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Betrayal in Blue

By C. R. Downing All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Mystery

Untitled chapter

Chapter 19

Franklin Stallings rubbed his eyes, again. What sleep he’d gotten the night before had been, at best, fitful. He’d been rubbing his eyes with increasing frequency as the morning progressed. Stay awake, brain! I’ve got work to do. He rubbed his eyes another time, trying to push back the sleep he felt pressing against his consciousness. He sighed. I doubt I’ll make it past lunch without a nap.

In spite of his best efforts, he felt himself nodding off. When he drifted into a light sleep state, he recalled the night before.

His head jerked upright. He’d finally gone to sleep but was awakened by a noise in the master bathroom. He groaned and swung his legs off the bed and onto the floor. He knew what had made the sound that awakened him. His wife was dry heaving. It was a residual effect of her chemotherapy. She almost always had nausea. Tonight was worse than most.

How can I help, Lizzy?” he asked when he arrived at the bathroom door.

Don’t call me . . . Lizzy . . . in public,” Lizbeth managed to choke out before the sound of retching signaled the end of that line of conversation. She hated the nickname, Lizzy. Only five people in the world were allowed to use it in her presence. Each time, she reminded them of the restrictions to its use, including when she was puking her guts out.

Any other way?” he asked after the retching receded.

Pray! Oh, I don’t know. Why is it so bad this time?” Lizbeth was curled around the toilet bowl. She didn’t even look up when talking. Her energy stores were long since depleted. It seemed like every chemo session selected some side effect and made it worse than it had been after other sessions. Tonight, it was vomiting. “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.”

Tears welled up in Stallings’ eyes. He didn’t try to speak. He knew full well that nothing coherent would come out. He carefully stepped around Lizbeth’s legs. He sat and slid his arms around her with all the love he had to give.

Lizbeth leaned back into her husband.

Thank you, Frank. It feels so good to be held.” She began to sob. Stallings adjusted his legs to better support his weight and began to rock her back and forth, as he hoped to someday rock his children.

An hour later he awoke with a start. He was still seated, for want of a better term, on the bathroom floor. One arm still encircled Lizbeth’s shoulder. The major difference from an hour earlier was that he could not feel his feet. They had fallen asleep while cramped beneath him.

Even though he knew he’d pay a price when she finally awoke and they both were able to stand, he chose to risk spraining his ankle to allow the woman he loved to get some of the rest she so desperately needed.

The ringing of his desk phone jolted him back to the present.

“Stall— Ahem! Stallings here.”

“800. 555. 5219. Five minutes.” The line went dead.

Stallings blanched. He was to call that number within five minutes from a payphone. While the caller never identified itself or described the consequences for failing to follow the directions provided, Stallings knew that he was trapped by his past.

In all his time in law enforcement, he had only one blemish on his record. It was a citizen’s complaint about his actions during the rescue of several children trapped in a school bus. The bus had rolled onto its side and slid into a pond. He’d done everything he could, and all the children were rescued.

However, the citizen’s complaint implied he’d leaked her statement to the media. If even a hint of that got out now, given the current climate within MPD, he’d be branded as the leak before he had a chance to explain.

Pushing himself up from his chair, he limped towards his office door. The effects of the hours of restricted blood flow to his feet the night before were still painfully apparent.

He was walking with less limping but the same amount of pain by the time he passed through the door to the station’s parking lot. Once outside, he made a hard right turn and followed the sidewalk to the gate in the reinforced chain-link fence that surrounded the lot. He gave the crash bar a smack.

Take that, whoever you are!

Three minutes later, he stood inside a phone booth punching in the required numbers.

“This is Stallings,” he said when the connection was made.

“Great to know you made it into work today. I understand you had a bit of a rough night.” The voice, which he now hated, once again demonstrated its omniscience by cutting to the source of his pain and fatigue without preamble.

The caller somehow disguised the voice; used and 800-service; never gave advanced notice; had a ridiculously short timeline; and mandated a payphone. I can’t trace where you are. I could record one of these conversations and have the lab boys filter out the distortion, if I knew when you were calling.

“That’s a bit of an understatement,” Stallings said.

The electronically altered version of the voice of someone high in the MPD administration snorted a laugh.

“I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Humor, especially laughter, has such cathartic health benefits.”

“What do you want this time?”

“Oooh. A bit testy this morning, aren’t we.”

Stallings said nothing.

“Be that way. Here’s the situation. You will continue to stall this investigation.” The voice paused.

Oh, no. Here it comes shot through Stallings’ mind.

“I hope you know what joy I get by using that play on your name time after time.”

“I think I do,” Stallings muttered. And, I hate you more for each one.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Anyway, keep stalling, Stallings.” The voice snorted out another laugh.

“Or?”

“Or, associates of mine will see that the side effects of your wife’s chemo will continue to increase in intensity and duration.”

Oh, my God! Someone’s manipulating what’s in Lizbeth’s chemo treatments!

“Leave Lizbeth alone!”

“It’s my turn to ask. Or?

Stallings knew he’d accomplish nothing by antagonizing whoever was making the call. The tone of voice made it clear that the speaker possessed both position and power to do whatever it took for his compliance.

“Is that all?” Stallings asked.

“I’m good. You?”

“I hope you rot in hell!”

“You need to take a chill pill, Sergeant. That was both rude and offensive. But, if you’d prefer a physical pill, I have sources for that as well.”

Stallings scowled at the innuendo.

“No? Well, it’s been nice talking with you.”

The line went dead.

Stallings hung up the phone and limped back to his office, avoiding the locked parking lot gate by entering the station’s front door.

* * *

Mulligan and Mamba sat on opposite sides of Mulligan’s desk. Mamba had come directly to the station from his office after he’d set up Reed’s bus trip. No one else knew they were meeting.

“I know I pulled you from a briefing, but this is more important than whatever you were being briefed on,” Mamba said with an intensity that surprised Mulligan.

“You think it’s more important than the briefing about security plans for the Governor’s drive through next month?”

“It is! We suspected the list of names was on the street. One of my CIs confirmed that. I’ve got the copies if you want to see them.”

“That is bad. But, it doesn’t trump protecting the governor. And, I don’t need to see the copies to believe you.”

“I’m not through. Someone’s targeting you and me. The bull’s eye is our personal DMV information, including our home addresses. It’s on a fifth page! And, it’s out there, too.”

Mulligan sat unmoving, barely breathing. It took several seconds for the implications of his friend’s words to saturate his brain.

“This is very, very, bad,” he understated. “It’s time to confront Stallings. If he is the leak, he’s got to give up his handler and start cooperating with the Department. Our lives are at stake!”

“Nothing’s changed by this new information. Everything we have against Stallings is circumstantial,” Mamba reminded his former partner.

“We’ve got no choice. Let’s get it over with.”

The decision made, the men marched together to Stallings’ office without a word between them.

* * *

It was late in the afternoon. Stallings had managed to remain awake for all but two short power naps as they were being called. He looked at his watch for the tenth time in the last twenty minutes. This next hour is going to be one of the longest in my career. The only thing keeping me going right now is the memory of that conversation on the payphone.

Mulligan knocked on the door to Stallings’ office.

“Come in,” Stallings called, grateful for the diversion. Whatever it was.

“Got a minute, Sergeant?” Mulligan asked as he and Mamba entered the Sergeant’s office.

“Always time for a Lieutenant.” Stallings smiled, but his mind raced. Something’s not right. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head, simulating a calmness he didn’t feel. “What’s on your agenda?”

“There are copies of Mamba’s list on the street.”

“What?” Stallings blurted. He flailed his arms trying to keep from falling off his chair. His attempt at a calm façade was already a dim of memory. “How do you know that?”

He looks genuinely surprised, Mamba thought as he watched Stallings avoid a catastrophic crash.

“I’ve got a copy of the pages here,” the PI told him. He tossed the copies onto the Sergeant’s desk. “An informant got them on the street. He sold them to me.”

“Why? What’s his angle?” Stallings asked as he thumbed through the copies. Dozens, no hundreds of thoughts burst into the Sergeant’s brain only to be replaced by still other thoughts like in a fireworks display on the 4th of July. And, as was the case with those fireworks, none of the thoughts lingered long.

“Where’s your set?” Mulligan interrupted. While the reasons for selling a list like this might be of some interest and slightly more value, he was here to find and plug a leak.

“Huh?” Stallings looked up. He can’t have asked me what I just think I heard. He thinks I’m the leak! His expression conveyed the bewilderment he felt. “What’d you say?”

“I want to see your copies of the list.”

“I told you I couldn’t find them the other day.” Stallings stiffened as he answered. No matter how much he presses, I’m standing my ground. “Martinez was here then, too.”

“I was hoping you had located them by now.”

“Are you implying something, Lieutenant?” the Sergeant demanded. He felt anger and a sense of betrayal building within.

“Not at all,” Mulligan said much more calmly than he felt. “I just want to be sure.”

“I did not leak your lists, Lieutenant.” Fear joined the mix of anger and betrayal. The sentiments merged to form a highly volatile emotional magma.

“I’m not accusing you—”

“Then what are you doing?” Stallings erupted, literally. He leaped to his feet, all residual pain in those extremities overcome by adrenaline. The Sergeant’s face was contorted, his breathing shallow, his fists clenched. He stood, defiant, his body shaking from the turmoil within. “And what gives you the right to accuse me anyway?”

“I’m not accusing you—”

“Then I guess I don’t know what accusation means!” Stallings spat each word out like individual globs of fiery verbal lava. “What’s the big deal? We’ve got Brewster’s name. He’s the big cheese.”

“This, all this, is vital information,” Mulligan spoke slowly. He jabbed his finger at Mamba’s lists where they lay on the desk as he fought to maintain his composure. “Martinez must feel the same way or he wouldn’t have checked out as many of the names as he has.”

“We can check out a lead in more ways than the list,” Stallings countered. “It may come as a shock to you, but we don’t usually have a list of known traffickers dropped in our lap during an investigation.” This is getting close to insubordination. I need to be careful. The thought flashed and evaporated just as quickly, reduced to a fleeting memory by the heat of his anger. “Narcotics managed to uncover a few suspects in other cases without them.”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Sergeant.”

“What should I be? Gracious? Compliant?”

Mulligan’s gaze never wavered, and he offered no verbal response. Stallings clenched and unclenched his fists, an action Mamba hoped would defuse the bomb he’d become before he spoke again. If he’s not careful, he could blow his career right here in this office. For the second time in the brief shouting match, Stallings’ actions ran roughshod over his thoughts.

“Well, I am neither gracious nor compliant. I am angry and insulted!”

“I’d bust your nose if you weren’t!” Mulligan barked back. “But my butt’s on the line here, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“They know about Mamba and me.”

“Who knows? And what do they know? “

“Let me tell him.” Mamba knew that unless he quelled the rising tension between the Sergeant and Lieutenant, both would regret this moment for a long time. He moved between the antagonists. Only then did he begin his explanation.

“There’s another page on the street—a fifth page.”

What’s the purpose of that statement? Oh, God! I’m so far out of my comfort zone here. Finally, he managed, “What fifth page? The list is four pages long. There is no fifth page!”

“But there is,” Mamba said. He stared into Stallings’ eyes until the man lowered his gaze. With Stallings’ emotional state defused, the PI described page five. “It’s a DMV printout on Mike and me.”

This isn’t happening. If that’s true, someone’s painted a target on these two. It can’t be happening. Stallings’ mind overloaded with frightening speculation. He had to think of a way to protect these men. He took a deep breath. Then another. Only then did he feel he had enough control to speak.

“That’s more than serious. You’re setting up police protection, right?” Stallings said. His mind raced in a new direction. This news was much, much worse than any list of drug buyers and sellers leaked to the street could be.

“I think it’s a little early for that.”

Stallings was not convinced.

“Well, I don’t think it is. If you wait for any length of time, it could be too long. Brewster’s crew has shown it’s willing to kill those who get in their way. It only takes one bullet.”

“I think we’re good for the moment,” Mulligan reiterated. He was sure this shouting match had wounded them both. He added what he hoped was taken as an attempt at beginning reconciliation. “But, thanks for the idea and the support.”

Stallings’ wry grin was a welcome response.

Thank you, Stallings, for ending this. Or, at least putting your feelings on hold for the good of the cause. Mulligan thought before asking, “And, keep trying to find those lists, will you?”

“Starting right now,” Stallings said. His fatigue eradicated, he turned to the row of file cabinets that lined one wall of his office. He pulled out a top drawer. He began to pull out every file folder in turn and flip through the contents.

He did not see his two visitors leave.

The walk back to Mulligan’s office was completed in awkward silence.

“Well?” Mamba asked after he’d shut the Lieutenant’s door behind them.

“I don’t know, Phil. He puts up a good front.”

“Unless it’s the truth.” Mamba had run the conversation over again in his mind. All he saw in the Sergeant was a man angered by what he considered false accusations, serious false accusations.

“Yeah. There’s that option, too,” Mulligan admitted with minimal reluctance. Stallings had proven to be a good cop. The last thing he wanted was to find out the man was a traitor.

They sat down. Mulligan picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a scratch pad. Mamba idly fingered a stack of manila folders. They opened in succession as he lifted one side of the pile and let the folders flip individually off his finger as they fell back to the table.

“BALLISTICS REPORTS” caught his eye.

He removed the folder with that report from the pile and opened it. He read through three ballistics reports. Nothing stood out. He started to replace the folder in the stack. Whatever had prompted him to select the ballistics reports for the past week had been a bad hunch.

It was then that he realized that a fourth ballistics report ran over to the second page. He read what was on the top sheet, flipped that report over onto the inside of the open folder cover. He stopped reading when he saw Mary Carstairs name heading a fifth report.

That triggered an idea.

“Mike, have you seen this?” Mamba asked.

“I don’t know what you’re holding.”

Duh. I’m holding a manila folder that looks like the other ninety manila folders sitting on Mike’s desk. “They’ve run a ballistics on the Carstairs case.”

“Routine procedure. You know that.”

“I do. Flatly’s ballistics report is here, too.”

Mulligan nodded. Geez, Phil. Get to the point.

As evenly as was possible to speak, considering the implication those reports had to him, Mamba said, “It says there’s a match on the two bullets.”

“Let me see that!” Mulligan snatched the folder from his friend. He skimmed the two reports. It was true. The same gun had fired the bullets that had killed Mary Carstairs and wounded Flatly Broke. “This is hard evidence that ties the two shootings to each other. It’s about time! We haven’t had much solid to hold onto in this case up ’til now.”

“But, that also means that someone wanted them both out of the way. He may think he’s accomplished that. My money’s on Brewster, like Stallings said.”

“I see where you’re going. With two targets already eliminated, we could be next. We’ll keep a lid on the boxer’s condition and location for a few days.”

“What if the leak’s already delivered the news of Flatly’s condition?”

“That’s out of my control.”

“But a security team for Flatly isn’t. He deserves that.”

“You’re right. My homicide boys can start with this report.” He held up the folder. “They need a challenge. I’ll order a security rotation for the hospital.”

Mulligan hit his intercom button. He set up Flatly’s security detail first. His second request was for one of his homicide detectives to come in.

The hunt was on.

* * *

Phil Mamba sat in his living room with his wife and child. The house was cozy and was situated near the center of a family community. The neighborhood was quiet that night. It was quiet every other night, too, except for the few times a year when someone had a late party. But, as a courtesy, they informed their neighbors about the event in advance.

He’d relegated the idea being targeted by a local drug lord into the recesses of his mind. Tonight was family time.

He hadn’t told Hope about the fifth page. He knew she would worry if she knew. It was best to wait and see what the homicide boys unearthed. If they were no closer to identifying Mary Carstairs’ killer by this time tomorrow than they were today, he’d push until he got a protection detail for his family, and he’d push for Mulligan to do the same.

“I’ll put him to bed, sweetie,” Phil said as he picked up their newly changed and pajama-clad son.

“Why is it that you usually manage to hold Jimmy just after I’ve changed him?”

“Great timing.” He grinned at her. “It’s a gift.”

“Pretty lousy timing if you ask me,” she countered. “You get him when he wakes up tomorrow, too.” That should make up for tonight since that’s usually the worst diaper of the morning.

“What if I tell you I’ve got an early appointment?”

“I’ll tell you you’re lying, Philip Mamba. And you’d still get to change Jimmy in the morning. Now get him to bed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” was the contrite response. “How about bed for us, too?”

“Why? Are you tired already?” she said as she gave an exaggerated look at her watch.

“Not exactly.”

“Cute. Put your son to bed. I’ll be up in a few minutes.” She waited until he started up the stairs before she added a mischievous, “If you’re lucky.”

“I feel lucky,” he called over his shoulder.

She smiled and leaned down to pick up the dirty diaper and playsuit from the floor where she had changed her son.

Glass cascaded to the floor.

I know that sound! I hate that sound! This can’t be happening!

As the glass shattered, a simultaneous explosive report echoed down the street. Bullets slammed into the wall behind the sofa. No! No! Noooo! Not my baby! Hope dropped to her knees and then threw herself face down on the carpet.

Her worst nightmare, a replay of the bomb blast she and the unborn Jimmy had somehow survived, exploded in her mind exposing shards of shock, panic, and pain. In a reflex action, she reached for her thigh and felt the scar from the extensive surgery it took to repair the physical damage done by the bomb. Tears filled her eyes.

Phil! Jimmy!” She screamed from her prone position. I’ve got to get a grip. I’ve got to make sure Jimmy’s all right! But every grip she tried slipped through her panicked thoughts.

“Help me, Phil! Don’t let them hurt Jimmy!”

Mamba heard the shots. Thinking first of his son, he sprinted up the remaining stairs and placed Jimmy in his crib. Then he heard Hope’s screams.

“It’ll be okay, buddy,” he said with hardly a tremble in his voice. In spite of Phil’s best efforts, Jimmy sensed the terror in his mother’s screams and the tension in his father. He began to wail.

Hope heard her son’s yowling. Oh, dear God, no! Please, please, PLEASE God don’t let Jimmy die! Take me! Oh, don’t let Jimmy be hurt! She pulled herself across the carpet until she faced the stairs. Shards from the front window, as sharp as the point on a flint arrowhead, sliced into her right hand and knee. Although she left a bloody trail as she crawled, she had no idea she’d been cut.

I’ve got to go up there! I’ve got to save Jimmy! But, Phil’s up there! Why is Jimmy screaming when Phil’s up there!

“Phil! I need you!” was her final plea.

“I have to go to Mommy,” Mamba said to his son’s unhearing ears. Without looking back—later he admitted it was the hardest thing he’d ever done—he left his son and tore back downstairs. Diving to his stomach three stairs from the bottom, he belly-crawled toward his hysterical wife.

“Are you hurt?” He demanded when he reached Hope’s side. Sympathy had to wait. He needed an accurate assessment of her condition. He needed it now!

“N-N-No,” she stammered. Her words synchronized to her shaking body. “Jimmy! Where’s Jimmy?” She started to rise.

Mamba pushed her roughly back down. He’d seen the blood on the carpet and her jeans. He knew she was hurt and running on adrenaline. I need you to focus so you can do what needs to be done, shot through his mind before he answered.

“He’s fine. Jimmy’s fine. And safe. He’s in his crib in his room. I need you to focus. I’ve seen you go through this before. I need you to focus. Now!”

Venomous is an inadequate adjective for the look Hope shot at her husband.

“I’ll focus you!”

“Good. You’re back. Stay put until I get to the phone. Once I get there, you crawl to the stairs and crawl up those stairs to Jimmy. Do not stand up until you’re completely in the upstairs hallway. I’m calling the police. Then, I’ll check out the yard.”

“No, Phil,” Hope pleaded her focus wavering. “Leave the yard to the police. Please!”

I was wrong. I’ve never seen her like this. Even after the bombing she was more in control than now.

“I’ll just check from the porch,” he told her. “I’ll wait for them there.”

“You stay inside!”

“After I check the porch, I’ll come back inside. I promise. But I have to know the porch is clear.”

Hope nodded, but he couldn’t tell if it was a nod of agreement of just an involuntary reaction to her situation.

“Change of plan. Go on upstairs. I’ll watch ’til you’re out of sight. Then, I’ll call the police.”

She nodded again.

“You’re bleeding,” he told her.

She looked around for a wound. Adrenaline still blocked her pain. What’s he talking about? I can’t be bleeding. I don’t hurt anywhere. When she saw the blood on her hand, she wiped it on the carpet, which only caused an increase in the flow.

“Just crawl. We’ll worry about the blood later,” he said. She nodded once more. Once more, Phil had no idea whether it was a nod of agreement or a reflex.

“Go now. Stay low. Get Jimmy. Go into the bathroom. Put him in the tub while you try to stop the bleeding.”

“But—”

“He’ll be fine in the tub. After you’re all bandaged, hug him all you need to, all you can. Do not put him down until the police are here.”

He’s right. Focus. Get Jimmy. Stop bleeding. Bandage. Hug. Hold him. After her mental review of Phil’s instructions, she started crawling.

He thought her heard her whispering a prayer as he watched her crawl away and slither up the staircase leaving a two-lane blood trail as she went. He shot a prayer upward. It couldn’t hurt.

As he’d promised Hope, the first thing Mamba did was pull the phone off the end table next to the sofa. He punched in 911.

“This is 9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

“This is Phil Mamba,” he began and gave his home address. “Someone has fired several bullets into my living room. My wife is bleeding. We need immediate police assistance and paramedics.”

Mamba heard a click. He knew the operator was broadcasting the call on the dispatcher’s radio frequency.

“How many people are in the house?”

“Three. Me. Wife. Son.”

“Is anyone else injured?”

“No.”

“Please stay on the line.”

“I can’t do that. I’m going to clear the front porch.”

“Sir, you need to stay away from—”

“I’m a private detective and a former MPD officer. I will clear my front porch to protect my family.”

“Mr. Mamba, you need to let the police do their job.”

The skills of 911 operators impressed Mamba. They were calm and professional, even in the face of critical emergencies. The woman had cops on the way already. And she was composed enough to remember his name.

“One more thing.” He interrupted for what he knew would be the last time. “Lieutenant Michael Mulligan needs a protection detail dispatched to his home immediately.”

He dropped the handset into the cradle and crawled to where he stored his gun while he was in the house. After punching in the lock’s combination, he slid the drawer open and pulled the Colt .38 Special from his shoulder holster. With gun in hand, he resumed his crawling. Once at the door, he reached up and turned the knob. He first pulled the door open and then pushed it away from him while he remained out of sight. He pressed his body tightly against the wall to the left of the doorway.

When no bullets greeted the open doorway, he rolled into the center of the portal. Silence was the response to his maneuver. He clambered to his feet and stepped onto the porch. He swung his gun from side to side. First left, then right.

“Clear!” he said, partly from habit, but in this instance more from relief. Looks like our gunman has departed. He walked back into the house.

While he waited for the police, Mamba gloved up from his stash in the drawer with his gun. He grabbed a steak knife dug one bullet from the wall. He knew that disturbing evidence was a flagrant breach of procedure. But these bullets could be linked to a homicide. I want at least one processed quickly. He went to the kitchen and dropped the bullet in a baggie.

It took less than five minutes for the police and paramedics to arrive in force at the Mamba home. The PI surrendered his gun to the first officer in. He directed the paramedics upstairs to Hope and Jimmy. His third, and last, official action was to offer the bullet in the baggie to the senior officer at the scene.

“How fast can you get this to forensics?”

“Sir, we have procedures for that,” the officer replied.

“I’m a private detective working a case with Lieutenant Mulligan and Sergeant Stallings out of Northeastern. This shooting is linked to that case. The sooner we know if it matches the bullet that killed a woman, the better.”

The officer frowned. It all sounded plausible. But, the man admitted to being a private eye. That meant all his words were suspect.

Seconds ticked away.

“If any Lieutenant agrees with me, let alone the Homicide Lieutenant on an active case, and you didn’t shoot this evidence to forensics as fast as you should have . . . Do you have any idea what will happen to you?” Mamba final words clearly indicated his certainty of a negative outcome for the senior officer if they went unheeded.

“I guess it can’t hurt,” the officer replied after a brief hesitation. He took the baggie from Mamba and called a uniform over.

“Tag this and get it to ballistics.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mamba smiled. It was good to know that being overly concerned with protocol in certain situations was still a liability.

It was over two hours later when he maneuvered around Jimmy’s portable playpen, which they had taken with them to the motel room where they’d been escorted for their protection. A squad car sat facing the driveway of the parking lot.

Jimmy slept next to a wide-awake Hope in the queen-sized bed. Phil crawled into bed next to his wife. It was then that he felt her body trembling as he stroked her arm.

“I love you,” was what he chose to say after filtering through a list of at least a dozen first lines in his mind.

“I know.” She began to sob. “I f-f-feel like I’m a j-jinx.”

“I love you,” he repeated as he wrapped his arms around her. Jimmy, nestled between them, pushed against his father with his feet. Mamba moved back just enough to stop his son’s action.

Hope sighed. But, that proved only a temporary respite for the sobbing and shaking.

He held his family for over an hour, relaxing and catnapping only after the exhausted Hope fell asleep.

* * *

The morning after the attack on his home, Mamba was awake at six. After extricating himself from Hope and Jimmy, he used the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. I feel almost sub-human, he thought after his actions. I can’t imagine what Hope’s gonna feel like when she wakes up.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that the motel room’s phone cord was long enough that he could take it into the bathroom. He grabbed the phone and phonebook and retired into the facility. After he closed the door, he turned on the shower to muffle his phone conversation.

His first call was to one of Hope’s college friends, the only one he had a phone number for. In minutes, he’d cleared an impromptu trip to visit her because “mommy has cabin fever.” After that he’d made reservations for Hope and Jimmy to fly to Florida. His third call was to Mulligan.

“I want Hope and Jimmy out of harm’s way. I’m sending them out of town.”

“I think that’s wise.”

“And you should send Kate away, too.”

“I’ve got round-the-clock surveillance on my home.”

“Only takes one bullet, Mike. You know that.”

“I’ll talk to Kate.”

You need to tell Kate. I don’t want to attend a Mulligan funeral.

After Mulligan said good-bye, he made one final call. He left a message.

“Mr. Anderson, this is Phil Mamba. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to put your case on a back burner. There is a situation that requires my full attention for a while. Oh, yeah. Don’t worry. You won’t be billed for any hours until we both agree to reopen your case.”

* * *

“I’ve made reservations to Denver for you and Jimmy. You leave in five hours from LAX,” Mamba told his wife after they finished breakfast. “You connect in Denver with the nonstop to Miami.”

“I don’t want to leave.”

“It’s not a matter of wanting,” Mamba assured her. “Someone’s after me. I have a better chance if you’re not here. I’d be so worried about you and Jimmy that I’m afraid I’d miss something critical, especially after last night.”

“What about my stitches? I’ve got over twenty stitches in my hands and knees.”

“There are doctors in Florida.”

“But I don’t like leaving.” She offered yet another iteration of her primary excuse.

“I don’t like it either, but it is necessary to get you and Jimmy away. Don’t forget to pick up the ticket at the travel agent’s on your way to LA. You’ll be traveling as Mrs. Washington. I’ve booked a car for her, that’s you, at the airport in Miami. Debra knows you’re coming. She thinks it’s a getaway time for you and Jimmy. Make sure you have her address and phone number.”

“Why a phony name?” She’d listened politely to his spiel and that was the only question she’d come up with.

“As soon as whoever tried to kill you finds out you’re still alive, they’ll be hunting you. When they can’t find you here, I want to make it as hard as possible for them to trace you,” Mamba said. He offered a crooked grin and added, “This whole trip is mostly for my benefit. It means less work for me if you’re not here.”

She hugged his neck as she said, “I love you, too.”

“I love you, too,” he replied mechanically. Wait! “You stole my line.”

“I know. I read your mind.”

“Clairvoyance. That’s a new skill.” He tried to sound nonchalant but failed.

“Not all that new,” she answered. Sometimes you’re an open book, my love.

He pulled back a bit and tried to look offended. He failed miserably at that as well.

“Be careful,” she whispered through the lump in her throat.

“Always,” was all he could choke out.

* * *

Martinez had not found time to meet with Stallings about his decision to quit undercover work. With Brewster on the run, arrests on drug-related crimes were down. He was back working the street for narcotics—currently from the front seat of an unmarked car. Madre de Dios, this neighborhood isn’t any different than where I worked at Southern. He gave his head a hard shake and nearly dislodged his trademark bandana. Focus you big Mexican. Focus!

Movement at the door of the building he was watching ended his musing. A scraggly, young man exited and began to move down the sidewalk, his eyes darting furtively in all directions. His unkempt hair escaped the boundary of his hooded sweatshirt. His jeans displayed frayed cuffs.

The Latino shook his head in disbelief. Some of these drug runners need some serious coaching on how to be less conspicuous. Of course, this way was better for him and his partner.

Martinez signaled Collins, his partner for this assignment. The veteran narcotics cop was leaning against a doorjamb waiting for this moment. Martinez placed his huge hand on his head and rubbed the colorful head cover that rested there. After the second swipe, the now misaligned bandana appeared to hang on to the big, shaved head for dear life.

Officer Collins flipped his cigarette away in answering recognition. He strolled along the street opposite of, but parallel to, what he hoped was the unsuspecting drug runner.

The detective readjusted his bandana as he waited until the drug runner and his partner rounded the corner. Only when both were out of sight did he start his car and drive to the first intersection in the direction away from the pair. A right turn sent him in the direction that the drug runner had taken. A second right at the next corner brought him in sight of the young man in the hooded sweatshirt.

Without a glance for oncoming traffic, the delivery boy stepped off the curb at the intersection. He came to an abrupt halt two wavering strides into his crossing. A blast from the horn of an aging Chevy Impala, followed by a string of profanity-laced advice about what he could do with a variety of body parts, triggered the sudden stop.

The young man waved a hand at the honking vehicle. More profanity was the driver’s response. When the driver completed the lesson-advice-criticism, the Impala raced away. Two parallel synthetic rubber lines on the asphalt remained, evidence of the car’s rapid departure. The boy, Hal Armstrong by name, flashed a middle-finger salute at the departing vehicle.

Hal wobbled for several seconds staring after the Impala. After he was relatively free of any swaying motion, he finished his unsteady trek across the street.

Drug delivery boy had not been Hal’s primary career goal. While in school, he’d watched his teachers and soon detected repeating patterns of behavior. Regardless of the subject matter, most teachers periodically swept the room with their eyes. Students in the center of the closest row, those down the middle, and those across the back of the room were the most common targets of those sweeps.

Hal always chose his seat at either end of the first row. By doing so, over the course of a week—six classes each day for five days—he might be called upon to answer a question twice. He was as close to invisible as a student could be. Strategic seat choices combined with mediocre performance to make Hal a forgettable student.

After graduation from high school, Hal had drifted from one minimum wage job to another. After three rudderless years, his parents gave him an ultimatum: Find a stable, well-paying job, go to college, or move out.

Hal now lived with five other young people of both sexes in a rundown rental. Only occasionally did he think about a job. Never did he think about school. Most days were spent in a drug-induced stupor or delivering product for one of Sid Brewster’s minions. He used the drugs he received as payment to hasten the return to his stuporous state.

Money was always short in the rental house. Food was an afterthought. The residents of that house were shrunken shadows of their former selves. None of them would live past the age of forty. Hal was the poster boy for those in his lifestyle.

Martinez shook his head at the scene he’d witnessed. The Impala was still gaining speed as it passed him while he drove slowly up that street towards the drug runner. He paused at an alley as though checking for cross traffic. As the car idled, unmoving for only the briefest instant, the back door on the passenger side opened and closed before Collins uttered a hoarse, “Go!”

The Latino accelerated just enough to keep the target in sight.

“It looks like our boy is checking out addresses pretty carefully,” Collins observed from where he slumped in the back seat. Standing only five feet seven inches tall, in shoes, it didn’t take much slumping for him to disappear from view. During his time in narcotics, he’d perfected his slump to a valuable surveillance tool. Thanks to a short forehead, he was able to see out the passenger window while slumped with little chance of detection.

“I think you’re right. I’m going to pull over and give him a little room.”

Hal was indeed searching for a specific address. His coat pocket held two dime-bags of smack for delivery. The right front pocket of his jeans contained his reward for this job. The heroin contained in that personal package was of a higher grade than he could afford to buy. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead as anticipation combined with addiction. He could not hold out much longer. He hoped the buyer would shoot up right away, and maybe share his fix or at least share his spoon and needle.

The number 657 on the granite facade on the building before Hal passed in and out of the focus of his bleary eyes.

The drug runner stopped and rubbed those eyes, trying to clear his vision. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. The numbers on the back of the envelope had been scrawled in haste. His supplier did not like anything written down. He had dug through the supplier’s trashcan for this scrap of paper to use to help remember the important address. He stared hard at the indecipherable digits.

Confused now, and near panic, Hal looked up at the numbers on the building again. A final focus on the scrap of paper brought the closest thing to confirmation of a match of the two sets of numbers that the young man could manage. The paper floated unnoticed to the ground. He started a wobbly climb up the front steps.

“Use the phone on the corner and call this in,” Martinez instructed Collins. When he got a questioning look, he added, “I want this car empty. It’s got to lack even a hint of suspicion.”

“Got it,” Collins said. “What’s your play?”

“I’m going across the street. I’ll see what’s on the paper the kid dropped. I suspect it’ll give me a room number. I’ll leave the paper and wait for you outside that door.”

“Check!” Collins said. He left the car as efficiently as he’d entered.

The delivery boy shuffled across the grimy lobby of the tenement and began an agonizing climb up the steps leading to the second-floor of the building. His pace was glacial as he moved with extreme caution. Waves of nausea and dizziness washed over him. He grabbed the handrail to steady himself. He hated second-floor deliveries. In an uncommon moment of inspiration, he thought to recheck the address he had written.

After slapping his pockets in futility, he staggered back down the stairs, across the lobby, and out to the stoop. It took all his power of concentration coupled with extremely good luck for him to reach down to the ground and retrieve the crumpled envelope without face-planting in the attempt.

He forced his eyes to focus on the numbers again. The 6-5-7 were there all right. But the number of the apartment itself was a 1-3-3 and not 2-3-8 as he’d first read. He muttered a veiled profanity and wobbled back up the front stoop.

Martinez felt his calf muscle cramping. He’d ducked down beside the stoop of 657 when he’d seen the drug runner returning. It was fortunate that he’d had the wherewithal to drop the kid’s note back on the sidewalk. He was very happy when the delivery boy reentered the apartment building.

After making the climb behind his target, Martinez watched the boy stumble down the narrow hallway that extended behind the stairway. When he realized the kid was looking for a first-floor apartment, he stepped into the entryway. Collins would find him even without the apartment number.

While the detective watched, raised metal numbers identifying apartment doors one and two passed beneath his fumbling fingers. The numbers of the third door attracted his searching fingers. He half-scratched, half-knocked on the door.

Martinez moved back into the exterior doorjamb. Unless whoever was in that room looked directly in his direction, he could remain undetected in his location. Collins announced his arrival with a discrete tap on the big man’s shoulder.

He’d stepped back immediately after touching Martinez. That maneuver proved to be a good thing as the Latino swiped a massive paw in the direction of the tap. His hand missed his partner by an inch.

“Sorry,” Collins whispered. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“You don’t know how sorry you’d have been if that swing had landed,” Snake hissed back. “Just hold this position until we know what’s going down.”

What was that? Oscar Briggs used a remote control device to lower the volume of his new compact disc player. He listened intently as the sound came again. Instinct kicked in and he grabbed his gun. He cautiously opened the door to his apartment. The weapon in his hand was a precaution he felt necessary every time he answered a knock.

“What you want?” Big O asked through the narrow opening between the jamb and the door itself.

“I . . . got . . . your . . . smack,” was the labored response.

“Hey, man, you look wasted.” Briggs eyed the young man that swayed before him as he opened the door. He turned and placed his gun on the table beside his faded couch. Turning back to the door, he assisted the young man into the room.

“My, uh, your . . . stuff is in . . . pocket,” Hal gasped. He collapsed on the couch.

With a practiced hand, Briggs rifled the young man’s pockets. He discovered two bags of smack in the kid’s coat. Those, he figured, were his payment from Brewster for the attack the night before. He found another bag in a front pocket of the delivery boy’s jeans.

Bonus time! was his first thought. One back pocket of the jeans yielded a wallet. An expired driver’s license, The kid’s name’s Hal Armstrong, and a single one-dollar bill explained why his wallet was as thin as its owner’s physique.

The only other item the youth had on him was a crumpled envelope. Briggs tossed that on the floor.

“I . . . need . . . hit.” Hal struggled with the vocalization of his thought. “Please.”

Briggs looked down on the slumped figure. The boy was in desperate need. It was obvious he was crashing. He hefted the bags of heroin. Need was nowhere near as strong as possession.

“Hold on, boy,” Briggs advised. “I’ll cook your stuff.”

“Thanks,” was the slurred monosyllabic reply.

Briggs collected his paraphernalia. Opening the packets from the boy’s front pocket, he tapped out a minuscule amount of the drug into the dirty spoon. He cut it with enough baby powder to fill the depression to its normal level. He usually only cut the smack he moved by fifty percent. This was a special situation. All he wanted to do was get the kid up and out of his room as fast as he could.

He searched his pockets for a match. Finding none, he grabbed a piece of paper from the coffee table. Twisting it into a skinny rope he went to the stove and turned on a burner. Igniting the paper with the flame, he carried his torch over to the candle. Once the candle’s flame flickered in response to the slow moving air in the room, he crushed the torch out against the dirty, threadbare carpet.

He wrapped his surgical tubing around the boy’s arm. After melting the heroin/talc mixture, he sucked it into his syringe and pumped the pasty liquid into the boy’s scarred forearm. There was a reflex jerk. Then Hal Armstrong went limp.

Briggs swore. The kid wasn’t supposed to die. Now, he’d have to drag the body out back. He swore again, louder this time. Lucky punk fighter. Pretty wife of some rent-a-cop, and now this punk kid. Three mistakes in less than a week. I ain’t never gonna live that down, he thought. But then he realized that nobody knew about this mistake. He’d make sure it stayed that way.

After he gathered the three bags of heroin and jammed them into his pockets, he looked down at Hal’s lifeless form. It was not a novel sight. Briggs’ line of work made him a bringer of death. But this, this dead young man, this was different. He’d had no contract for this death.

Staring at the corpse while he finalized his disposal plans brought an unwelcome replay of his second mistake to mind. It was a night in the recent past. He aimed his gun. Once again he squeezed the trigger three times. Once again the pretty lady target bent over as he fired. And, once again, his bullets slammed into the wall behind her.

He shrugged it off. There would be another time. There always was. He’d do her after he did the boxer.

With a groan, he lifted Hal’s surprisingly heavy body in his once brawny arms. He made a note about hitting the weights more often. If I can’t heft this skinny thing without groanin’, I must be getting soft, flashed through his mind. When he reached the door of his apartment, he shifted all the kid’s weight to his right arm. Using his left hand, he opened his door and stepped out into the hallway.

“Far enough, hombre!

The barrel of a service revolver dented Briggs’ neck.

“Back into the room. Ahora!

Collins materialized in front of Briggs who flipped the body he held into Collins and shot his elbow in the direction of Martinez.

The Snake struck.

Briggs slumped to the floor when the butt of Martinez’s revolver cracked his skull.

Collins, who’d used his forearms to deflect Armstrong’s body, moved to Briggs’ unconscious form and leveled his gun at the prone figure in the doorway.

“I don’t think you’ll need that, compañero,” Martinez said. He knelt down beside the hitman and unceremoniously began to place his handcuffs on his wrists. “See if our back-up is here.” He began to recite his Miranda verbiage to the unconscious man. He knew he would have to go through the recital again, but he always made sure that somewhere among the first words he spoke to suspects as he ’cuffed them were the required legalese.

“Check!” Collins stepped over the two bodies that littered the hallway on his way to the front door of the flophouse.

Martinez finished ’cuffing his suspect, an easy task since Briggs was already face down. Turning his attention to the delivery boy, the narcotics officer felt for a pulse. His fingers found only cold skin.

Martinez made the sign of the cross and straightened up. He shooed the two sets of eyes that peered out from partially opened doorways back inside with a brusque, “Police business.” By then, Collins and two uniformed officers were headed down the hallway in his direction.

“Call the meat wagon,” he directed.

One of the uniforms spoke into the radio clipped to the collar of her tunic.

Collins bummed gloves from the uniforms. As usual, Martinez pulled a pair of XXL latex gloves from his pocket. After all the officers were gloved up, a search of both Briggs’ body and the apartment yielded three bags of heroin and paraphernalia for mainlining, a recently fired hand gun of significant caliber, a new stereo outfit with the boxes still strewn about, four thousand, two hundred and twenty-six dollars in cash, and a scribbled note: “Boxer – hospital – finish job.”

Martinez went to the Briggs’ phone. He dialed the division.

“Northeastern Division.”

“This is Martinez. Get me Sergeant Stallings.”

“Right away, Detective.”

Martinez counted to seven alligators while waiting for his boss to answer.

“Stallings.”

“Sergeant, this is Martinez. I just found a note in Briggs’ apartment. Check our security on Flatly Broke Code 3.”

“You’re certain? We haven’t released any information about his condition.”

“The note says, ‘Boxer – hospital – finish job.’ I think that’s reason enough.”

“Agreed. Make sure that note gets bagged and tagged.”

“Already on it.”

Stallings ended the call. As Martinez hung up his handset, he realized what Stallings said about the boxer. We haven’t released any information about his condition.

“More evidence of the leak,” he muttered.

“You say something?” Collins asked.

“Nothing I can repeat with a mujer present,” the Latino said with a wave at the female officer recording the collected evidence in her log.

“I doubt it’s anything this mujer hasn’t heard before,” she replied without looking up.

“I’m not taking any chances. Let’s finish this.” He turned back to the task at hand.

A wrinkled envelope with the apartment’s address penciled on it was the penultimate piece of evidence they bagged in their initial sweep. But it was a partially burned piece of paper found on the floor that once again moved the Latino to immediate action.

“Give me the gun,” he demanded after looking at the printing on the burned scrap of paper. He secured two envelopes from the uniformed officer cataloging evidence and dropped the weapon into one and the burned paper into the other. He sealed them both.

“Tag and log these as in my possession,” he said.

When the cataloging officer hesitated, Martinez explained.

“I want this run through ballistics right away.” He held up the gun. “Stallings will want to see what’s on this paper long before it goes into the evidence cage.” He held up the second bag.

“Can do. Put ’em here,” she said pointing to the front of her line of evidence bags.

“Thanks. Collins, you’re in charge of finishing here. Type up your notes and leave all the paperwork on my desk. I’ll wrap up the report when I get back to the station. But, right now, I’m heading to the lab.”

Nods of acknowledgment from all present indicated they heard and understood. Collins’ nod was more one of appreciation than understanding. Martinez had just volunteered to do the bulk of the paperwork on this case.

“Put in your notes that I took the gun and this scrap of burned paper to the lab. Include the time. I never wear a watch when I’m undercover.” He took a final look around.

“Oh, yeah, and bring Collins back with you in a black and white.” Martinez directed the cataloging officer and her partner.

He waited until the numbers on evidence bags he was delivering to the station were recorded. Then he was gone.

* * *

Oscar Briggs had a headache. He lay on a too small, too hard bed in a too small, too tightly locked jail cell and pondered his situation. But Briggs did not state it in those terms. He had never seen or heard the word pondered in his life.

I screwed up bad. I killed that kid who’s just doin’ his job. I know what it means to do a job. I deserve to be in this cell.

What was it Mr. Brewster said? Oh, yeah, if I keeps quiet, his lawyers will make sure I gets easy time. I could go for doin’ easy time. All I gots to do is keep my mouth shut.

Hardest part’s gonna be goin’ cold turkey from the smack. I won’t miss talkin’ much, but I will miss bein’ juiced.

He ran his fingers over the bump on his head caused by Martinez’s gun. The headache would be gone in a day or so. In the meantime, he’d have to be careful about not sleeping on his side.

He finished his reflective session with a single thought. It was a thought he’d need to remember.

Life don’t promise nuthin’. You gots to get what you wants any way you can. I’ll be shuttin’ up. But, if I don’t get them lawyers and the easy time like I was promised, Mr. Brewster is gonna wish he’d never lied and cheated the Big O! Cuz’ I’ll be getting’ what I wants. Whatever it takes.

“Prisoner Briggs!”

Big O took his sweet time to look up at the officer outside his bars.

“Get your stuff stowed away. Lights out in thirty minutes.”

“Shut your fat face up, cop!” Briggs snarled. They were they only words he would speak in the presence of the police until his arraignment. But, he did get his stuff stowed away.

At the arraignment, he delivered what was for him a soliloquy, “Not guilty, Your Honor.”

* * *

It was an hour after Briggs’ arrest. After dropping one evidence bag at the lab, Martinez stopped by Mulligan’s office.

“I figure I’ll hear about removing the evidence from the crime scene before cataloging is complete. Sergeant Stallings will lecture me on that breach of protocol, but I wanted someone I trust to hear about this evidence right away.”

Mulligan nodded.

“And see some of the evidence, too.” Martinez dropped the second evidence bag on Mulligan’s desk.

Mulligan’s eyes opened wide. This is way beyond breaching protocol. You always check in evidence immediately upon arrival at the station. Just what did you risk an official reprimand to show me? He picked up the evidence bag. He maneuvered the contents until part of those contents was clearly visible. He inhaled sharply.

“Start talking, Detective.”

He listened intently to Martinez’s brief explanation of Briggs’ arrest and what he’d left at the lab inside the other evidence bag. When the Latino indicated he was finished, Mulligan picked up the phone and called Mamba.

“Get down to the station,” Mulligan’s words were more an order than an option. “Our friend, Martinez, has related a most interesting story. And, he brought with him an even more interesting item for show and tell.”

“On my way,” Mamba answered. He knew that tone. Mulligan was concerned, too concerned to talk on the phone. He patted his shoulder holster as he headed out the door to his own office.

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