with that problem.”

“Sure thing, Chief.” Miles Johnson made for the front door of the school, the big yellow “CST” on his burly back reflecting the sweep of the emergency lights.

Helling rubbed his hands together briskly and attempted a smile that came across as a tired grimace. “Mr. Nash, if you’ll come with me, I’d appreciate it. Time for us to face the cameras.”

The two men moved down the stairs, Martinez following in their wake.

Martinez stopped after he’d descended a couple of steps. “Jesus, McKenna. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

Rosie nudged me. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

 

Jessie Chandler
Author of the award-winning Shay O’Hanlon Caper Series.

Nick Nowak Returns in this Exclusive Excerpt – Boystown 6: From the Ashes

Boystown 6 – From The Ashes

by Marshall Thornton

MarshallThornton

Some people are like orchids: delicate, easily bruised, wilted by a chill breeze. Others are more like weeds: stubborn, hard to dig out, impossible to kill. Most people don’t know which they are until life starts to kick them around. Early in 1984, I found out which I am. I’m a weed.

Tucked under the Sheridan stop of the Jackson Howard, the bar was called Irving’s “L” Lounge. The year before, I’d spent so much time drinking there they hired me as the day bartender. I was surprised by the job offer since my no longer being a customer likely put a noticeable dent in their profits. Irving’s had a liquor store—and one-time delicatessen—on one side and the dark, sticky bar on the other. By the time I worked there, Irving was long gone—if there ever was one—and the place was now owned by a fat guy named Ludlow who clerked the liquor store himself because he was too cheap to pay anyone else to do it.

When you walked through the nicotine-drenched velvet curtain that covered the front door, the first thing you noticed was the antique mahogany bar. Even though the shellac had worn off in spots and there were chips every few inches, it was a beautiful sight: inlaid columns holding it up every few feet, a thick brass foot rail, and a heavy lip wrapping around the whole thing. Behind me, when I was working, it rose to the ceiling, with more columns, a wide cornice at top, and three beveled mirrors. The bar was obviously an antique and, like much of the clientele, in need of rescue.

The day-drinkers liked to make up stories about it, the most common being that it was salvaged from an old hotel down in the Loop that was pulled down decades ago. They speculated that Al Capone sat at it and drank. I never thought that story was particularly true. The bar was too small to have served a hotel, a speakeasy perhaps, but never a hotel. And, as far as I knew, Al Capone spent more time selling booze than drinking it. Still, the story kept my regulars occupied between sips.

Across from the bar, four small booths lined the wall. The booths were upholstered in licorice black leatherette, matching the stools that ringed the bar. Every few minutes the El rattled by above us. I had to be careful not to stack the glasses too close together or they chattered. And chattered. And chattered.

Every morning at five I arrived to get ready to open the doors at six. By seven we were in the middle of a rush. Our regulars broke down into a couple of distinct types. First, you had the graveyarders, the men and women who’d worked all night and wanted a couple of drinks before they went home to sleep all day. No one would think twice about them, except that they did everything opposite the normal world. Then, you had what I called the freshmen. Young kids who’d just discovered drinking, got drunk on Rush Street the night before, and decided they just had to keep going. They usually showed up just once or twice. Sooner or later they’d get some sense unless, of course, they turned into the third type of customer we had—the career drunk. These were people who drank in Irving’s until closing at four a.m., ran out to a twenty-four hour diner for a little breakfast, and were back at the front door waiting for me to open at six. The career drunks drank twenty-four hours a day for as long as they could, then crashed somewhere for a few days or maybe even a week, and then began the process all over again. That was me for a while. I gave it up when I crawled over to the other side of the bar. Not because I had an epiphany or read a self-help book or suddenly got all happy, it was just that drinking day and night got boring after a while. So, I slowed down.

The morning Mrs. Harker showed up at the bar was windy and barely above freezing. On the way in, I’d hit a patch of black ice on the sidewalk that allowed the wind to sail me back a good three feet. The fact that she’d braved the elements and at least two buses was not a good sign. She snuck in while a regular was telling me about the Super Bowl. Well, not so much about the game, according to him that was a real snooze with the Raiders trouncing the Redskins, but about a commercial, a really cool commercial in the second half for a computer named after a fruit.

“The ad was based on that book, you know the one, it says the world is gonna end this year.”

Boystown 6 Cover 2nd Edition2

1984?” I guessed.

“Yeah, that one.”

I’d never read it, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t about the apocalypse. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone needed anything and there was Mrs. Harker, sitting primly at the street end of the bar. She looked older, older than she was even, though I didn’t know exactly how old she happened to be. Somewhere near, or past, seventy. Her hair was white, whiter than the clumps of snow outside on the sidewalk, her skin was pink and about as thick as tissue paper, her eyes were hard and mean as a snake. I walked down and stared at her a moment, then asked, “How’d you find me here?”

“Your lawyer tell my lawyer,” she said. This was how we’d been communicating, through lawyers. Showing up in person was a new twist but it did mean she wouldn’t be getting an invoice from her lawyer. I figured sooner or later she’d get tired of paying to torture me and look for a way to do it for free. She looked around the bar and sneered. “Bertram would not like this place.”

No, I thought, she’s right. And he wouldn’t like me working there either. I decided to be snotty and said, “I won’t tell him, if you won’t.” She gave me the frown I deserved. No one was telling Bert anything. He’d been dead for more than a year. “What do you want, Mrs. Harker?”

“I have Seven and Seven,” she said. I wasn’t all that sure, but I didn’t think I’d actually spoken to her since Bert’s funeral. Her accent seemed to have grown thicker, her English rough. I wondered if she spoke it very often; if she spoke any language very often. Or was it more that she’d become disenchanted with America, angry about all the country had given her and then taken away.

I arched an eyebrow at her and said, “It’s nine o’clock in the morning. Isn’t that early for a high ball?”

“This is way you talk to customer?”

After a heavy sigh, I walked down the bar and made her a drink. I brought it back and set it in front of her. She opened her purse and began to dig through it. “It’s on me,” I said, but she stubbornly put a five-dollar bill on the bar. I stubbornly ignored it. I stood there until she took a sip of her drink. She tried to hide her shiver as she swallowed. She was not the kind of woman who drank in the morning, and to remind her of that fact, I’d made the drink a little strong; well, it was almost brown.

“Now, tell me what you really want,” I said.

“I, I need hire you.”

“You need a bartender? Are you throwing a garden party?”

“I need detective,” she said with a scowl.

I almost said I didn’t do that anymore, because I didn’t. I’d been avoiding my chosen profession since I killed the man who killed Bert. That sort of made me lose interest. Still, I couldn’t help asking the obvious question. “Why do you need a detective, Mrs. Harker?”

“At my church, my priest, Father Maniatis, he died.”

“Father what?” I asked, not quite catching the name through her accent.

She gave me her basic unhappy look. She didn’t believe she had an accent. “Is Greek. Many-ah-tis.”

“Father Maniatis. He was murdered?”

“I don’t know. I am not detective. You are detective. You are to find out.”

“Do the police think he was murdered?”

She shook her head. “No.”

I waited for her to say more but she didn’t. “What do the police think?”

“He had heart attack.”

“And you don’t think he did?”

“No. Very young, very healthy.”

“How young was he?” I asked.

“Forty-one, forty-two.”

That was just about five years older than I was. Which did seem young. On the other hand there were days I thought I might be on the verge of dropping dead of a heart attack myself. Usually right before I passed out drunk. “Why do you think he was healthy?”

“His doctor say.”

“You talked to his doctor?”

“Father Maniatis tell me.” With a glance she read my mind. “He would not tell lie.”

“Well…doctors have been wrong before. Was there an autopsy?”

“I do not know. This is for you to find out.” She gave me an exasperated look, as though I were a child who refused to understand.

“I told you. I don’t do that anymore. Check the yellow pages.”

“So you not help me? I pay you.” She knew I wouldn’t take her money. I hadn’t touched a penny of Harker’s money even though he’d left me half of it. He’d never said so, but I figured he did it so I’d always take care of his mother. A position that my lawyer had made clear to her lawyer. From the way she was looking at me I think she’d decided my doing work for her came under the heading of taking care of her. I didn’t agree.

It took a few more minutes, but she finally figured out I wasn’t going to do what she wanted. She snatched up her five-dollar bill and with a huff got off the stool. I watched her walk out the door, happy she was leaving.

She didn’t belong in a place like Irving’s.

###

I had him face down on the bed, head shoved into the pillow, back-arched. I held onto the veneered headboard with both hands and fucked him in an aggressive way that in some states was classified as a felony. Owen Lovejoy, Esquire was enjoying the hell out of it.

He was too tall to be considered short but too short to be considered average, which put him on the tall end of short. He had dark hair cut conservatively, nice copper eyes that were made bigger by the large, round, tortoise-shell glasses that kept slipping down his nose as I fucked him. His body was squat and athletic, like a wrestler or a boxer, even though I knew for certain he didn’t do either of those things. Long hours and take-out food seemed to be his only health regime.

His ass was perfectly round, especially when he lay on his stomach, and he lifted it up to meet me as I thrust into him. I’d been fucking him for what seemed like hours. He’d come maybe ten minutes before. I wanted to come. I was tired and the room was hot with radiator heat so I was sweating like we were mired in the dog days of August.

I pushed all thought out of my head and concentrated on the way my dick felt sliding in and out of his ass, the little gasping whimpers he let out, and the sexy arch of his back. A minute later, I could feel myself getting close, muscles contracting, cum flowing through me, and then a few brief seconds of silence, release, blissful emptiness. The French call it la petite mort, the small death. But I don’t think it’s like that. It’s more like life, before I screwed it up so bad.

I caught my breath and pulled my dick out of him. He flipped over and said, “I made a mess of the sheets. I came twice.”

“You paid for them. I don’t think I can complain.” On his second visit, Owen had arrived with a set of nice permanent press polyester and cotton sheets from Carson Pirie Scott. I lived in a place called the Hotel Chateau where you could rent rooms by the hour, the day, the week, or the month. The rooms were furnished right down to the bedding. Bedding that wasn’t up to Owen’s standards.

The Hotel Chateau was located in a six-story, yellow brick building on Broadway with a mod sixties neon sign and steel awning stuck on one end of the building. I lived in a single room with no kitchen. The sallow yellow paint had bubbled off under the window and the drapes had a groovy brown and black pattern that hid the mold growing up the back of them. There was a double bed, a dresser, and a small metal table with two chairs. In other words, the place was thoroughly disgusting. But it was a hundred and ten dollars a month and I could walk to work. That gave it an appeal.

Abruptly, Owen said, “I keep hearing that this is what causes AIDS.”

“What is?”

“Sex, dear. What we just did.”

“Do you wanna stop coming to see me?” I asked, completely unconcerned with what his answer might be. Well, maybe not completely. It would be inconvenient if he stopped coming around.

“No. I mean, if you’ve got it then you’ve already given it to me. Right?”

“Or vice versa.” I really had no idea what he did when he wasn’t in my bed. I mean, aside from being a lawyer and working his ass off. He could have been fucking half of Chicago in shifts for all I knew.

“True,” he admitted. Of course, he knew that Harker had been sick with AIDS when he was murdered. I suppose he was thinking it was more likely that I’d be the one to be handing it out. If it truly was caused by sex, that is. We lay there a minute or so, the sounds of traffic on the street below drifted up. I’d cracked the window a bit to help with the extra radiator heat.

“This is nice pillow talk,” I said, finally.

“Sweetie, I just wondered if you were worried. Are you?”

Was I? It was like I’d been waiting to start dying for a year, well, hoping might be a better word. It was starting to get hard to believe that I would. “No, I’m not worried.”

“It’s mostly in New York and San Francisco, anyway,” he pointed out.

“Is it?”

“I think something like two thousand people have died nationwide. But I don’t think there’s even been two hundred here. If that.”

“Lucky us,” I said, though I didn’t feel lucky. I’d known three people who had it. Two of them wouldn’t have made the death count, though. Harker because he’d been murdered. Earl Silver, Ross’ boyfriend, had officially died of liver disease since it was less embarrassing. So, of that couple hundred, I knew one who’d been counted. Some guy named Robert who’d been Brian’s grumpy roommate. I didn’t like the drift of the conversation so I changed the subject. “You told Mrs. Harker where I work.”

“I told her lawyer where you work. Was it a secret?”

“She came by to see me.”

“I’ll call Buck and tell him that’s not cool.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“What did she want?”

“Her favorite priest died of a heart attack. Except she doesn’t believe it. She wants me to poke around.”

“Are you going to?

“No, I gave that up.”

“You still have your license, though.”

“For another year.”

“When you’re ready to go back to work, I can use you at the firm. In fact—”

“I’m not going to get ready. I just said I gave that up.”

He put a hand on my bare chest and said, “Relax, it was just an offer. Why doesn’t she believe the priest had a heart attack?”

“Because she’s a stubborn old bitch.”

 

Website:

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Exclusive Excerpt: From #1 Best Seller Gay Mystery – Dying To Play by Mark Zubro

Exclusive Excerpt – Dying To Play

By Mark Zubro

 

Monday 9:01 A.M.

Donny Campbell, the younger man, had broad shoulders, eight-pack abs, and hadn’t shaved yet this hour. Tufts of hair peeked out above his form-fitting T-shirt. Black satin athletic shorts clung to narrow hips but bagged at the knees. Connor Knecht, the older gentleman, was dressed elegant-casual: khakis, dark blue blazer, light blue shirt, red tie. Duncan Morgan, my secretary, ushered them into the office.

Knecht rushed over to me, held out his hand, and said, “You’re Mike King, right?” He didn’t wait for my acknowledgment but bulled ahead. “I’m told you’re the best. We need your help. Someone’s trying to kill us all.”

It was good to know the client had gotten positive reviews on my work, plus he seemed eager. Eager and positive and a little forward weren’t inherently bad.

After we shook hands, they sat in the two overstuffed client chairs. I was in the leather swivel chair behind the old wooden teacher’s desk. Connor Knecht glanced at the Picasso on the wall, a real Picasso. I had solved the case of a missing child for a very grateful client who happened to be very rich.

Knecht leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees. Campbell swung his right ankle on top of his left knee. I got an excellent view up to and including a well-stuffed jockstrap. A sly stud, or totally clueless, or a prick tease, or issuing an invitation? His “pleased to meet you” had been delivered in a rumbling baritone. He didn’t notice my checking him out because I found his eyes lingering on my crotch longer than a straight guy’s normally would. He caught me catching his glance and didn’t look away.

Connor Knecht owned the Butterfield, Wisconsin, Mustangs, a minor league baseball team. Donny Campbell was the team captain and played shortstop.

Dying to Play

The town of Butterfield was west of Madison on the Mississippi River. Last year the controversy over the team and its new stadium had reached the front pages of the Chicago Tribune.

I said, “After you made the appointment, I checked the Internet for all the articles about what happened. I think I have a grasp of the details about the problems you had in the community as they appeared in the media. None of them said anything about murder.”

Knecht said, “I offered to rescue that town. I left fifty years ago. I made my fortune, and I chose to retire there. I love the town. I wanted to help it come back.” He got misty eyed.

From what I’d read, I knew Knecht had begun with almost nothing and over many years built a financial colossus impervious to economic vicissitudes. Among other things, he now owned the largest dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Knecht wiped his eyes and continued, “The downtown has been dying. Young people are moving away. I should never have gone back. I should have let them wallow in their misery. For years the local entertainment was to come downtown and watch them put up shutters on stores that had just gone bankrupt. Places I knew as a kid were gone. Environmentalists, rival developers, jealous country club types, and resident loonies—none of them wanted their world interrupted.” He coughed, wiped his eyes some more. “Once the referendum passed, I thought things would calm down, but they didn’t. While the grandstand was being built, someone took a chainsaw to every single piece of wood used in the construction. The police did nothing.”

“Absolutely nothing?” I asked.

“They barely took a report. So we put guards on the materials. After the stadium was built, somebody tried to set fire to the grandstand. Not once, but twice. Some jerks even took an old outhouse and burned it on top of the pitchers’ mound. The police claim they couldn’t figure out how this huge privy got there. Members of the team have been threatened. The police claim they haven’t been able to track down any of the threats.”

Campbell said, “Some of the guys on the team got notes saying we’d be hurt if we didn’t get out of town.”

Knecht said, “And phone calls to their homes, or to their wives. Sometimes notes are left in the locker room.”

I asked, “Has anyone actually been harmed yet?”

“No,” Campbell said.

Knecht said, “It’s the threats to the players that have me worried. We didn’t get those until just this month. I can’t have people hurt. I want the threats stopped. I want the person making them caught and arrested. If something does go wrong, you’ll be right on the scene to provide protection. I was told you know how to keep your mouth shut. I’ve had enough screaming headlines. I don’t want people to know there have been threats.”

“I don’t see how I could do the job you need without talking to people in the town and the members of the team who’ve been threatened. If I talk to people, someone’s going to notice.”

“Talk to them, but be discreet. Yes, they’ll probably catch on. Maybe it will be good if they do. Maybe that would stop whoever’s doing it. I want to at least try investigating without announcing it with a fanfare. We’ve got a lot of pressure on the guys now that Tyler Skeen is doing rehab with the team until he’s ready to go back with the big club.”

“How does that add pressure to the other guys?”

“The media is everywhere. There’s some big deal guy who was a huge part of Skeen’s trial. Guy named Tim Czobel. He’s been sniffing around. He’s from that website TRUTHINSPORTS. COM.”

Everyone who followed sports knew about the case. Skeen had sued everyone in sight who claimed he’d used any kind of drugs. He won. The government never proved he’d done drugs or lied during an investigation. The jury that cleared Skeen had awarded him only one dollar in damages. The jury didn’t believe him, but they didn’t convict him. They’d been polled later. He won because, in the jurors’ minds, the accusations weren’t backed up by strict facts. He’d gotten a buck because they didn’t like him and thought he was getting away with drug use on technicalities dreamed up by his high-priced lawyers.

I asked, “What’s Czobel done?”

“He’s an asshole. My people get harassed. Tyler is a good guy, but he has no control of any of what’s happening to the team or all this publicity. All the guys like him. I do too. The club has invested millions in him, and they’re relying on me to keep him safe while he’s in town. I want to take precautions. I want to do something proactive. As for the players, I figured you could double as one of them.”

“My name has been in the Chicago papers,” I said. “Mike King might be a common name, and I’m not famous, but I’d hate to rely on my lack of fame to keep your secret. It may not be very likely, but people might see it, recognize it, make a logical deduction. I want to make sure you recognize that there’s a chance, however unlikely.”

“They won’t,” Campbell said. “None of the guys read the paper beyond the sports section. The only magazine they read is Sports Illustrated and that’s mostly to whack off to the swimsuit issue. On the nightly news they only watch the sports. Your picture been on the sports news, ESPN?”

“No.”

“You’ll be safe.”

“A simple search on the Internet would turn me up.”

Campbell said, “The guys just use the Internet for porn to whack off to, not the news.”

“People in the town?” I asked.

“I doubt it,” Knecht said. “You being on the team was all I could think of as a disguise. You’d be a natural. I looked into your credentials, and I talked with a number of people. You were also the only investigator who just missed being drafted by several baseball teams out of college.”

“I wasn’t quite good enough for the majors then. I haven’t gotten better. I’m not in these guys’ league. It would become obvious very quickly that I don’t have a skill set that comes close to theirs. Somebody would have had to have heard about me before I showed up on a team at this level. Prospects just don’t drop in out of the sky.”

I’d played college ball a few years ago. We won a lot of games, but we’d never even gotten to the college world series. I started all of our games for two years. Lots of starters in college never get much beyond that. I still ran several miles every day and worked out three or four times a week. That didn’t make me a professional baseball player.

Knecht said, “I’m the owner of the team. I get what I want. Nobody questions me.”

Perhaps he was the last bastion of absolute monarchy. Some people have that kind of magic even in the new century. He asked how much I charged. I named my fee per week for sticking with the team around the clock. A twenty-four-hour-a- day investigation wouldn’t be cheap. I always tack on a surcharge for absolute monarchs. In his case it was double. He didn’t blink at the price. Being impervious to economic vicissitudes must be a great lifestyle.

Campbell said, “You look like you’re in plenty good enough shape. The guys will buy your presence, at least for a while. We gotta know what’s going on.”

Knecht offered, “You could be like the guy they made the movie about. Out of baseball for a while but working hard at it. Now comes another chance. I realize you’ll have to talk to the players. That’s why I brought Donny along. As captain, he’s respected. He’s a good player and a good guy. He can be your guide to the team. He can get you a lot of introductions, give you a feel for the operation.”

I said, “You mentioned a list of possible suspects. Anybody in particular I should concentrate on?”

Knecht said, “Todd Timmons is the main rival developer, him and his slimy lawyer, L.P. Ornstein. Timmons is a young fella with a lot of ego and ambition. He’s got a lot of confidence and not much sense. He wants big chain stores at every exit of the Interstate. He wants to create something new, not preserve the town I love. And the fool doesn’t have enough money. He’s a pup who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s vicious. I don’t trust him.”

I’d want to talk to the locals early on. Knecht gave me a few other names and details about them.

I said, “How much do you stand to lose if your whole investment goes bust?”

Knecht looked like I’d slapped him. Campbell looked confused.

Knecht replied, “I don’t know.”

“You’ve got to have some idea. Any decent businessman knows what he’s spending for what.”

“I don’t see how knowing that will help your investigation.”

I stood up. I’d miss trying to get another glimpse of Campbell’s jockstrap and the delights it concealed. I held out my hand and said, “I’m sorry we won’t be able to do business.”

Knecht half stood. “What? You’re rejecting a huge fee? You’re turning me down?” He sat back down, looked to Campbell. No help there.

“I’m not starting out with only half the information about what’s going on.”

After a number of hems, haws, and harrumphs, Knecht said, “Okay. I guess.” He hesitated some more, caught my eye, looked away, thought a few more moments, sighed. “Yes, I stand to lose money.” He caught my gaze. “A great deal of money.”

I waited.

He said, “Just under fifty million. I was prepared to invest as much again.”

I sat back down and said, “That kind of sum could cause a lot of people to get angry and desperate.”

“Yes,” Knecht said. “Why turn that kind of money away from a community that needs it?”

Why indeed? Maybe I’d find out. I was willing to give it a try. Plus there was Campbell and his jockstrap and the secrets it concealed. I told them I’d do my best. As they left, I contemplated Campbell’s butt. Very nice.

 

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Exclusive Excerpt – Boystown 5 – A Time For Secrets – by Marshall Thornton

Excerpt from Boystown 5: Murder Book  – Lambda Literary Finalist

by Marshall Thornton

Chapter One

Former Chicago Police Detective Bertram Edgar Harker died sometime during the evening of September 28, 1982. It was a Tuesday. I wish I’d been with him when he died but that wasn’t possible. He didn’t die in a hospital or at home. My best guess is that he died in the back of a van parked in a dirty alley somewhere on the northwest side. He was the seventh victim of the Bughouse Slasher.

That night, I came home later than usual. I’d been working a case for Carolyn O’Hara, who ran a temp agency called Carolyn’s Crew. One of her clients, an advertising wunderkind who’d started his own company a year before but was now going through a vicious divorce, was trying to claim bankruptcy. Carolyn was sure the owner had the money he owed her and was just hiding assets from his wife, and by extension Carolyn.

After I followed the twenty-nine-year-old business prodigy around for a few days, I was pretty sure she was right. Irwin Meier drove a brand new Jaguar XJS—sticker price roughly thirty-two thousand—and lived in a pretty brick house in Evanston right across from Lake Michigan. On paper, the house belonged to his eighteen-year-old, live-in girlfriend, and, upon further investigation, I discovered the recent high school senior also leased the Jaguar.

Shifting through the reams of paper Carolyn’s lawyer provided, I attempted to find the path money had taken from Meier to his nubile girlfriend, where it had ended up, and exactly when the money had been moved. The closer the exchange to the bankruptcy, the more likely the creditors would be able to attach the funds. It was interesting work, something I hadn’t done before, so I’d been enjoying myself and lost track of time.

Walking into my apartment around seven, I called out for Harker and was met by silence. I hurried down the entry hallway and into the four-room garden apartment that wound around itself. Spare room, living room, bedroom, kitchen. The rooms were dark and empty. I turned on lights and saw dust in the air, making the place seem like it had been abandoned for a very long time. Where was Harker? Lately, he hadn’t been feeling well and had been sticking close to home. Well, lately as in the last nine months, but more so in the preceding weeks. He’d had an energetic spurt at the end of summer which had slowly faded.

That meant I had no idea where he might have gone. I thought about calling his mother, but she lived out in Edison Park and there was no way he’d have gone there unless… I considered the possibility that something had happened to her and he’d rushed to her side. But that didn’t make sense. I’d been in my office, sitting next to a telephone, only a few blocks away. If something had happened to his mother, Harker would have called me to drive him wherever he needed to go. Wouldn’t he?

Boystown 5 Cover 2nd Edition2

I called her anyway. It took less than two seconds to find out Harker wasn’t there.

“Mrs. Harker, it’s Nick.”

“What happened? Is Bertram all right?”

“Yeah, he’s fine,” I said reflexively as I scrambled for another reason for the call. “So, did you come by today?”

“No. Bertram was tired. But he call me. We have very nice, long talk.”

“You’re coming tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Would you like me to come and get you?”

“No, I take bus like always.”

I could hear suspicion growing in her voice. Neither of us relished the possibility of being in a car together. I covered by saying, “I was going to be out that way and Bert thought I could give you a ride.”

“No. I take bus,” she said and then hung up on me.

I was relieved she hadn’t figured out something was wrong. I didn’t want her at my doorstop dogging my every move. I sat down at my desk with the phone on my lap trying to think who else to call. Harker’s life wasn’t exactly a social whirlwind. Neither was mine for that matter.

There was the tiniest chance he was with his partner from the eighteenth, Frank Connors. But that didn’t make sense. They talked on the phone or Connors came by. He knew how sick Harker was; I didn’t think Connors would ask him to go anywhere. I could call him, but decided to hold out. Connors was the last call I should make. If I couldn’t find Bert, if he were missing, I’d need Connors to pull strings and get the CPD moving as quickly as possible. I told myself I was being paranoid and tried to think of other calls I could make.

I only came up with one call, a call I didn’t want to make. Over the summer, Harker had befriended a wannabe journalist named Christian Baylor who was interested in the Bughouse Slasher. Since the killings had originally been Bert’s cases, Christian was all over him for information in hopes of writing an article for Chicago magazine. In the process, they’d become close. Closer than I liked, actually. Biting the bullet, I dialed Christian’s number. It rang several times, and I wondered if he hadn’t gotten home from his new job out in Downer’s Grove, or if maybe he was actually with Harker. Finally, he snapped up the phone, out of breath. “Hello.”

“It’s Nick. Have you seen Bert?”

“What? No. He’s not at home?”

“No, he’s not.”

“Then where is he?” Panic already infected his voice.

“I don’t know,” I said. “All right, thanks–”

“Wait, should I come over?”

“No. Don’t.”

“But…will you have him call me when he gets home? I’m going to worry.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

I hung up and tried to think what to do next. The only constructive thing that came to mind was walking my neighborhood. It was possible he’d needed something and had gone out to the store to get it. Maybe he’d wanted aspirin or had a craving for ice cream.

I was out the door in less than a minute and heading down Roscoe. The street was quiet, my neighbors settling in for an evening of television. When I got to Broadway, I headed up to Addison to stick my head into the White Hen Pantry to see if he’d needed some…well some anything. He wasn’t there. I headed down Broadway, peeked into The Closet, knowing he wouldn’t be in there having a drink but needing to check anyway. I walked through the Melrose, Unabridged Books, and Walgreens. He wasn’t in any of those places. I walked down Belmont until I got to Halsted then did the same kind of search over there. Nothing. I walked the alleys in between, figuring there was only so far he could go. And if he’d had to vomit or had had a sudden bout of diarrhea…but again, nothing.

When I got back to the apartment it was just after nine. I walked by my front door and let myself into the main building. I climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor and knocked on the apartment right above mine. A young lesbian named Sue lived there and I hoped against hope that she’d seen something. She worked during the day, something to do with the big computers FirstChicago needed to keep track of their money. She probably hadn’t even been home when Harker left.

I knocked again and waited. I could smell the polish used on the wooden banister, mildew in the carpet, and a touch of charred meat from someone’s dinner. I heard a television playing on the floor above me. Sue didn’t come to the door. I gave up.

On the floor above, I discovered the television was playing in the back apartment that faced the courtyard on one side and the pass-through on the other. They were unlikely to have seen Bert coming or going so I didn’t bother knocking. In the apartment above Sue’s there didn’t seem to be anyone home. I tried to put a face on the tenant but couldn’t. In fact, I wasn’t even sure anyone lived there at the moment.

When I went back downstairs, I called three nearby hospitals and asked if Harker had been admitted. They’d never heard of him. So, finally, at nearly ten o’clock I called Connors at home, having found his number in the address book Harker kept in the top drawer of our bedroom dresser.

Connors was annoyed to be hearing from me.

“Harker’s missing,” I told him before he could cuss me out too badly. I quickly went over everything I’d done to find him.

“Stay there in case he comes home,” he said. “I’ll do some nosing around and call if I find anything.”

He hung up and I began to wait in earnest. Helpless. Alone. Time crawled like it had just been slammed in the knees with a baseball bat. I found myself glancing at the VCR every few minutes. 11:01; 11:05; 11:07; 11:08. God, it was excruciating. I knew, I just knew, something bad had happened and, sitting there, smoking cigarette after cigarette in my living room, I waited to find out exactly what it was. It was like the moment before the nurse stuck you with a needle, or the one before the dentist pulled out the decayed tooth, except it went on hour after hour.

I couldn’t even wonder if he was dead. I didn’t have the nerve. I did wonder if, someday, when Harker died, would I know it? Even if I wasn’t with him? Was our bond that strong? Would he reach out across time and space and touch me, just to let me know he was no longer in this world? Probably not, I decided.

The call came at eight twenty-three the next morning. I hadn’t slept all night except for a few fuzzy minutes here and there. I snatched up the phone before the first ring finished.

“Connors?”

“It’s bad, Nick,” I heard him say. “He’s gone.”

“What hospital?” I asked.

“He wasn’t at a hospital.”

“Where was he?”

“We found his body beside the Chicago River, near Hooker Street. His throat was slashed.”

“No,” I said. “That can’t be.”

Connors was wrong; he’d made a mistake. I knew how Harker would die. He would die in a hospital of this new disease, AIDS. That was how things were going to play out. We knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant, but the sheets would be clean, the nurses would be friendly but concerned, and I would be there next to him.

“The Bughouse Slasher got him,” Connors said.

I felt like I might puke so I walked into the bathroom, and as soon as I got in there I felt an uncontrollable desire to lie on the floor, quickly. I managed to do it without hitting my head on any of the porcelain fixtures. My eyes shut of their own accord and maybe fifteen, twenty seconds later, I came to staring at the phone receiver I’d dragged into the bathroom with me and which now lay a few feet from my face. The cord straggled back to the base, sitting by the bathroom door, beyond that the phone line wiggled through the apartment.

The receiver squawked, “Nick? Nick, are you all right?”

I grabbed it. “Yeah, I’m here,” I said. “I needed a moment.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“I guess I should call his mother.”

“I already called her,” Connors said. “Legally, I had to call her first. Hell, legally I’m probably not even supposed to call you.”

He was probably right, so I kept my mouth shut. There were surprisingly few things going on in my head at that particular moment. It was as though someone had poured in a bucket of tar. Things had slowed down to a near stop.

“Well, thank you for calling me,” I said, because that’s what you say.

“We’re going to need to search your place, Nick. You know, because Bert lived there.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“I could get one,” Connors said, his voice instantly stiff and professional. “I’d rather not.”

I left a long pause. “Give me two hours.”

“What do you need two hours for?”

I’d like to put my pants on. Or do you want me sitting around buck naked when you search the place?” I wasn’t buck naked, I was still wearing the clothes I’d worn the day before. I waited for him to say that it wouldn’t take two hours to put my pants on, since of course it wouldn’t. But he didn’t. He knew it would take at least twenty-four hours to get a warrant; he was getting a break.

“Two hours,” he said and hung up.

As much as I wanted to lie back down on the bathroom floor, I knew there was something more important I had to do. Sitting on the old desk shoved into a corner of my living room was the murder book Harker had been working on since he got sick. I assumed there was one like it at the eighteenth, probably sitting on Connors desk. A three-hole binder, five inches thick, blue; it was filled with six inches of paper: autopsies, arrest reports, tip sheets, computer runs. It had been there, growing, for months and months, and I’d never looked inside.

Now I did, and was surprised by what I found. I’d thought Harker had been playing at the book. I’d thought it was barely real. But there was so much more in it than I’d expected. He’d given me the impression he was reconstructing the book from his memory of the original murder book, but there were copies of…well, pretty much everything. It looked like he had every piece of paper the police had. Piece by piece, Connors had brought him copies of everything on the Bughouse Slasher cases. Things Harker never should have had as a disabled police officer.

This was what Connors was coming to get. I wasn’t entirely sure how, but the book was important. Had Harker followed the clues in the book until he got too close to the Slasher? Had it gotten him killed? At that moment, it barely made sense. I hoped it would soon.