Exclusive Excerpt: Dying for a Thrill (a Mike King Mystery) by Mark Zubro

Exerpt:

Wednesday 7:21 P.M.

The door to the outer office burst open. The man’s eyes danced from me to Duncan to Georgia. The stranger’s overcoat flapped open revealing red smears on a bright yellow hooded sweatshirt. The man swayed, clutched the edge of the door, gasped, pulled in a huge breath, and shrieked, “They’re trying to kill me!”

He collapsed.

Not the usual way clients introduced themselves at the Mike King Detective Agency. When they get to my office, they usually aren’t hysterical. Maybe frustrated, often put out, likely annoyed, even all the way up the scale to totally pissed off and willing to do anything or almost anything to get even. Private detectives deal with a whole lot more pissed off than panic-stricken.

He was the first client who thrust himself through the door and then passed out.

The three of us were working late, finishing notes on a case involving blackmail among some super rich gay men with summer cottages in the Hamptons and winter homes in the south of France. We’d hoped that blackmailing gay people, for whatever reason, had become passé. We were wrong, but we’d solved the case and some bad guys were in jail.

The three of us rushed forward. I grabbed a cushion from the couch for his head. Georgia took a carafe of water from the tea tray, and hunkered down next to me on the floor. Duncan joined us and helped cradle the man’s head.

We leaned over the new guy. He was breathing, and my fingertips on his carotid artery confirmed that his pulse was pulsing. The left lens of his black, horn-rimmed glasses was cracked. Duncan lifted the man’s head far enough so I could place the cushion under it.

Duncan pointed to the smears on the yellow hoody. “Blood?”

I nodded. “Most likely.”

The hood of the stranger’s sweatshirt had twisted and hid half his face. I pushed it back and then removed his hat. I realized the dark smears on his gloves and coat were blood just like that which showed on his sweatshirt. No blood on or around his head. A cursory feel over his brush-cut blond hair gave no indication of out-of-the ordinary bumps.

Dying for a Thrill Front Cover 2 14 2016 b

His head lolled. I unwrapped the scarf from around his heavily muffled neck to be sure he wasn’t inadvertently strangling himself and to check for other injuries.

He looked bedraggled, wet, and exhausted, as if someone had ripped and torn his Army war surplus clothes then washed and dried them a thousand times without using fabric softener. Then the clothes would be stored in a heap on someone’s floor until picked up to be worn. He smelled like he’d been putting on extra deodorant to cover not having bathed in a several days, not the most pleasant combination. Georgia asked, “Is this another one of your cataclysmic corpse contacts biting the dust?”

I said, “I’ve never met him.”

Georgia said, “Wouldn’t be the first one.” Georgia De’Jungle was one of my top operatives. “That’s Georgia De’Jungle with an E,” she always added. Georgia was the most accomplished drag queen on the North American continent. She was my disguise expert. Her ability to disguise herself was unknown. That’s how good she was. If she was legendary or unrivaled, that would mean people would know what she was up to. I paid her handsomely to take care of some of the most delicate work for the firm. At the moment she wore an evening gown designed by Pasta Fagioli, the pseudonym of an ethnically challenged Chicago designer she favored. The designer was so exclusive, he didn’t do fashion shows. Just designed for select clients.

Besides helping us finish our end-of-case details, Georgia had been preparing to go out for her evening’s work.

Duncan asked me, “Didn’t you have a conquest who keeled over? In Berlin I think it was. Last year? When that gay ambassador from Lichtenberg was kidnapped and the relatives who didn’t trust the government wanted you to save him? You seduced one of the kidnappers in the back room of some leather museum in Berlin, wasn’t it? And that guy keeled over?”

“He didn’t ‘keel over’. He wanted to be in that position. He kept repeating, ‘please, daddy’. And there is no Lichtenberg.” I leaned back. “And that’s not important at the moment.” While I continued to monitor this guy’s pulse, I added, “They don’t keel over. They just don’t work out.” I examined the man’s face and then repeated. “I don’t know this guy.”

Georgia gave me her best smirk. “Dead’s a pretty for sure sign they didn’t work out.”

I said, “This one is breathing.”

Georgia said, “You’re sure he’s not another one of your conquests gone bad?”

I said, “I’m sure.”

Even in the most outré circumstances, they often teased me about my lack of success at dating. This qualified maybe among the top five in outré comment moments. And they didn’t all die.

Seldom, in fact.

The prostrate man continued to breathe. I could smell the slightest whiff of Georgia’s subtle perfume. I cradled the guy’s head and upper torso. Bits of melting snow dripped onto the floor from his bulky overcoat.

Next, I eased off the heavy outer garments. As I undid each item, Georgia and Duncan helped me rearrange his body. Then Georgia took each item and stretched it out to dry on the couch.

The guy’s skin-tight jeans had no smears. The logo on the longsleeve

T-shirt taut on his gaunt frame read “Frodo Lives” in

fourteen point type. Hard to see at almost any distance. I liked

him for the message.

His running shoes were inappropriate for the weather and

were soaked through to his sodden socks. Georgia placed these

four items close to a heating vent.

I lifted the T-shirt from his emaciated and inert frame. No wounds on his torso. After examining him I said, “No obvious wounds. The blood must be somebody else’s.”

Duncan asked, “Heart attack, stroke, plain old faint?”

I took out my cell phone, punched in 9-1-1.

Duncan checked the guy’s coat pockets. He muttered, “No weapons.” No need to take chances about a possibly armed intruder even though he was incapacitated at the moment. Duncan pulled out a wallet from the left back pocket of the man’s skinny jeans, keys and a phone from his right front pocket.

I told the emergency operator where I was. She said with the rising storm and all the accidents in the city, it might be a while before anyone could respond.

“No,” I said in answer to her question, “there doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger.” She suggested I try to get him to the nearest hospital a few blocks north and a block or two east. I hung up.

Duncan handed me the wallet, a tattered black billfold with five crisp one hundred dollar bills and a couple ones.

His Illinois driver’s license said his name was Jamie Vincek.

The man’s eyelids fluttered then opened. “Who? What?”

He snatched his wallet from me, and his keys and phone from Duncan’s hands. He shoved the accoutrements back into his pockets and then tried to stand, but he faltered and fell back. I caught him before his head thunked onto the floor. He shook his head but forbore to rise and stayed in my arms.

He saw my phone which was still in my hand. He swatted at it. I kept it up and out of his reach.

“No calls.” His voice was just short of another shriek.

I held him in my arms and tried to be soothing. “Shush. Hush. We need to get you help.”

His second attempt to scramble to his feet succeeded. The three of us stood up as well. He gazed down at his unshod feet, then caught sight of his shoes and socks drying next to the air vent. I held out an arm toward Vincek. He staggered two steps to the wall and propped himself against it with his left hand. He was managing on his own for the moment.

Between great panting gasps for breath, he said, “Please, no phone calls. Please stop!” His shrieking had changed to pleading. I put my phone away.

I asked, “Who’s trying to kill you?”

He glanced wildly around the room. His eyes came to rest on “You’re Mike King?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Jamie Vincek.”

Beyond what I’d seen on his driver’s license, the name meant nothing to me. He looked at me as if I should recognize it. With the index finger on his trembling right hand, he pointed at the New York Times on top of Duncan’s desk. “It’s in there already!”

I kept my voice low and soothing. “Why don’t we step into my office where you can tell me how I can help you?”

“Is it safe here?” he demanded.

I said, “It’s as safe as anywhere, I suppose.”

I placed a hand on his elbow and steered him toward the inner office.

Georgia said, “I’m late for this evening’s gig.” She was performing undercover as a torch singer. She did a pretty good Bessie Smith. I didn’t think there’d be much of crowd in this weather, but she was a trouper. She left.

Vincek responded to the slight pressure on his elbow by moving forward. I picked up the copy of the Times as I helped propel him toward my office.

Wednesday 7:28 P.M.

I got him settled in a comfy client chair. Duncan placed a glass and a bottle of water next to him on the end table. He helped Vincek off with his T-shirt. It had a few red smears of it on the end of each sleeve. Duncan said, “I’ll get you a replacement for that.” Duncan put the T-shirt on a towel on the couch on the right side of the room. He left and closed the door.

I settled behind my old teacher’s desk that I got at a sale at a failed university.

I said, “You have blood on your clothes, and it doesn’t seem to be yours.”

“I’m in trouble.”

“The bleeding person would seem to be in more trouble.”

Tears sprang to his eyes. “He’s dead. I held my friend in my arms as he died. Blake is dead. I loved him. I could never tell him that when he was alive. Now I never will.” His blank stare settled into the middle distance like a character in a nineteenth century British novel. Tears leaked down his cheeks. I took a box of tissues out of the top drawer of the desk and held it out to him. He took several and wiped his cheeks.

“What happened?” I asked.

He picked up the newspaper and pointed to a front page

article above the fold. The headline read, Spies Convicted. “It’s this.”

I hadn’t read the article, hadn’t followed the case. I glanced at

the first few paragraphs and got the who, what, why, and when

on a conviction in a New York courtroom of an international

spy ring.

He said, “They’ve been pressuring the defendants to name

names to get themselves lighter sentences. See.” He turned the

paper to the full-page spread on page eighteen. At the bottom

was a list of people the government was looking for. He pointed

to the final paragraph. “I’m on that list.”

He tossed the paper on the desk top, pointed to the relevant

paragraph, then leaned his head back in the chair. He thrust his

legs wide apart revealing a bulge of some heft in his tight jeans.

He might or might not work out, but his muscles were taut. As

for his crotch, either he was a shower or something about the

situation turned him on. Other than that, he didn’t look sexually

stimulated, more like he might pass out again any second. He

wiped his hands across his face as if trying to waken himself. He

said, “I haven’t slept in forty-one hours.”

“Why not?”

“I’m scared. I’m frightened out of my mind.”

While I scanned the rest of the article, he looked at me and

drew several deep breaths.

When I finished, I said, “The trial was in New York. This is

today’s paper so the conviction must have happened yesterday.

You have blood on you, and you’re here in Chicago which has a

building blizzard. Are you an international spy?”

“No.”

“Why do they want to talk to you?”

“They think I’m a spy. They have no proof I’m a spy.”

I asked, “How did the investigators in New York get your

name?”

“I’m not sure. There’s no way they could have. That’s what

scares me.” He pointed at the paper. “My name in that article is

the first I’ve heard about it.”

“As far as I can tell from the article, it looks like states attorneys

and police, probably the FBI and Homeland Security and maybe

even the CIA as well would all want to talk to you. Shouldn’t you

be consulting an attorney?”

“They don’t want to talk to me. They want me dead. This

whole trial was a sham to get me.”

I couldn’t tell if he was paranoid, crazy, or frightened out of

his mind, or in what combination all of those feelings might be

coursing through his brain. Nor could I tell how close he was to

dealing rationally with reality. Maybe he was lying through his

teeth. Or telling the truth.

I didn’t even have proof he was the guy who the paper

said officials wanted to talk to. The driver’s license had looked

real, but I like to confirm things. On my second case, I hadn’t

confirmed some basic information, and an emaciated fourteenyear-

old orphan boy in Budapest came within an inch of slitting

my throat.

The blood on Vincek’s clothes was fairly convincing as

proof that he was in some kind of trouble. Why go through

the elaborate ruse of smearing his own clothes with, presumably,

someone else’s blood? Unless something truly out of the ordinary

was happening.

“If this was the first you’ve heard of it, how do you know

they were out to get you?”

“I’m a leader of an all-powerful group of secret gay hackers.”

“How does being all-powerful work?”

He gazed at me. “Huh?”

“Well, if you’re all-powerful, I can’t imagine you’d be passing

out on my carpet.” I pointed at the paper. “Or be in trouble

with the law or at least be someone the law wants to talk to. If

they don’t think you’re guilty of something yourself, they must

think you know something that would help them. What is it you

know?”

Duncan knocked and came in with a sweatshirt I recognized

from his gym bag. It had the name of Mokena University on the

front. He handed it to Vincek who fumbled with it and dropped

it.

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” Duncan asked as he picked

up the sweatshirt. Vincek stood up, and Duncan helped him

shrug into the sweatshirt. It hung to mid-thigh, six inches below

Vincek’s fingertips. In it he looked fifteen.

Vincek reiterated, “The blood isn’t mine, but my muscles hurt

like hell.” Vincek had winced as he lifted his arms.

Vincek was skinny, maybe five seven, and maybe all of

a hundred pounds, if he kept his heavy overcoat on. Duncan

gave him a washcloth to wipe remnants of blood off. Vincek

was perhaps the hairiest ginger I’d ever seen with a thick mat

of reddish-brown fur from his neck to the ribbon of Andrew

Christian underwear sticking up from his jeans. While his T-shirt

was off, I also saw dark purple bruises that spread from an inch

above his left nipple to his shoulder.

Vincek plopped back into the client chair. Duncan left.

I asked, “Who was your friend that died in your arms?”

“I am in so much trouble. You’ve got to help me.”

“I’ve pretty much got that part. In trouble with whom?”

Sometimes with new clients I use the correct interrogative

pronoun. Doesn’t impress as many of them as much as I’d like.

I try my best.

Duncan returned with hot chocolate and then left again

closing the door after himself.

Duncan is a treasure. He used to play basketball for Mokena

University. Still played pick-up games at the local gym. He’s

now a grad student at the University of Chicago who should be

indulging in nuclear physics, not keeping my filing and accounts

in order. He says he likes the work. He’s been with me five years.

Vincek sipped then answered my question. “Everybody.”

His body began to tremble. As he put the cup of hot chocolate

down on the end table, he almost sloshed the contents onto the

antimacassar Duncan keeps on the arm of the chair.

Vincek clutched his arms around his torso and breathed

deeply for a few moments then he took off his glasses and

wiped his face again. He tapped on the lens that was broken

and then muttered, “I’ve got another pair in my backpack.” His

head swiveled around the room, his eyes coming to rest on mine.

“Where’s my backpack?”

“There was no backpack. Was there something in it that you

didn’t want to lose?”

He breathed deeply for several moments then said, “Nothing

that can’t be replaced.” He gave me a suspicious look. “You didn’t

root through it and take it?”

I said, “I looked through your wallet, got your ID.”

“You looked in my wallet!”

“You passed out on my floor.”

“We have lots of IDs, but that one is real.”

“You and this gay geek group were meeting in Chicago. Why?”

“We meet all around the world. We even have a few safe havens

on ships outside the territorial waters near various countries. We

don’t stay in one place.”

“And why did you come to me?”

“I don’t know which of my friends I can trust. We know

you’re a private eye and you’re gay. A combination of both is rare.

You’ve been in the papers. We follow all the gay news. Google

gay private eye, real ones, not the ones from literature, and your

name comes out at the top of the page. At least among the set

that might need protection or a private eye, your name always

comes up first.”

I guess I didn’t need to advertise. I said, “I get the gay stuff.

What do you need with a private eye?”

“We’re nerds, computer geeks. You’re an action guy. We need

that.”

Even with him swimming in Duncan’s sweatshirt, I could see

small patches of damp from sweat beginning to leak at various

folds in the cloth. He put his broken glasses back on and peered

at me. It was a sad face, with long eyelashes, and dark brown eyes,

but kind of handsome in an off-beat way, and skewed as I tried

to catch a left eye that was made off kilter by the broken lens.

He stared at me a few moments, despair in his slumped

shoulders and down-turned mouth. I glanced back at the article

for a moment then asked again, “Why didn’t you stay with Blake?”

“I don’t have much time. The ones who killed him were after

me as well. He died, and then I ran. They may have followed me.

I don’t feel safe here. Is there somewhere safe we can go?”

“Where would you feel safe?”

“I’ve got no time for this. We have to get out of here.” He

leapt back to his feet and swayed. “Nowhere is safe.” He was

back to just short of shriek level. He switched from looking near

passing out to raging paranoia in an instant. Maybe he was just a

nut job with someone else’s blood on him. Or a better actor than

I’d ever seen.

Or did he kill someone?

I said, “If nowhere is safe, why do we have to get out of

here? If your reasoning is correct, here would be as unsafe as

anywhere.”

He stared at me with his mouth agape as if logic were not his

strong suit.

“Is there somewhere we can go?”

I was suspicious. Was all this an act and he was simply trying

to get me out of the office? To what purpose? In the first stages

of the predicted blizzard?

His voice was back to pleading. “I can pay your fee. A retainer.

I know you’re expensive. On the Internet I saw what you charge.

Money is not a problem. I can transfer money to your account.”

He named an amount Bill Gates and Warren Buffet together

could afford. I glanced at the Picasso on the wall. The amount he

mentioned wouldn’t be enough for a down payment to pick up

something which matched that but close.

Vincek noted my glance at the painting. He said, “You should

get something to complement that for the wall directly opposite.

It looks kind of forlorn there by itself. Maybe a Matisse with lots

of vibrant colors.”

Great to know I had an interior design critic as well as a

potential client.

I told him a figure double what he’d offered. He didn’t blink,

which made me more suspicious than ever that something was

very amiss, but I didn’t feel threatened by him, or at least felt

no immediate threat from him. As Humphrey Bogart told Mary

Astor in the movie of The Maltese Falcon, “We didn’t exactly believe

your story… we believed your two hundred dollars.”

My fee was considerably beyond two hundred by several

places to the left of the decimal point. He was offering to pay

too much. More suspicion.

I escorted him to the outer office. I instructed Duncan to make

the transfer from Vincek’s accounts to the agency’s. Vincek took

off the sweatshirt Duncan had given him, then put his hooded

sweatshirt back on, buttoned his overcoat and then unbuttoned

  1. At one point Vincek offered to type in the information for the

transfer. He even reached to work the keys, but Duncan’s calm

demeanor combined with a severe glare, kept Vincek at bay.

Taps on phone faces and clicks on keyboards and a few

moments later, money moved.

Vincek sat down for a moment and pulled his not-yet-dry

shoes and socks back on. We didn’t have extra shoes or boots in

his size. When he stood up, Vincek swayed from foot to foot. His

hands trembled. He put on his hat and tied his scarf under his

chin. I thought the guy might jump out of his skin.

I took two burner phones from the file cabinet. I keep a stack

of them on hand. I gave him one. Then I grabbed my hat, coat,

and gloves, and said, “Let’s go.”

 

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