The dawn birthed another typical SoCal day: sun, low humidity, and a slight breeze. That made the day a good one for most of Manzanita’s citizens. But, the occupant of one room in a rundown hotel had no interest in the weather or much of anything else having to do with humanity. Every window was covered with floor-length drapes. One electric bulb in the only light fixture in the room glowed a dim 40 watts.
Oscar Briggs was the sole occupant of that room. He was aware of nothing except his desire for a hit. That was clear, since every aspect of the room’s décor supported Briggs’ belief that contact with other members of humanity was neither essential to nor desired in his life.
He rationed white powder, part of the payment for his most recent job, into a scorched teaspoon. He then used his teeth to pull surgical tubing tight around his right biceps. For a moment, he stared at the candle whose flame flickered in the air currents stirred by the slow revolutions of an ancient ceiling fan.
He thought back to the phone call from Sidney Brewster. Brewster had requested his services in return for some first-line heroin.
Brewster said he’d contracted him to eliminate the woman because she’d tipped the police. But, he knew the real reason she’d been eliminated. She’d cost him a bundle of money. The rape and beating before he shot her were his own ideas. The smile widened as he recalled the terror he felt in her through the torturous rape. His breathing quickened. He could feel the lithe body of Mary Carstairs.
And then that Mary woman tried to scratch my eyes, but I grabbed her wrists and twisted. I knew she wanted to scream. That’s why I always tape their mouths first. A malicious smile turned the corners of his mouth.
Of course, he’d had the good judgment to end the assignment with a bullet to the woman’s head. Dead. Just as Brewster ordered.
The second job he had pulled for Brewster was less memorable. An aging boxer had been blown apart as he entered his apartment.
And the way that little man in the hallway dropped like a rock when my bullet burst his heart, a thing of beauty. Two bullets. Two bodies. To Briggs, that hit was routine. He’d probably never think of it again.
Killing was Oscar Briggs’ job, and he was good at it. Pride was his failing. Pride and heroin.
His hand shook with anticipation as he held the teaspoon above the flame. The powder melted. He plunged a dirty needle into the liquid and sucked the depression dry. He cleared the air from the homemade syringe and jabbed the angled tip beneath the skin of his forearm. He squeezed the bulb on the end forcing the fluid through the needle and into his vein.
In what had become a reflex action after the scores of times he’d mainlined, he released the surgical tubing and watched the color return to his limb. That was the last coherent memory he had for several hours.
* * *
In the five days Stallings had been away from the Manzanita Police Department, not much had happened in Mamba’s case of the pharmaceutical factory burglary. He’d finally managed to talk with Anderson. It was an uncharacteristically one-sided conversation, with the PI doing most of the talking.
He’d called Mulligan the day before to ask him if they were still scheduled to meet with Stallings the next morning, his first day back from his leave. He was at the station for just that meeting. As he entered, he spotted his friend standing at the lobby desk with his back to the door. Mulligan was engaged in an intense phone conversation.
Mulligan slammed the receiver back in the cradle. When he turned around his face was a kaleidoscope of emotions.
“What’s that all about? You don’t look so hot.”
“I don’t feel so good, either. That was Martinez.”
“Something wrong with him?”
“Not him directly. He’s very upset, though.”
Mamba frowned and shrugged. Mary’s not ringing any bells when I try to connect it with Martinez.
“The woman whose house we busted.”
“Oh, yeah. I got the impression Martinez kind of liked her, or at least that he could get to like her, given any encouragement.”
“That’s part of the problem.”
“Raped. Beaten and shot in a sleazy hotel.”
“Sounds like somebody wanted to make a point,” Mamba said. “I thought she was in jail.”
“She made bail the day after we arrested her.”
“Why? I thought she was afraid of her supplier.”
“Maybe he wanted her out,” Mulligan suggested.
“That doesn’t figure. If he knew she fingered him, he wouldn’t wait a couple of days to do her; he would have been waiting when she was released.”
“Probably,” Mulligan agreed without conviction. “But, he might not have known she was in jail.”
“How could he not know?”
“He was very busy that night. Remember?”
That’s right. It’s possible that he wasn’t aware of her arrest until after she’d been released. That explains the delayed timeline on the hit.
“What if maybe she didn’t know we missed nailing Brewster, either?”
“How could she not—” Mulligan stopped himself. “You might be right. Unless someone in the holding cell told her, she might not have seen any news coverage; especially if she was hiding out somewhere.”
“Why hiding out?”
“Wouldn’t you? I mean you get arrested after ratting out your drug-dealer boss. You make bail and don’t know if he knows you’re the rat. If that’s me, I’m not taking any chances on his associates cleaning house, or him coming after me if he does know.”
“Good point. And I doubt she did much checking on the status of her former boss, considering what she’d done, or at least what she thought she’d done to him.”
“So, the whole Mary thing is tragic, but why’s Martinez so upset?”
“I don’t know him that well. What I do know is that Martinez was working homicide; covering a shift for some overtime pay. Anyway, he found her. She was tied to a bed, raped, and shot in the head.”
Mamba winced. Whoever killed her wanted her to suffer first. They’ll use Mary’s death as an example of what happens to snitches. He asked a question.
“What did Martinez want with you?”
Mulligan motioned his friend to silence. A second motion directed him to follow down the hallway.
“I don’t think that anybody back there would try to listen in, but I didn’t think anyone would give away classified police information, either.” He waited until they turned a corner in the hallway. “Remember how I was going to try to get Martinez to help with this Stallings thing.”
“And now he won’t,” Mamba guessed.
“On the contrary. He asked for the chance to try to find Mary’s killer.” Mulligan began walking.
“You lost me, Mike,” Mamba admitted as he matched strides with the Lieutenant.
“Martinez was covering for a buddy in homicide today. He worked the call from the hotel where Mary was hiding out. Remember, I told you he’s the one who found her.”
“And that’s a problem because?”
“Might not be, but, as soon as the coroner arrived and confirmed Mary’s death, Martinez walked away from the car and his partner. He called in from home so we wouldn’t think he’d bailed. They were talking about it at the desk when I came in. That’s why I called him before you got here.”
“And, when you told Martinez that you were out to find the department leak, he put two and two together and figured that what was a leak once might have been a leak twice, with the second leak setting up Mary,” Mamba said, assuming the role of narrator from his friend.
“Bingo,” Mulligan said without inflection.
“What’s your plan?”
Mulligan stopped and looked at his friend.
“For you, go back to your office and wait. Martinez will be here in about fifteen minutes. He’ll meet me in Stallings’ office and—”
“Hold on,” Mamba interrupted. “I don’t want to sit until who-knows-when in my office. Let me stay here.”
With a sigh, Mulligan held open the door to his office. “I figured as much. Go on in. I’ll get you some coffee. But, you stay in my office until I come get you.” He knew Mamba wanted in on questioning Stallings. While Mulligan understood, he wasn’t sure if he was willing to stretch his relationship with his superiors that far by keeping the PI fully vested.
* * *
Franklin Stallings sat behind his desk. An untidy pile of papers overflowed the tray designed to help organize his correspondence. Yet, it was with an air of efficiency that he maneuvered his way through the tasks before him. The clutter was an illusion. He’d found it an illusion that gave him an advantage in many conversations.
Feigning to search for an apparently misplaced document provided him precious seconds to formulate responses to unexpected questions. Besides, the stacks of folders, piles of reports, and boxes on the floor allowed him to maintain the persona of an unorganized person. Few co-workers ever realized the level of his intelligence or the amount of detail he included in his planning.
Just back from five days away from the reality that was his life and his wife’s battle with cancer, Stallings was looking forward to this morning. He had nothing scheduled until 1100 hours. That solitary blip on his radar was a briefing on how to complete the new evaluation forms for outside consultants. He’d been assured that it would last no more than thirty minutes.
It had taken two of his personal and three vacation days for him to decompress enough to reach a state he judged as relaxed. He knew that the time away had helped his wife, although he doubted she had decompressed to any extent. Cancer, a disease whose sole purposes appeared to be to rob her of her strength and eradicate her ovaries, was taking its toll on the former star athlete. He had no idea how she coped as well as she did with the nausea, the ache in her bones, and the debilitating fatigue that accompanied each chemotherapy treatment.
The couple rented a room in an inn nestled among the pine trees in the foothills to the east of Manzanita. There had been no contact with anyone not part of the staff at the inn.
Television programming was minimal. They’d walked trails, sat by the summer trickle that passed as a stream and spent evenings on their balcony, speechless at the star-filled summer sky. Lizbeth had smiled more in the last two days than in at least the two weeks leading up to their time together.
He felt almost human as they’d driven home in the early evening of the fifth day.
He looked around the office again. I’ll take the backlog I’ve created by getting away in trade for Lizbeth’s improved mental and physical condition anytime. After a moment of thought, he moved one manila folder from the top of his desk to the top of a pile that rested on one of his file cabinets.
Lieutenant Mulligan approached the tiny office of the narcotics sergeant. He didn’t relish what he was about to do, but he knew that it had to be done. He also knew that he could trust no one else to do it. He knocked on the door.
“Yeah,” Stallings called. “Come on in.”
Mulligan straightened his shoulders and entered.
“Oh, good morning, Lieutenant. What can I do you for?” Stallings asked. Why is he here?
“I was just checking on the progress of the hunt for Brewster,” Mulligan lied.
“Not much to report there, I’m afraid,” Stallings answered. That could be the reason he’s here. He dumped the contents of a manila folder on the desktop and shuffled through the loose sheets of paper. With a look of triumph, he held aloft a couple of pages of a report and continued.
“We did get the go ahead from the DA to prosecute the perps we arrested that night.”
“Good to hear. But no leads to Brewster at all?”
“I’m getting ready to put a tail on Mary Carstairs. Says here that she made bail. I figure she’s our best potential to lead us to her supplier.”
Fat chance, since she’s dead, flashed through Mulligan’s thoughts. “I’d have to agree with you. If you need any additional manpower, I’ll put in a word with the higher powers.”
“Thanks. The more help the merrier.”
* * *
After the phone call from Mulligan, Martinez made good time from his home to the station. He spent the entire ride focused on Stallings as the leak. Let’s get it on! was his final thought after he composed himself outside Stallings’ office.
“Got a minute, Sergeant?” The undercover man poked his head in the door and his booming voice filled the cubicle.
Stallings looked up. He was surprised to see Martinez. The paperwork he’d approved that morning indicated that the Latino had asked for a couple of days off. He expected him to be resting somewhere, not standing in the door of his office. He was also annoyed by the interruption. What in the name-? Why him?
“Not right now,” he growled. “I’m meeting with the Lieutenant.”
“Sorry,” Martinez said. He entered the office anyway. He wasn’t about to be put off by protocol. “All I need is one of the lists of names Mamba’s snitch gave us. I’ve got a couple of nombres to check out. They look promising to me, but I can’t remember if they were on that list. If they are, this might be even bigger than we thought at first.”
Stallings glared at Martinez. Although he knew the man was an excellent cop, he had his doubts on the Latino’s ability to act like an adult. He looked to Mulligan. The Lieutenant nodded in apparent acquiescence. Martinez and I may be on the same page. I might as well let him play this out. In fact, I’ll toss some kindling on his fire.
“I was finished anyway. But, I’d like to see if those names are on the lists.”
“It’s up to you,” was Stallings’ response. He rifled through a sheaf of papers on his desk. A puzzled look crossed his face. I’d have bet a day’s pay they were in this stack. He went to one of the file cabinets behind the desk hoping he’d forgotten he’d stuck the list in a drawer for safekeeping. Opening each drawer in succession from the top downward, he rummaged around in all four cabinet drawers. Uh, oh. When he completed his search, he turned to his visitors. I’ll just lay it out for them.
“I can’t seem to locate my copies of the lists.” In spite of his intention to just lay it out, there was a noticeable strain in his voice.
Mulligan’s spirits sagged. He’d hoped Stallings was not involved in the leak. Even though all he had was circumstantial evidence at this point, this did not look good.
“I’m sure they’ll show up,” Mulligan offered without conviction. He frowned as his glance swept the room. They could very well be here, and you just can’t find them.
“But, I still need to see the lists,” Martinez insisted. Mulligan’s view from the side of the big man revealed cyclical clenching and unclenching of his jaw muscles as he fought to control the emotion in his voice. Mulligan shot a thought in the giant’s direction: Control yourself, Detective. Control yourself!
“I’ll keep looking for them,” Stallings promised. “They have to be here.”
He ended this too quickly, flashed through Mulligan’s mind. But, instead of leaning on Stallings, he acted to contain Martinez.
“You can use my copy, Detective,” the Lieutenant volunteered. “It’s in my office.” He grabbed a thick arm and felt trembling beneath his grasp. “Walk with me.”
“Yes, sir!” Martinez hissed at just above a whisper. “Let’s go and get your list.”
Martinez pulled away as they turned and left the room.
“I’ll let you know about the extra men,” Mulligan called back as he paused in the doorway.
“¡Mentiroso! Liar!” Martinez spat when Mulligan caught him in the hallway. “Does he think we’re niños?”
“You know, it’s entirely possible that he can’t find his copy of the lists. You saw his office.”
“Sure. And I might be the next Jefe de la Policía.”
“Stand down, Officer Martinez,” the Lieutenant warned. Don’t make me regret cutting you some slack on this. “If Stallings is guilty, we’ll get him. Our way. The legal way. Using police methods. Not by lynching. Not by circumstantial evidence. Not by innuendo.”
“Yes, sir,” Martinez said. But, only after a tremendous sigh of effort did he manage, “What do we do next?”
“That’s more like it. Our next move is to plant something we want to get out. We need to see if a leak actually exists.”
“Sí. Es la verdad,” Martinez agreed after a moment of thought. “We need to be sure.”
“Come to my office. We can talk about it with the door closed.”
They walked the rest of the way to in silence. Mulligan opened the door. Martinez entered first. Mamba sat in the chair by the desk; he was staring at the door without seeing.
“What’s wrong?” Mulligan asked.
“What?” Both newcomers offered the question in stereo.
“They’ve almost killed Flatly,” Mamba said.
“Who? When?” Martinez demanded in a voice loud enough to be heard in the neighboring division.
“Departmental courier brought it in.” Mamba roused himself and pointed to a folder on the edge of the desk. He added without apology, “He handed it to me, so I looked it over.”
“Start at the beginning,” Mulligan instructed. “A good secretary knows how to do that. And who else would look over my mail but a good secretary?”
“Police responded to a call for gunshots fired from Flatly’s building. When the police arrived the EMTs were nearly ready to transport. Flatly’d been shot in the, uh . . . oh, yeah, shot in the right shoulder. The report indicates the shot appears to have been from close range. That’s based on the witness statements. But, a window on the apartment’s fire escape was open along the path the bullet could have followed.” He had been less than truthful about looking over the report. He’d read it over so many times while he waited that he’d memorized it.
“We gotta plug this leak!” Martinez’s entire body shook with anger. “The only reason for trying to kill that man was because he helped us. Same with Mary Carstairs!” Thoughts of revenge for the brave little prizefighter’s injury and Mary’s degrading torture and death scrolled through his mind.
“Come with me to the hospital,” Mamba suggested to the incensed officer. He looked at Mulligan. They could see that Martinez needed time to cool off. Mary’s death and the attempt on Flatly’s life had knocked the man way, way off his center. Doing something for Flatly might help move him back toward the balance point.
Mulligan gave a brief nod. Thank God you volunteered to babysit. I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with him here in the station.
“¡Apúrate! If we hurry, we might get to see him before they dope him up for the rest of the afternoon,” Mamba threw out one of the few Spanish terms he knew how to use with reasonable accuracy.
Martinez gave a start, turned to Mamba, and flashed a short-lived facsimile of his million-dollar grin. Mamba and Mulligan exchanged meaningful glances. The call to action appeared to have helped settle Martinez.
“Estoy de acuerdo. I agree. Flatly’s a good man.” With speed that belied his physical size, Martinez bolted to the door. I need to thank Mulligan for getting me away from Stallings. He spun, started to speak, and cut himself off. Mulligan sat looking at him. The big man swallowed twice. I’ll tell him later. Now, it’s Flatly’s time.
“Well, come on, Gumshoe. Who knows when they do the afternoon doping?”
“All I brought is my bike. Want a thrill?” In spite of the circumstances, the Latino winked meaningfully.
“I’d rather live until tomorrow,” Mamba grunted. “We’ll take my car.”
* * *
The visit to the hospital by Martinez and Mamba was a short one. Martinez checked on Flatly’s status while Mamba parked his car. He was told that surgery would last several more hours, by which time visiting hours would be over. In spite of his best efforts, the big Latino pried no more information from the receptionist in the surgery wing.
The Latino waited just inside the entrance from the parking structure until Mamba entered.
“Validate your parking ticket,” he instructed.
“Why? I just got here.”
“We have to wait until tomorrow.” Martinez held up his hand to prevent any argument. “Believe me, I leaned hard on the receptionist. He’s in surgery. No one’s gonna see Flatly before mañana.”
Mamba sighed, shrugged, and shook his head in an impressive simultaneous trifecta of expressions of disappointment. He inserted his parking ticket into the machine by the door. A loud mechanical cha-clunk announced the placement of an ink stamp on the ticket.
The drive back to the station was a quiet one. Mamba spent the time mentally berating himself for involving Flatly in the sting.
Martinez mind was somewhere else.
Sid Brewster targeted two people I know. Mary’s dead. Flatly could have been killed. I’m getting out of this undercover gig. I might even ask Stallings for a transfer back to Southern Division.