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The Button Man

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Chapter 2

It was obscene that one man could own a park that size. Max took a special pleasure in flicking his cigarette butt into the bushes. He’d already called Sergeant Tripp and told him where he’d discovered the body, that he’d chased a possible suspect and would meet him and the uniforms back in the garden. They were going to want to know why an anonymous tipster would call him and not the cops, and he wasn’t going to have a good answer for that. It was something he wanted to know as much as they did.

“Could I get your name?”

Max looked up at the uniformed cop with the clipboard. He’d already answered these questions, but he guessed the first time wasn’t official.

“Max Archer.”

The officer wrote that down and checked a box. “Did you say you were a private detective?”

“I’m not sure if I said, but I am.”

“Was the decedent your client?”

“No. I have no idea who he is. Do you have an ID on the body yet?”

The cop lifted the top paper on his clip board, hunted for the name and then lifted the second page. “George Matthews.”

The name didn’t mean anything to Max.

“So you surprised a suspect and gave chase. Did you get a good look at him?” The trooper was taller than Max, had a white sidewall haircut and body builder muscles. Max wanted a cigarette.

“I didn’t see his face. He was not tall maybe about five-eight, five-ten and nudging up on two hundred pounds. I could have run him down, but he ducked under cover somewhere and I lost him.”

The big cop smiled grimly. “It sounds like my grandmother could have outrun him.”

Max ignored the implied insult and just pulled the Camels out of his pocket and lit one.

“Tell me about the anonymous tip,” said the trooper turning over the form on his clipboard.

“Not much to tell. A computer-generated voice told me there was a murder in progress in this garden. Caller ID was blocked.” It suddenly occurred to him that he knew somebody who could do that without batting an eye. “I thought it was bullshit, but I don’t mind a walk in the park. If I found something, I’d call you. I did and I did.”

“Why didn’t they call our tip line?” The trooper asked the question as if certain Max would know.

“Beats the hell out of me.”

The trooper wrote that down as if it were a serious answer.

“We may need to take a look at your cell phone.”

“Sure thing,” said Max. No freakin’ way, he thought. Then he caught a whiff of cheap cigar smoke.

“Isn’t this a bit above your paygrade Archer?”

Max turned. “Evening Tripp.” Sergeant Tripp wore a rumpled tweed jacket and carried a half smoked cigar. “I figured for a case like this they’d call out the big dogs.”

Tripp’s broad homely face split into a smile. He put the cigar between his teeth. “I’m okay with the size of my dogs,” he said through a cloud of smoke.

Max lit a cigarette in self defense. The trooper looked down his aquiline nose at them, snapped the aluminum clipboard shut and walked off toward the house.

“So how did he die?” Max asked. “I couldn’t see any wounds.”

“Coroner isn’t here yet, but it looks like he drowned in that fish pond.” Tripp gestured with his cigar.

Max glanced at the little ornamental pool. The moonlight caught a flicker under the surface. “Nobody drowns in two feet of water without help.”

“Well, that’s not exactly true but it’s not very likely.”

“So the guy I surprised out of the bushes could be a killer.”

“Could be. Or maybe a witness.”

Max crossed his arms and smoked thoughtfully. The forensics team would be here shortly. If he was going to get a look at the body it had better be now. He stepped over to the pond and crouched.

“Don’t touch anything!” Tripp growled. Max stuck the cigarette between his lips, held up his hands and flipped them over a couple of times.

The vic was face down in the pond. The water didn’t even cover the back of his head. He was wearing dark pants and a khaki shirt and was in good physical shape. He was also a good six feet tall. The suspect didn’t overpower him; that was for sure. Had to have a gun.

Then Max saw the white button on top of the smooth black rock. His heart skipped a beat.

“Hey get away from there!” snarled a man with a large silver case. Forensics had arrived.

Max leaned forward, put his hand over the button and hoisted himself to his feet. He stepped back, the button now between his fingers. He had four others just like it, all found near the bodies of people who had died of natural causes, two of them peacefully in their beds. Tripp had six more. When they threatened him with suspension if he didn’t give up the lunatic serial killer theory, he’s shown the buttons to Max. It was insane. Batshit crazy. But there were ten buttons and here was another one.

He breathed in the rich earthy smell of the garden, coughed a couple of times and then lit another cigarette. When he was sure nobody was looking he slipped the button into his pocket.

Gregory was surprised and relieved when he saw where he was being taken. He had a few enemies and a couple of them were massively dangerous. They usually didn’t molest him because they knew Gregory was profoundly dangerous in his own right.

Gregory had never been to the Harrison mansion. He’d seen photographs.

Gregory’s captor drove around to the side where a covered courtyard served as a parking lot.

“Get out,” he snapped at Gregory when the car came to a halt.

“Of course.”

The Harrison mansion was vast and cold. The rooms were spacious and cold. Visually cold and physically cold. The big man held Gregory’s arm and steered him through them. The scratch on his hand had stopped bleeding.

Michael Harrison sat at a computer screen in a room full of computer screens and arcane boxes of electronics, which had tiny red or green or white lights that either glowed steadily or blinked maddeningly. Harrison seemed to be deeply engaged in an on-screen card game.

“My answer hasn’t changed,” Gregory said by way of greeting. “I refused your contract.”

Harrison turned around and smiled. He looked drawn and thin as if he hadn’t eaten or slept properly in weeks.

He waved at an odd-shaped highly-designed office chair. “Have a seat, Gregory. You may go, Mr. Larson.”

Mr. Larson nodded crisply and left.

“I bet you’d like something to drink,” Harrison said congenially.

Gregory took a deep breath. His throat still hurt a little from his recent exertion. “Have someone bring me a decaf latte,” he said. “With a shot of chocolate syrup in it.”

Harrison turned to his keyboard, typed a few quick words and clicked “send.”

“It’s on its way.”

“Mr. Harrison—”

“Call me Mike, Greg.”

“Thank you Mike, you may call me Gregory.”

Harrison laughed, delighted. He was a man who enjoyed things—or would have if life had been different.

“May I assume you are the cause of what happened this evening?” Gregory asked. A young woman in an actual maid’s uniform arrived with two large steaming cups. Gregory took deep drink of the scalding coffee. The world resolved into more normal focus. He hadn’t realized that his nerves were tight as wires until they began to relax a little.

“Why, what happened this evening, Gregory?”

“I was nearly caught in a very compromising position. I have no idea how you did that but I knew it had to be you somehow.”

“Yes, Greg, it was me. I can make your life miserable and I can end your career. Think about that.”

Gregory thought about that. All the computers went into screen-saver mode at once, a montage of a beautiful woman in dozens of poses, settings and moods, each slowly fading into the next.

Gregory concentrated on his coffee. He’d never felt so exposed in his life. He’d always operated under deep cover. At no time had the police or any authority had any idea about him. He was a ghost—no he made ghosts. He paid a visit and left a cooling corpse behind him. He did it quietly, gently and without violence. Most of the time it was pronounced death by natural causes. But Gregory had rules.

“You know I operate under strict rules and one of them is not taking a contract on someone beneficial to society.”

“Hart Freeman is a leech and a killer. He crushed Carolyn’s head in his own office. He can’t just walk away.”

Hart Freeman hosted one of Gregory’s favorite daytime call-in shows. He dispensed advice to the lovelorn, the worried, the grieving. Gregory had never needed such advice but he took a perverse interest in Freeman’s easy answers and entertaining way of delivering them. He wasn’t Mahatma Gandhi but he was definitely of benefit.

“You have no proof that he’s guilty and even the police think they have plenty of proof that he’s innocent.”

“No, I have no hard proof he’s guilty. And I’ve been thinking about what you said.” Harrison glanced up at his computer screen and then reached over to the keyboard and tapped the space bar. The beautiful woman vanished. “I’ve decided that you and I are going to find that proof and then you are going to take out the garbage. I’ll even pay twice your usual fee.”

“Hire a detective,” said Gregory.

“I’ve got one on site right now. He’ll be working with us and you’ll be meeting him soon. My wife was not the first to turn up dead at Freeman’s temple. He apparently killed a reporter who was about to expose his operation.”

“Are you talking about the woman who was mugged in the Temple parking lot? Freeman wasn’t even a suspect in that one. He can’t be guilty of every death within the city limits.”

“Oh, he shot her. There’s no doubt about that. But he’s slick as a button, if you’ll pardon the expression. You’re the button man. I want you to do what you do.”

“I don’t investigate and I don’t kill like that. I’ll give you the names of some men who will suit your purpose better than I could.”

“And the whole world would know it was a contract killing and all eyes would turn to me. No thanks. I need someone with your style and reputation. Besides,” Harrison’s smile was engaging. “It’s you I’ve got by the balls.”

Gregory thoughtfully sipped his latte, which was beginning to cool a little. Michael Harrison was an unhappy man who needed to be helped out of life.

Harrison drank a little of whatever was in his cup. “And don’t even think about employing your considerable talents on me. If I die my entire file on you goes straight to the FBI and Interpol—photos, fingerprints, DNA. You’ve had a long and illustrious career. Between those two agencies they’ll be able to close more than thirty cold cases.”

“You can’t possibly do that,” Gregory said, a ripple of tension crossing his shoulders.

“I can definitely do that,” said Harrison. He wasn’t even smiling. “With a laptop and an internet connection I could start World War III. Destroying you would be nothing.”

This wasn’t good. It simply wouldn’t do at all. Gregory’s hand shook a little as he drank down the rest of the coffee. The sludge in the bottom of his cup was mostly chocolate syrup. That steadied him a bit. Nothing bad could happen to you with a mouth full of chocolate.

“Do your worst,” he said with more bravado than he felt. “I’ll take my chances. I refuse the contract.”

“I thought you’d say that,” Harrison said with resignation. “So I took the precaution of poisoning your coffee.”

“What?” His mouth still tasted of chocolate. His fingertips went cold.

“You’ll be dead by morning—unless you agree to work for me.”

Gregory’s anger flared up past his fear. “So am I poisoned or not?”

Harrison pulled a brown pill bottle out of his pocket and tossed it to him. It hit him in the chest and dropped in his lap. Gregory picked it up and peered at it. Two white tablets that looked like aspirin.

“Take those and it will slow the progress of the poison for twenty-four hours or so.”

Gregory’s anger congealed a little. The tablets didn’t look professionally made.

“Your fee for this killing will include two of those tablets per day.” Harrison turned back to his computer as if Gregory were being dismissed. “Upon completion of the contract I will give you the actual antidote.”

“You bastard,” said Gregory evenly. He dumped the pills into his hand and swallowed them dry. They were chalky and intensely bitter. “You’re a dead man, Harrison.”

Harrison shrugged and addressed the computer screen. “After Hart Freeman is dead, do whatever you like. I’m already a dead man.”

“Very well,” said Gregory bitterly. “But I must warn you, I have no idea how to start investigating.”

“You’ll have help. I have a man undercover at Freeman’s Golden Light Temple. I want you to become one of Hart Freeman’s best friends. I’ll bankroll your way into the inner circle.

“Will that be necessary?”

“You’re a big Hart Freeman fan. You’ll enjoy it.”

“I doubt that.”

Harrison laughed and turned back toward Gregory. “I doubt it too.” All the computers went to screen saver mode again, a dozen beautiful images of Carolyn all in soft focus laughing at the camera.

“There’s a briefcase on the table behind you,” Harrison said. “Take it.”

“I have a briefcase, thank you.”

“Not like this one. It has all the police files on Carolyn’s murder, a layout of the Temple, your backstory, a cell phone, and credit cards. If you end up needing anything else, you have but to say the word.”

Gregory felt a little queasy and wondered if it was the action of the poison. He knew something about poisons. He’d know what Harrison had given him in less than twenty four hours—and an hour after that Harrison would slip quietly into the afterlife.

Gregory pivoted around in the office chair and lifted the briefcase. “You’ve thought of everything, I see.”

“I’ll pick you up at two tomorrow afternoon. Wear something expensive but comfortable.” Harrison tapped the space bar on his computer and Carolyn blinked out. “Does Prada make sweat pants?”

Gregory set the briefcase on his knees, suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. He thought about the antique ivory button he’d left beside Mr. Matthews. His niece was supposed to find it when she “discovered” her uncle’s body. Now the police would have it.

“Prada sweat pants? I doubt it,” said Gregory. “Have someone take me to my car.”

“You’re probably right,” agreed Harrison. “I’ll have Larson take you.”

Suddenly there knock on the door. “Mr. Harrison, there’s a problem,” called a tremulous female voice.

Harrison stood and so did Gregory. “What can that be about?” Harrison said, taking a step toward the door.

“I’m afraid Mr. Larson will be unavailable,” said Gregory.

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