The walk back to my office was only six blocks, more than I needed to notice I had picked up a tail.
Jesus, the guy was bad.
Every time I stopped walking, or checked both ways before crossing a street, the shmuck would try to hide. Or worse, he would lean up against a lamppost, and try to look like he belonged there. In truth, it took me longer to figure out who he was than it had taken to notice his efforts. He was the goth freak hanging around the crime scene.
I’ve seen gawkers at any number of crime scenes. Usually, they’re neighbors. Sometimes they’re local reporters looking for a scoop, but this one, this one just screamed weirdo. Maybe it was the chipped, black nail polish, or maybe it was the long, stringy hair that looked several weeks unwashed, or just maybe it was the fact that he was dressed head to toe in black – in the ninety-degree heat of early September – that tipped me off. Yeah, that could have been it. Either way, he wasn’t a professional. I was sure of that. Didn’t recognize him from any of my recent cases, but he could have been violent all the same. He was in his early twenties if he was lucky, and guys that age tend to reach for violence as the first solution instead of the last. Just hormones, I guess. I can’t remember my own youth, but I can guess it probably sucked.
I figured I’d let him follow me for a bit. If there was going to be any kind of confrontation, I wanted to keep it off the street. I hate creating a public spectacle.
Short, Dark, and Stupid’s technique was so ham-handed that it would have tested even the most patient of men. I am not the most patient of men. In fact, I don’t even rate in the top fifty. All the same, I kept my cool and let him pretend to follow me back to the office. My hangover was quickly receding, leaving in its place a mild brain fog. Some potential violence would be just the thing to clear that up.
I rounded the corner onto my block and was visited with another surprise. Standing next to the squat, concrete steps of my building was a guy in a suit.
It could have been his posture or the blond crew cut that just screamed ex-military, or it could have been the briefcase, cuffed to his wrist, but I knew that this guy was, in fact, a professional; probably the courier. He let me come within ten feet of him before he took official notice of me, although I’m sure he saw me coming long before that. It was just a sense I got about him.
“Mr. Carson?” he asked.
“Yeah. That’s me,” I replied, attempting to make eye contact with the suit and remain aware of my new stalker, “A package for me?”
“Do I need to show I.D. or something?”
“That won’t be necessary, sir,” he said, “Do you require assistance entering your office?”
I could have sworn he winked when he said it. It was quick and subtle, but enough to tell me he was aware of the situation.
“Nah,” I said, probably sounding a bit more bored than I actually was, “Got a bug-zapper in the front hall. It gets most of the pests.”
“Of course,” the suit said, “Shall we go inside, then?”
We trundled up the stairs and into the building. Well, I trundled, the suit’s steps were crisp and purposeful. I hoped for a moment that Short, Dark, and Stupid would bug out at the sight of this new player, but I had the feeling my stalker was too hot for the game to back off now. It would have made the day easier if he had left. Then again, the closest I had come to a good fight in the last month was nearly assaulting my newest client earlier that day.
Most times I truly don’t want the hassle of a dust-up, but after running into Barb I had a serious desire to feel my knuckles crunch against someone’s ribs.
Yeah, I have issues. Sue me.
The suit and I were all the way down the hall and nearly up the first short flight of stairs before I got around to proper introductions. I hate it when someone knows my name, but I don’t know his. Said his name was John McDaniels. I’d have made a whiskey joke, but I don’t know any that won’t start a bar fight. John was halfway up the steps when Short, Dark, and Stupid made his play. I had just put my foot on the bottom stair.
I heard his ratty combat boots clunking down the hall as he sped up to charge me from behind. I stopped to check one of my pockets, give him a chance to close the gap before I ran my play. He got up a good head of steam and was reasonably close before I spun on him.
Why is it they never expect you to have noticed them coming?
His eyes went wide, which gave him a more compelling view of my tightly clenched fist rocketing toward his sternum. Given the surprise, I expected him to hesitate. He didn’t. Just as my fist contacted his solar plexus, I saw the knife the little fucker had been palming. It wasn’t a big blade, he had small hands, but as anyone who has been stabbed knows, a small blade will kill you just as dead as a large one. I didn’t have time to think. My reaction flinched me to one side. Still spinning off to the side, I hoped I got far enough out of the way to avoid any serious damage. A flash of pain seared through me as the blade sliced through my jacket and bit into my right shoulder. It hurt too much to be a deep wound. So, I shifted my focus to inflicting as much damage as possible on my young assailant. Grabbing his pants and his scrawny neck I shoved my weight against him to slam him and his knife hand into the wall. That was the plan, anyway. He had already begun his next attack. A handful of shiny pain arced towards me as we struck the wall together. The impact didn’t jar the weapon loose, but it was hard enough to make it a miss. The blade shot past my throat instead of into it. I used the rebound off the wall to spin the son of a bitch across the hall and out of arm’s reach. In the breath distance afforded, I pulled a folding knife from my pocket and flipped it open. Allison hadn’t taught me a great deal about knife fighting yet, but I figured I knew enough to be dangerous.
Apparently, Short, Dark, and Stupid had a similar suspicion about me, because he got seriously cautious in very short order. We squared off, sizing each other up, looking for openings, and both noticed we were no longer alone.
John the Suit was standing on the bottom step, pointing a frighteningly large pistol at the kid.
“Would you like me to shoot him?” John said, as placid as a lake on a windless day.
I had been clenching my jaw, or else it would have hit the floor in amazement. Short, Dark and Stupid had a similar reaction to the statement. I could see shadows of doubt whirl in the kid’s face. Then John cocked back the slide on the pistol. The doubt on the kid’s face evaporated.
He broke and ran.
“I can still shoot him if you like,” John said from over my shoulder, still calm as cloudless skies.
“No,” I said, still shocked, “Thanks anyway.”
He eased down the hammer and slid the pistol into a nicely concealed holster in his jacket.
“Glock forty?” I asked, grasping at something to move on with.
“Yep,” he said, “Gets the job done. You don’t carry?”
“1911A myself,” I said, “I just didn’t figure on needing it for this.”
“You were going to slice it out with him?” he said, the note of incredulity ringing clearly in his tone.
“Didn’t think I’d be fighting just yet today,” I said, motioning up the stairs, “I just went out for a walk.”
And then my shoulder started to throb. Nothing like adrenalin to make a guy forget he’s been cut open. I moved up the steps as quickly as I could while still keeping my heart rate fairly low. No use in decorating the halls with arterial spray. John followed me up to the office.
My office was on the second floor of a badly renovated brownstone, in a neighborhood tucked into the University of Tennessee’s campus: affectionately known as The Fort. The tile in the halls always needed repair, and the air conditioner stayed broken through most of the summer, but, with a bleeding knife wound, I was grateful for the warmth.
I made it to my office without losing too much blood. John slipped in behind me and bolted the door. I would have given him a look if I could have managed anything other than a constant grimace of pain. Instead, I pulled a first aid tackle box out of a drawer and set to stripping off my shirt.
“That shirt is ruined,” he said.
“And I had just got the damn thing back from the cleaners,” I managed to say before the pain of cleaning out the laceration with betadine reduced my main method of communication to grunting.
John stooped and examined my shoulder.
“Fairly superficial, I think. You could probably get away with butterfly strips instead of stitches. But I’d go easy on it or it will open up more,” he said.
“Yeah, well, it’s not a month around here if I don’t end up in the emergency room.”
“Must be hell on the doctor’s bills,” he said.
“Yeah, some days,” I said with a short, snicker.
I bandaged my shoulder with the butterfly strips and a four by four square of gauze. Then I poured myself a drink. Too early for more ibuprofen, so I settled for Southern Comfort. I slipped into a clean shirt and, with a sense of remorse, chucked my old, bloody shirt into the trash. Someone better at sewing than I might be able to save the jacket, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
John the suit waited until I was comfortably seated in my chair before he uncuffed the briefcase. He drew out a videocassette and handed it to me.
“I was told to place this directly in your hands,” he said.
I nodded. Far be it from me to interfere with anyone’s sense of professional duty.
After I took possession of the tape, he closed the briefcase and re-engaged the cuff. He turned to leave and seemed to think better of it. Swiveling back, he handed me his business card.
“I don’t think I can afford your services,” I said.
“No. You probably couldn’t,” he said, “Keep it all the same. Maybe we’ll get together and have a drink sometime.”
“Not to be impolite,” I said, “but you’re really not my type.”
“Nor are you mine,” he said, “but if this is what passes for normal in your life, it must be damned interesting when you cut loose.”
“Never a dull moment,” I said.
“Of that, I am fairly certain,” he said, “By the way, did you know you have menthol cream under your nose?”
I had forgotten about it.
“Now that you mention it, the air does smell unusually fresh and minty,” I said.
He chuckled, mostly under his breath. And then he walked out, just as businesslike as he had walked in.
Everybody’s certain about me today.
I checked the clock and wiped my nose. My usual time to meet Allison down at The Dry Glass ticked nearer with every mechanical sweep of the minute hand. I would definitely go, but maybe she wouldn’t mind if I slipped away to watch the tape. I could use the VCR in the joint’s back room. I don’t own a TV, and Allison wouldn’t mind, would she?
With that set in my head, I let my mind wander. As usual, it wandered face first into a brick wall’s worth of questions.
For one: what the hell was going on with that punk kid? There wasn’t any reason, at least none I could remember, for anyone to come after me, much less with a knife. So, why had Short, Dark, and Stupid gone all stalker-happy with the blade? Moreover, what had he been doing loitering around the house where a woman had just mysteriously burned to death? I should have been upset that someone attacked me, but the pain and booze were dulling everything except the confusion. Could the kid have been waiting at the scene for me?
I had no idea. So, I filed it away for further thought at some other time. But something formless about the whole thing kept floating around in my head. It was doing an Olympic-level backstroke as I dialed Allison’s number.
When I hung up the phone, I knew only two things; that our appointment was still on and that I needed to use some of my newfound cash to buy another suit jacket. The knife slash, too jagged to sew without leaving an obvious repair seam, had killed my jacket. I mourned its violent passing and dug my spare out of the closet. I usually didn’t wear my gun to these weekly appointments but seeing as how the kid was still out there, somewhere, it seemed like a good idea to bring it along.
Too many things I didn’t know. That’s not unusual for the start of a case, so I let the thought drift into the shadows of my subconscious. Something would turn up. But that’s the problem with being a detective; I can’t do any detecting without clues. And, at that point, I had no clue whatsoever.