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Betrayal in Blue

By C. R. Downing All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Mystery

Untitled chapter

Chapter 22

Erin Reilly, orthopedic nurse, pulled her stethoscope from her locker. She listened to the banter going on around her with mixed interest as she hung the device around her neck. Just returned from a week’s vacation, she was still on holiday time and was running behind her normal morning schedule.

“I tell you, last night was steeem-eee,” one of her colleagues reported. She and her husband were trying to start a pregnancy. After eight months without success, she had announced earlier in the week that she’d rented some videotapes to spice things up.

“I figure more estrogen, testosterone, and adrenaline might be just the ticket to get two of our gametes to hook up!”

Erin moved into the break room that housed a small refrigerator with as much mold as cold inside. Also present was a microwave oven. The interior of which had food splatter burnt into the plastic. The final appliance was a coffeemaker. Its carafe displayed the most disgusting stain patterns she’d ever seen.

“And so I told him that he was lucky I didn’t have a tubing clamp with me,” another of the first shift nurses ended her story of a date gone wrong. A couple of crude remarks about men and some innuendo of worse things than using a tubing clamp by others in the group brought that conversation arc to a close, or so she thought.

As she cleared the doorway from the locker room to the lounge, Erin found out that the concept of dating, pro and con, who was and who wasn’t, was still on the table. The assault began as soon as the group spotted her.

“Reilly, welcome back. What’s your position on dating?” the charge nurse called out. Snickers, twitters, and full-on laughter greeted the innuendo-filled question.

“I’m in favor of it,” Erin answered, choosing to take the high road in the conversation.

“If you’re for it, then why don’t you do more of it?”

“I date. A lot,” was Erin’s vague defensive response.

“Yeah, right. And I never ate a whole box of chocolates in one day,” a third nurse chimed in.

More laughter.

“When’s the last time you went on a date?” The charge nurse asked. Before Erin could answer, she qualified her question. “A real date, not ‘I talked to a guy in a bar’.”

“Not long ago,” she shot back.

“When?”

“That doesn’t matter,” she pushed past the actual question. “For your information, I just might have something going on tonight.”

At that point, seven nurses turned away after rolling their eyes or with waves of dismissal. They began moving out into the hallway. It was time for work. Nurse Reilly’s fantasies could wait.

“Well, I could have a date tonight. If I wanted to,” Erin muttered to herself in the now empty, save her, nurses’ lounge. She adjusted her name badge, tugged on the hem of her scrubs top, poured a cup of who knew how old coffee, and headed out in the direction taken by the others. She had a debriefing at the central nurses’ station on the floor at the shift change to attend.

She was almost late already.

* * *

Enciso Martinez pulled his motorcycle into a quasi-parking space in the Memorial General Hospital visitor lot. It’s times like this that I love my bike, is how his stream of consciousness recall began. It continued as he walked down the stairs of the parking structure and into the main building.

It’s a good thing that Collins was with me when we collared Briggs. Otherwise, he might have been fatally injured while resisting arrest. Flatly’s twice the man you are, Briggs, even if he is only about half your size. He’s loyal. He’s brave. He’s more a man than you ever were.

“Allow me, señorita,” he said. Instinct took over and he held the automatic door open for an elderly woman. She smiled her gratitude. He removed his bandana as she passed through pushing her walker. She smiled.

“I know you’re a big liar,” she said through the grin. “And so do you. But, I do appreciate the thought. Why I feel . . . Oh, my. I’d have to feel over fifty years younger to be anybody’s senorita,” she added with a very Anglo pronunciation of the Spanish term.

“You don’t look a day over—”

“Watch out, young man. You could get yourself into trouble with some women if you go around guessing ages.”

. Let’s just say you sound like you’re young at heart.”

“Oh. I like that. You be careful now,” she said as she shuffled away through the lobby.

After a stop at the reception/information kiosk, Martinez headed to the bank of elevators. He needed to get to the fifth floor and had no desire to climb that many stairs.

When he pushed the “up” button for the ninth time he decided that the elevators in Memorial General Hospital were as slow as in every other hospital. The cynic in him was certain that in order for one of the two elevators in every side-by-side pair to go up, the other must be full and on its way down. He smiled a wry smile as he pictured a single pulley located between the tops of both elevator shafts. He was still smiling when the elevator doors finally opened.

A young woman in hospital scrubs barreled out of the open doors and rammed headlong into the giant.

“Hold on, Chica Bonita,” Martinez whooped as his huge hands deflected the young woman’s course. Maybe these elevators aren’t so bad after all.

“Excuse me,” the nurse apologized. “I’m running late. But, that’s no excuse for running into you.”

No es un problema,” Martinez’s teeth flashed his most macho grin. “But, it would be a shame to waste such a fortuitous meeting, uh—” He read her plastic nametag and asked, “Erin Reilly, do you have any plans for this evening?”

That’s a surprise. What do you take me for?

“I don’t think so,” she said with a hint of attitude. But then, the conversations from earlier in the morning flashed through her mind. Relax. Don’t shut this door yet. “I mean, I can’t. I work tonight.”

“You work every night?”

If nothing else, he’s persistent.

“No. I’m off tomorrow, and I suppose I might have some time.”

“I could pick you up at your place around 6:00 tomorrow evening,” Martinez offered. He was on autopilot as he ran through his usual pick-up line sequence. Wait! She didn’t say “no” that time. Slow the bike down! The revelation eroded a layer of his suave manner. With a touch of self-consciousness, he added a hasty afterthought. “If you would like to.”

“I rarely talk to strangers. You know, like my mother told me,” Erin said. “And you have me at a disadvantage in that regard.”

The confusion on the Latino’s face was evident.

“Let me help you,” she said with enough sarcasm to make it unmistakable, but not enough to bite too deep. “You know my name. I don’t know yours. Ergo, you are a stranger to me, but I am not a stranger to you.”

She’s got a quick wit. It might be an interesting evening, even if all we did was exchange verbal jabs.

Me llamo es Enciso Martinez. Detective Enciso Martinez,” he offered.

“Yeah, right.” He’s no more a cop than I’m a ballet dancer. “Let’s see a badge, big man.”

He reached for his shield. As his fingers touched his pocket and found it empty, he realized that he’d not restored that bit of his normalcy after swearing off undercover work.

“I don’t have it on me,” he mumbled.

She decided to leave the door ajar with, “No proof, no date.”

“Can you wait here while I go to my motorcycle? I’ve got some ID there.” He followed up with a caveat of his own, “Of course, if you’re too busy.”

“I can’t wait here. I have a job.” She stole a quick glance at her watch. “Which I will not have much longer if I don’t get going.”

“What floor you on?”

“Floor number five, orthopedics.”

“Okay. I’ll get my ID and bring it to the fifth floor.”

When pigs fly. Why are the ruggedly handsome ones always flakes?

“I’m on duty until 7:30 p.m. If you’re not back by my lunch, that’s two o’clock, don’t bother climbing all those steps to floor five.”

Before he could respond, she sauntered off.

¡Ay, Caramba! That chica might be worth the effort.

He returned to his bike and did a quick visual scan for any eyes in looking in his direction. Satisfied he was unobserved, he retrieved the copy of his ID he kept hidden inside the gas cap. It smelled terrible. He pulled a latex glove from his pocket and stuffed the ID inside it, hoping to trap the gasoline fumes.

It didn’t take long for Erin to finish her business on the first floor. Heading for the elevator, a thought occurred. I’m going to check out Martinez. If he is a cop, which I still doubt, then no harm done. If he’s not a cop, the police need to know there’s a poser out there.

She returned to the main records library to use the phone. Because of that delay, she missed sharing an elevator ride up to the fifth floor with her potential date for the next evening.

Apparently, the other elevator was full when Martinez pushed the UP elevator button after retrieving his ID. It was less than a minute from the time he entered the elevator until he exited on the fifth floor. After his ingrained visual surveillance sweep, he followed the wall signs to room 550. The door stood open. Flatly Broke lay sleeping on the nearest of two beds.

I’m amazed by how small this man is, Martinez thought as he looked down on the ex-boxer. He acts bigger than he is without being overbearing. In fact, this guy’s one of the nicest men I know.

The Latino sat down in a visitor’s chair to wait. A hospital veteran, as both patient and visitor, he knew that visiting hours were the only time the hospital staff left you alone long enough to sleep uninterrupted. Between pills, blood pressure checks, doctors’ rounds, and persistent nurses, nights were more challenging than afternoons to find the elusive, restorative sleep. He usually tried to use his police ID to visit during off hours. This was his only window today and helped explain his lack of ID.

He picked up a book that lay on the table next to the bed. The half-naked form of a voluptuous brunette graced the front of a torrid sex novel, very thinly disguised as a detective story. He flipped through the obviously unread pages wondering why a man of such limited literacy as Flatly would have any book. A second look at the cover as he closed the book answered the question for him. You rascal, you.

Movement attracted his attention. Flatly’s left arm flopped off the bed. As Martinez gently replaced it on the mattress, he noticed the plastic nametag that encircled the man’s wrist. “Waldo Winston Wiggins” was the name typed on the paper lining of the plastic tag. The detective shook his head. No wonder the man didn’t mind being called Flatly Broke.

“That you, Cue Ball?” a raspy voice called in a hoarse whisper.

Sí, amigo.”

“Could I have a little water?”

“No problem.” He poured a cup full from the yellow-brown plastic pitcher sitting on the table. He pushed the button that elevated the head of the bed. Flatly took the cup from him and swallowed most of the contents in two gulps.

“Thanks, man,” he rasped as he handed the cup back. “You’re here almost every day. How come?”

“You’re my friend, mi amigo. A man visits his amigos when they’re hurting.”

“Dancer’s the only other person that visits me,” Flatly’s voice held no emotion. He was simply stating a fact.

“Your other friends just haven’t gotten around here yet.”

“Nah.” He shrugged and winced at the effort. “They don’t care ’bout me like you guys.”

The dialogue was interrupted by the arrival of another visitor. Phil Mamba walked in.

“Good to see you, Gumshoe,” Martinez greeted him. “We were just talking.”

“I won’t be long,” Mamba said ignoring the old movie descriptor of those in his profession. It was a descriptor he tolerated more than appreciated. He removed a tape recorder from the paper bag under his arm. He placed the machine on the edge of the bed.

“Remember, just push this button,” he indicated. “It’ll play for forty-five minutes. Then you can have the nurse turn the cassette over. It’s all on these two tapes,” he removed another steamy novel and a second cassette from the bag. He placed them on the bed next to the recorder.

“Theys another book on the table there, Dancer,” Flatly’s face beamed as he nodded toward the novel that Martinez had examined. Mamba nudged the giant who handed the book to the detective.

Flatly pushed the play button. Mamba’s voice poured from the speaker.

“The wind whipped through the trees and ripped at the fabric of Jocelyn’s skimpy dress.”

“Let’s go,” Mamba whispered.

“But I just got here.”

“Just come along. He’s in his zone now.”

“Okay. Bye, Flatly,” Martinez called as he followed Mamba.

There was no response from the man on the bed. He was completely engrossed in the sounds from the tape recorder.

“He can’t read,” Mamba explained once they’d cleared the doorway. “I read the books he chooses into the tape recorder. He plays them back.”

Amigo,” Martinez enveloped the man beside him with his vast right arm. With more than a hint of sentiment, he added, “You are one gringo that’s familia in my book.”

“Thanks,” he grunted as he worked free of Martinez’s vice-like side hug. “You headed down?”

Before Martinez could answer, he caught sight of Erin Reilly at the nurses’ station. That altered his answer.

“Not right now. I’ve got another stop to make.”

“Okay. See you around.”

While Mamba made his way to the elevator, Martinez headed towards the nurses’ station. But, the closer he got, the slower he walked. What am I doing? Is this even a smart thing to do? What’ll I say?

Before he could think himself into aborting the mission, Nurse Reilly turned around. She spotted the huge Latino and fixed him with an ambiguous stare.

Gotta finish this now, he thought before he called, “Hola, Nurse Reilly.”

“Hello, yourself,” Erin answered. Okay, sister, make this good. You want the nosy-Nellies around here to have something to remember.

“I have my—” Martinez started to explain after he pulled the smelly latex glove from his pocket. Erin cut him off.

“I know you’re a cop.”

“What? Why? You didn’t believe me downstairs.”

“I called the main police number. The operator must have looked you up because she transferred me to the Northeastern Station. Seems you really are a cop, even though you look more like a cross between a biker and a heavy metal band member.”

“Interesting visual. Who vouched for me?”

“Officer Cowan. At least I think that’s her name.”

“Cowan? How’d you get hold of her?”

“She answered the transferred call. Let me see if I can remember how it went.” She folded her right hand into the universal representation of a telephone handset. Her left hand also contorted, so much that Martinez wasn’t sure what she was doing.

What he observed was a one-woman reenactment of Erin’s conversation with Officer Cowan. As the show progressed Martinez hoped the nurse had taken considerable dramatic license during her performance.

“Ring.”

“Northeastern Division, Officer Cowan speaking,” Erin said in a brusque tone.

“My name is Erin Reilly. I’m a nurse at Memorial General. I’d like to know if a man named Enciso Martinez works there.”

“Oh, my, yes,” she breathed. “We call him Snake. He is a very special detective.”

“That’s enough.” Martinez was not amused. “If that’s the way you play, your game’s gonna be solitaire when it comes to me.” He pivoted on his heel and started away from the nurses’ station.

“Officer, wait!” Martinez didn’t break stride. “Please.”

The Latino stopped, but he did not turn back to Erin.

That was incredibly stupid. I let those nurses get so far under my skin that I ended up acting like a bratty teenager.

“Can we go to the family waiting area and talk?”

The big man remained immobile.

“I’m so terribly sorry. Please, I’d like a chance to explain.”

She deserves to sweat. I’m not looking at her until we get into that room.

“Which way?” he asked.

“You could follow me.”

He shrugged.

“You’ll need to see where I go to follow me.”

He turned as slowly as he could. What he saw when he faced her made him rethink his intended action. She’s upset. I’ll cut her some slack. Once.

“I’m on my break,” Erin called back to the nurses’ station as she walked away from Martinez and continued down the hallway. He followed at a distance, until he heard the catty comments from the other nurses.

“Actually, I have that effect on a great number of women,” he announced in a suave, man-of-the-world voice after a pirouette back to face to the nosey nurses. He enjoyed the embarrassed looks on the women’s faces. After a second pirouette, he continued on behind Erin. Silence reigned at the nurses’ station. Martinez grinned from ear to ear.

Once inside the smallish room, Erin stopped. I should thank him for squelching my colleagues. But, first things first. She straightened her shoulders and turned around.

“I am beyond embarrassed by my actions just now. I have no excuse to offer. I offer what is a pitiful and pathetic reason for what I did and said to and about you.”

Hmm. This chica is multidimensional. I wonder which is the real Erin: the smart mouth or the penitent?

“I’ll give you a chance to explain. But, if this begins to sound like a whining, poor little me speech, I never met you,” Martinez said, his voice as free of inflection as he could manage.

“Deal. I don’t date much.”

“Really? I find that hard to believe.”

“Okay. I deserved that. But, I’d appreciate it if you let me finish before you rake me over any more coals.”

He nodded.

“I find it hard to find men who aren’t just looking for, um . . .”

“Pleasure.”

“That’ll work. Because of that, I don’t have much to talk about at the morning ‘let me tell you about my date/husband’ rundown.”

I know what that’s like. I’ve made it a habit to deflect that kind of attention, too. Maybe you and I have more in common that I want to admit. He focused on her monolog.

By the end of her recitation, the monolog had become a dialog, and they’d agreed on a place to meet the next evening for dinner. Both made it clear that it was just dinner and not a first date.

* * *

Larry Lester had worn a path in the carpet in front of the telephone stand in his apartment. He was a fidgety man by nature, but this situation had pushed his fidget into uncharted territory. He knew what he should do, and what he’d promised Mamba he’d do. Now that it was time to do it, the evil visage of Sidney Brewster haunted him.

If Brewster ever finds out— No! This has gone way too far. People are dead. The information I have should save lives.

Lester’s phone rang. Lester waited. It rang again. He waited again. After the third ring, he answered. The voice on the other end directed him to a location and hung up. Lester placed the handset back in the cradle. After taking a deep breath, he picked the handset back up and dialed a number.

“Mamba Investigations. I can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave your name and number or message after the tone . . . BEEP.”

Lester disliked answering machines. He considered them an affront to proper human communication.

“This is one of your employees. You should call me today. It is Thursday, the sixteenth.”

He stood by the phone trying to think of another way to contact Phil Mamba.

The phone rang. Again he waited until the third ring to answer.

“Hello?” the voice on the other end questioned when he did not speak. “Are you there, Lester?”

“Who’s this?”

“This is Mamba.”

Oh, thank you, God! “I have a meeting with my other employer tonight at nine-thirty.”

“Fill me in.”

“Not on the phone. Let’s meet at the deli on the corner by your office.”

“Okay. Be there at four-thirty. Don’t be late.”

“I am a habitually prompt person,” was the offended reply before Lester ended the call.

“You took your own sweet time, Larry,” Mamba muttered as he hung up the phone. “Unless, of course, you just found out about this meeting.”

For nearly two weeks, Mamba had been trying to track Brewster. Today’s contact with Lester was his first lead. He called the station and got Mulligan’s answering machine.

“Mike, this is Phil. I’ll have some information on a meeting with Brewster tonight after five.”

“That’s good news!” Mulligan’s partly out of breath voice broke into the recording. “Sorry, I was just outside in the hallway finishing a conversation. What’s your source?”

“Lester.”

“I have limited faith in that source.”

“He’s slippery, I’ll give you that. But I trust him as a source. We should have Brewster this time.”

“That would be an excellent turn of events. I’ll expect a call when you have the details.”

* * *

Mamba knew a lot about Dominc’s Deli. Much of his knowledge came from personal experience. The joint was a favorite for those wanting above-average, handmade, oversized sandwiches.

Mamba looked at his watch as he neared the door. It was 4:27. Lester wasn’t seated at any of the sidewalk tables. Okay, let’s see if your money’s where your mouth is. He stepped through the entrance to the deli and looked around.

Lester sat at one of the few inside tables. He sipped coffee as he watched the door. Right on time, Dancer. Good. Very good. With a wave, he alerted Mamba to his presence.

The meeting was brief. Mamba ordered two pastrami sandwiches, both of which left the deli in bags after minimal consumption during the conversation. While they sat without eating, Lester related the location of his late-night meeting with Sidney Brewster along with the details of Brewster’s operation he’d collected the previous ten days.

I’ve got to get this to Mulligan ASAP. Pick up the pace.

After the man had exited the side door of the deli, Mamba placed a call to Mulligan from the payphone on the sidewalk outside Dominic’s. The call finished, Mamba headed home. They’d have to get along without him on this one. He owed Hope that much, and more.

Mulligan took Mamba’s information and jotted down the outline of a plan for to bust Brewster’s meeting with Lester.

“Jefferies,” Mulligan spoke to his secretary. “I know it’s after your quitting time, but I need you to run this down to the copy center before you leave. I want Narcotics and Vice to have copies of this. And hurry, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

After Jefferies departed for the copy center with the outline, the Lieutenant placed a call. I hate doing this he thought as he waited for the phone to be answered. I’m always making excuses for not being home.

“Hello, Mulligan residence.”

“Hi, Kate. It’s me.”

“Hi, sweetie.” I’m going to make you say it. I almost told you I knew, but tonight I want you to say it.

“I hate to tell you this.”

Kate sat in stony silence. Wait for it.

“Ooo-kayyy.” That’s not good. “I don’t know when I’ll be home tonight. I’m involved in a big bust of the guy who’s behind at least two deaths and two attempted murders, including Hope Mamba’s.”

In spite of her best intention, Kate Mulligan gasped.

“I understand. I don’t like it when you go or when you’re gone, but I do understand,” she said, all her plans for amplifying her husband’s guilt-trip abandoned.

“I love you,” he said.

“You’d better, buster. And you’d just as better come back home all in one piece.” Tears welled up in her eyes. Oh, you’d better.

“That’s a 10-4,” Mulligan responded huskily using police-speak for “acknowledged” before he hung up.

Kate stared into space for a minute before she replaced the phone in its cradle. After the phone rested in place, she stared at the device for a long time. Why do I have such a strange feeling every time I think about this case?

* * *

Now this is different was Lester’s first thought as he pulled his borrowed car into the driveway. The house was not what he expected. It appeared to have been designed for anonymity rather than any chance of an award of distinction or even curb appeal.

When he reached the front porch, he turned and looked around. Every house he saw was just like the house he was approaching. This whole neighborhood reminds me of that song, ‘Little Boxes.’ And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same. It was no wonder why Brewster liked the place. Without an address, it could take a full day to find a specific house.

Lester knocked as instructed. After a quick peek at him through the security hatch, he was allowed safe entry. He raised his hands for the frisk. The man who performed the task was efficient and quick. He was passed into Brewster’s temporary residence with dispatch.

The inside of the house bustled with activity. It reminded Lester of the most recent meeting with Brewster, but amped up.

“This is way too short notice,” Brewster was complaining loudly to the man known to Lester only as Rick. “How does he think we can clear out this fast? We’re not a moving company.”

“Boss?” One of Brewster’s minions called as he displayed a handful of small packets.

“Toss those into the fireplace.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Brewster. He said that it was the first chance he had to call without fear of being overheard,” was Rick’s attempt to console his boss.

“For what he earns, there is no excuse for such a compact timeline!”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you want?” Brewster snapped when he spotted Lester.

“You called and set up this meeting, Mr. Brewster.”

The front door burst open.

“Manzanita Police! Freeze!” Simultaneous with the announcement, several officers burst into the room, weapons in hand. The time was 9:24 p.m.

By ten o’clock the raid had netted six suspects, including Sidney Brewster and Larry Lester. They had also documented the relative dearth of evidence encountered in the house.

Several of the officers remarked on the strange odor that permeated the room. It didn’t take much investigating to track the odor to the fireplace. According to the final notation in Mulligan’s notebook, they doused the flaming marijuana with water and bagged the ashes.

* * *

On the morning after the raid on Brewster’s house, neither Hope nor Phil Mamba was in a good mood. Much to Phil’s displeasure, Mulligan had called Mamba after arriving at home the night before. After listening to the PI vent for being interrupted on one of his few nights off, Mulligan had secured a time for this morning’s meeting. Hope was upset because the call had awakened Jimmy. That resulted in an entire night of fitful napping and only two hours of sleep at best. She’d told Phil she’d reserve her final judgment on her mood until tonight.

“Bye, Hope. I love you,” Phil called softly as he left their bedroom. He’d taken great care not to wake Jimmy, who was asleep next to Hope after spending most of the night burrowing between him and her.

“I hate your friends,” was the dour response from Hope as she eased over on her side.

Phil smiled. Sometimes I’m not so fond of them myself, Sweetheart.

The drive to the meeting place Mulligan selected, while uneventful, was lengthy. The diner in which the two men now sat was far off the beaten path. It nestled in the foothills due east of Manzanita on the road to the local ski resorts. It was a popular weekend breakfast retreat. The oversized omelets and crispy bacon were known all around the county, drawing lines of customers from as far as Santa Barbara and Lompoc on weekends and holidays.

Weekdays were a different story. On this morning, Mamba and Mulligan comprised exactly half the clientele.

“I don’t know how, Phil,” Mulligan complained to his friend as they ate their massive breakfast choices. Mulligan hadn’t slept much since he’d called Mamba. Sometimes you just had to decompress before you could fully relax. Mulligan was still decompressing. “Brewster was tipped. I’d swear it.”

“It couldn’t have been Stallings this time,” Mamba said.

“Probably not.”

“Cut the guy some slack, Mike. He hasn’t been anywhere near the station in a week.”

“Just got these this morning,” Mulligan said. He shoved two sheets of paper across the desk to his friend.

“What are these?”

“A page from Stallings’ personnel file.”

“You gave me two pages.”

“I know. I am the only person to request copies of his file since they hired him. Like all personnel files, they’re kept under lock and key.”

Mamba glanced at the documents. What am I supposed see? “These look like two identical copies.”

“Take a close look at the highlighted line of text on the second page. That page is supposed to be a copy of the other page. If you compare the highlighted line to the same line in the other copy, the type style doesn’t quite match. The page without the highlighting has been in and out of Personnel for various reasons.”

Mamba scrutinized the sentence on each of the two pages. I can’t see anything that distinguishes one line of type from the others. He said as much to Mulligan.

“I don’t see any difference in the type style.”

“Neither could I. But the lab techs are positive this was altered. According to them, there are two sets of depressions from typewriter keys on the back of the original page. That’s the one without the highlights.”

Mamba turned the offending page over. He pulled his fingertip over the back of the page. Then, he tilted the paper hoping to see something when the light hit the page from a steep angle. There might be more or deeper depressions from the letters in the highlighted line.

He read the first page again and then re-read the second page. Wait! The whole sentence is worded differently. The tone in the highlighted page isn’t accusatory.

“There’s more significant difference than type style in the documents,” Mamba reported. When Mulligan did not respond, the PI asked a question.

“Internal Affairs thinks Stallings did this?”

“Who else? IAD called his last Lieutenant. The text in the part of the file that’s referred to in this sentence was altered, too. If you go to the page referenced in the highlighted sentence, you find that the current wording eliminates the only smudge on his record.”

“What was it? And, why do they think he changed it?”

“What was what?” Mulligan asked. It was then that Mamba realized his friend had been on autopilot, repeating information he’d heard like a puppet.

“I was asking what was changed in the file.” He pushed a little.

“Oh, sorry. It was a citizen’s complaint.”

Mamba waited. You know that I know you know more than that.

“Part of a witness’s statement was leaked and got reported in the local paper. Internal Affairs says it supports a pattern of behavior.”

“Sounds like the IAD mantra on this one is, ’it’s only one step from a cheat to a leak,” Mamba murmured.

“I missed that,” Mulligan said.

“Just thinking out loud. Can I take these to work on?”

“You know that answer, Phil.”

“I’m serious. I want to work on this. I’ve got a friend in the hospital because of a departmental leak, and the docs say that Flatly might lose his arm.”

As if the current carnage wasn’t enough to cause nightmares, a vision of the wreckage of his office after the terrorist bombing flashed through his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that would clear the memory. When that tactic failed, he continued, “And if he doesn’t, he’ll be disabled for life. Mike, I got him into this.”

“I still have to play by the book on this one,” Mulligan insisted. “IAD says they’re on top of the case.”

What’re you hiding?

“I can’t guarantee that I’ll stay off this one,” Mamba warned as he slid out of the booth. “This meal’s on you.”

Outside the diner, he pulled a small notebook from his pocket. After glancing over his shoulder to make sure Mulligan wasn’t watching him, he used a stubby pencil to write down the name and address of one of the references he’d memorized from the page in Stallings’ file. He had a long-distance phone call to make.

* * *

The arraignment for all those rounded up in the bust at Sidney Brewster’s last residence was held on Monday after the arrests were made. Because of the nature of crimes and the reputation of the defendants, the courtroom was secured and off-limits to all but those directly involved.

It was evident that Brewster’s legal team had been hard at work. The Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case was ill prepared for the onslaught of motions and writs presented at the arraignment hearing.

Brewster’s brag about the abilities of his legal team was not an overstatement. After the presentation of arguments by both sides, in spite of the evidence collected at the scene and Brewster’s sordid history, he was assigned a bail amount that he had no problem covering.

Also assigned by the presiding judge was a preliminary date for his trial to begin. He was back on the street just over 72 hours after his arrest. He had no intention of appearing in any court on any date.

Larry Lester found out that, at least for him, there was some honor among thieves. After severe stomach pains brought on by worry over his fate, Lester received what amounted to a judicial antacid tablet during his arraignment.

In keeping with Brewer’s reputation for protecting those who were truly peripheral to his business, Lester was released. No bail was set. No trial date was scheduled. Lester exited the jail as no longer a person of interest.

* * *

Brewster’s trial date was set. Security details on Mamba and Mulligan had been pulled. The television was on. Jimmy was in bed. Only one lamp glowed in the living room. It was the most peaceful it had been for Hope and Phil Mamba in quite some time.

In spite of all that, Phil was restless. And that worried his wife. When Judge Harry slammed his gavel down for the last time, and Bull escorted the defendant out of Night Court, Hope clicked off the TV set.

“Hey, I was watching that,” Phil said.

“No. You were staring blankly into space,” Hope corrected. “We’re going to bed.”

“Not tonight. I have a headache,” he said.

An eye roll sent him on his way. At least I have his attention now.

“What’s wrong?” She asked as they lay beside each other in bed. He remained silent. She mulled a bit. I’ll lead with a red herring. That usually gets him to his point quickly. She tossed out her fictitious fish, “Aren’t you glad I’m back?”

“More than you know,” he answered with a kiss. “I’ve got a problem I can’t seem to resolve.”

“Do I know the case?”

“It’s part of your, I mean our, case,” he explained. “It has to do with Sergeant Stallings.”

Bingo! Only two questions to get to the problem.

“I thought you said he was a good cop.”

“He is. At least, I think he is. It’s just that there are some irregularities in his personnel file, and nearly all the leaks from the department involved information that he had access to.”

“Nearly all?”

“Actually, all but the last leak. But that’s not what’s bothering me.”

“That means you have some doubts about his personnel file?”

“Internal Affairs seems to think there are enough irregularities to lead to possible prosecution.”

“Shouldn’t they know?”

Those nitpickers? If they only knew what they thought they knew was Phil’s mental analysis. But, his answer to Hope was much less vitriolic.

“I suppose. But, it’s too pat. It feels like a frame.”

“Or else he is guilty,” she said in the role of devil’s advocate.

Stallings was exonerated. The witness admitted leaking the story to the press for her 15 min of fame.

I suppose that’s possible.”

“What do you want to do?” She asked, although she already knew his answer.

“Who said I wanted to do anything?”

“You did when you said it was possible that Stallings was guilty.”

“Your clairvoyance is maturing,” he said before kissed her again.

“I think this is more Sherlock Holmes than Nostradamus this time,” she admitted. “You are frighteningly predictable in situations like this.”

“Ouch!” He grimaced and pulled away from her. “I want to follow up on his references. I want to get to know Franklin Stallings. The only name I could get from the pages of the file I saw in Mulligan’s office was a guy back in Illinois. I called him. Rather I tried to call him. He’s dead.”

“How much did they cost?” She asked.

“How much did what cost?” He asked in return.

“The round-trip tickets to Chicago that you bought. That’s the major airport in Illinois, right?”

“I love you,” he told her, pulled her back to him, and kissed her. “We can talk more later.”

He reached over and snapped off the lamp on the nightstand.

“I still want to know how much you paid for the tickets,” Hope deadpanned as she turned on her side away from him.

* * *

In spite of his distaste for the place, Mulligan made the trip downtown to the offices of the Internal Affairs Division. He’d called ahead because he didn’t want to wait. He had other meetings later in the morning.

“What’ve you guys got on the Stallings file?” Mulligan asked Senior Officer Hargrove.

“Stallings?” Hargrove looked confused. “I don’t recall that name.”

“We sent the file down here. It must have been at least two weeks ago.”

“I still don’t recall that name.” He called across the room, “Desantos! Do you have anything on a Stallings?”

“Not that I know of, but I’ll check.” Desantos rummaged through the active case files. “Nothing here,” she reported.

“Check the pending cases.”

“Sure thing.” More rummaging preceded her next response, “Here it is.” She held up the requested document.

“What does it mean to be in the pending file?” Mulligan asked.

“It means, Lieutenant, that I have neither the resources nor the manpower to handle all the cases sent to us. Therefore, the investigation is pending.”

“Maybe if you were more— Oh, never mind.” Mulligan started, stopped, then turned and stalked away. He knew it was no use getting into an argument with a self-righteous and condescending IAD officer.

He spent most of his drive back to the Northeastern station mentally, and occasionally verbally, regaling the IAD’s methods and attitude. He felt better when he entered the station. There was something about a good vent.

Mulligan stopped in the middle of the hallway when something dawned on him. He knew for a fact that IAD had nothing on the man yet; they’d just admitted it. It looked like someone inside the department was trying to set Stallings up.

IAD hasn’t started working on Stallings’ case. Someone else sent me the evidence of the discrepancy in the personnel file. I just assumed—

“You’re headed the wrong way, Mike,” was the warning from Lieutenant Cummings of Robbery Division as he passed by the stationary officer in the hallway leading to his office.

Mulligan’s confused look was his only reply. “Captain’s Council,” Cummings reminded.

“Oh, no,” Mike groaned. “Is it Wednesday already?”

“This time every week,” Cummings confirmed.

“Let’s get this over ASAP.” I hate these. They take forever and accomplish very little.

“ASAP? You’re a dreamer. I hear that the budget is the first agenda item.”

Mulligan closed his eyes and shook his head in misery. There was nothing worse than the Captain’s Council on the budget! I hope we don’t join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ when we’re finished beating each other up over funding.

“I’ve got to pick up my notes,” Mulligan said. He made a beeline to his office. Stallings was forgotten as he switched gears and mentally reviewed his planned defense of his section’s budget request.

* * *

In the days following his arraignment, Sid Brewster refused to set up an entire operation in a new location. Instead, he was reviewing what was selling and what was lagging. That would allow him to do two things. First, he would stock only what was selling in his current residence. Second, he would begin to pressure his employees to push the low-sales products, particularly if they had high-profit margins.

As he rummaged through some paperwork, he came across the list of dealers and suppliers he’d received from his police contact. Rumor had it that the Sergeant that headed up Narcotics was AWOL. When he mentally combined those developments, it brought him to a decision.

“Get me our MPD contact on the phone.”

“Of course, sir,” Rick Elkhart responded immediately. Only minutes later, he carried a phone to his boss.

“The contact is on the line.”

“Humph,” Brewster mumbled as he accepted the phone. But, he gave a thumb’s up to Elkhart for his assistance.

“I owe you a sincere thank you,” Brewster said.

“Oh?”

My God! I don’t know why I pay this person.

“Glad you’re so appreciative of my gratitude.”

Silence.

Brewster shook his head.

“I want you to know that I appreciate the list of names you got for me. And, I want to thank you for getting Sergeant Stallings out of the way. That showed significant initiative. I like initiative.”

I had nothing to do with Stalling’s disappearance. In fact, I was shocked when it happened. But, if he’s giving credit, I’ll take it. Lord knows I’ve gotten blamed enough. I wonder who else on the force is trying to influence cases?

“I’m glad to be of service. I’m sorry you had to spend the weekend in a cell after your arrest. I got you the information on the raid as soon as I received it.”

“I’m sure the late notice won’t happen again.”

Ah, a twist of the knife in the wound. This finally sounds like Brewster. Pretend to ignore the innuendo.

“I appreciate your confidence in me,” Sergeant Edwards said. “And, I’ll do everything I can to see you have more advance notice in future warnings. I don’t like a short timeline any more than you do.”

You left out your real motivation—my cash to you under the table was Brewster’s thought before he said, “That’s all. I’m sure you’re at least as busy as I am.”

* * *

It was late. Buck Rogers was nursing a brandy as he listened to one of his favorite piano concertos on his stereo. It was a relaxing end to a day where it felt like all he’d accomplished was fire suppression of interdepartmental issues.

With the flair of a gourmand, he swirled the dregs of the brandy in its crystal snifter. As he drained the glass with much less flair, his phone rang. He looked at his watch.

It was almost eleven.

“This is Rogers,” he said as he brought the handset to his ear.

“You are nothing if not predictable. You should try alternating your telephone answering protocol. Or, oh, this is a better idea. You might even want an office protocol and a different home protocol.”

“What do you want?” Rogers recognized the voice of his administrative assistant. “It’s been a while, Pet. Do you miss our nights together?”

“Like a dog misses fleas. But, I digress. Mr. A called again today.”

“And I’m finding that out only now because?”

“Because I am your conduit with him. I like that, and I will use this position to maximize what limited influence I have on anything that’s going on.”

“What’s he want now?”

“Nothing. He had a comment and a question. Which would you like first? I’d pick the comment.”

“Okay. I’ll take the comment for five hundred, Alex.”

“Cute. I never figured you for a Jeopardy kind of person. Maybe The Price Is Right, but not a game that requires organized thinking.”

“Just give me the information.” Rogers had tired of their game much as he had tired of his libido-driven companionship with her.

“The comment— Wait. Let me read it. I wrote it down.” Rogers heard the rustling sound of paper being unfolded and smoothed.

“Ah. Here it is. Quote: I applaud you for setting up the Narcotics Sergeant and removing him from the cases involving Garmel. And now, here’s the question: How much longer do I have to wait for Garmel’s errand boy to be removed as well?”

Why am I getting all the credit for Stallings when I haven’t had contact with him in at least two weeks?

“Anything else?”

“Nope,” she answered.

“I guess it’s good night then.”

“I’d suggest that just ‘night’ is more appropriate. Sounds like your trainer wants his dog to do its trick now.”

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