It was going to be another one of those nights. Every time there was a full moon you could expect something out of the ordinary was going to take place, but this was just plain weird, I thought to myself, as I stepped into the abandoned warehouse located near the east pier.
Crazies invading the precinct, cult worshipers enacting bizarre ritual sacrifices of their neighbors’ cats, psycho killers starting their manifest destinies and so on, were all to be expected at this time of the lunar cycle, but this was different than the usual fare. In fact, it was downright eerie, I thought, as I stepped through the doorway into the space beyond. It was as if I had never left the Fifth Precinct.
Everything had been copied, down to the smallest detail. They even had the captain’s coffee mug sitting on the corner of his desk. As I walked by, I glanced into it. It actually had coffee in it.
The déjà vu feeling just wouldn’t leave me. Who would go to such lengths, not to mention expense, to build such a life size replica of the Fifth Precinct? I saw detective Rafferty ahead of me. His head lifted and he smiled as he saw me.
“I know, creepy, isn’t it Lisa?”
I nodded. “Have you found any reason why someone would go to such great lengths as this?”
“No, and even less as to finding out what any of this has to do with our victim’s murder. There’s evidence that the framework for the walls was done by a staging company located not far from here. Some of their trucks showed up about an hour ago. The drivers’ said they’d received word to come break everything down and pack it away. They said they were tasked to build this place over two weeks ago. The outfit that hired them did so by long distance. They never met a representative of the company. Said everything was paid for up front and that a completion bonus was wired into their accounts yesterday morning with a request to dismantle and destroy what they had been asked to build.”
“Did they give us a name?” I asked.
“East Coast Mid-Atlantic Erectors, Inc.” Detective Salieazar said, stepping up beside his partner Rafferty. “I checked into them. Turns out they’ve been out of business for over three years and there’s been no recent activity by a company of that name either. Whoever did this knew not only how to cover their tracks, but to eliminate them entirely!”
“Didn’t the staging company express any concern when they saw the nature of what they were asked to build?” I asked.
Sal shrugged. “They said they were told it was a film set for a cop show and they were paid enough not to be too interested, if you know what I mean.”
“Dig a little deeper and see if you can find anything.” I said. Glancing back to Rafferty I asked, “Any witnesses?”
Both detectives glanced at each other with a look that said they knew I wouldn’t like what I heard. Sal spoke, “Just one so far, a homeless man. He shacks up sometimes in the warehouse across the street. He said he saw five unmarked black vans pull up outside yesterday morning. From his description about forty people piled out of the vans dressed mostly as cops. Later, he said, a black sedan pulled up and a man got out. He watched the man go to the trunk and pull a body out, sling it over his shoulder and disappear into the warehouse with it.”
“Was he able to give you descriptions of anyone?” I asked.
Rafferty grimaced slightly. “Not really. He said they looked like cops. I’ve got him with a sketch artist right now, should he be able to remember anything, but there’s something you should know about him. We found a lot of drug paraphernalia on him and he’s still slightly high.”
Darkly, I realized this was what they hadn’t wanted to tell me. A high profile case and the only eyewitness that we had was a homeless man that was most likely high on drugs at the time. That wouldn’t go over well with the DA.
I sighed and then noticed them both share that look again. “What else?” I asked expectantly.
Sal hesitated and then blurted out, “Our eyewitness said he was too afraid to leave, so he stayed. He said that at about 2:00 in the afternoon, two more vans pulled up. A bunch of women got out. He said they were strippers.”
“Strippers? What would they need with that many strippers in a replica of the precinct?”
Sal turned to Rafferty, “You didn’t show her everything yet, did you?”
“Show me what?” I asked impatiently.
Rafferty turned around and gestured for me to follow. He gestured to the left and right as we walked. “They pretty much copied home base down to a T. The space comes complete with holding cell and interrogation rooms. There is some evidence of one cell having been used and we’re having a full run up done on it.”
He stopped in front of the elevator doors, “This part here, well, it’s different than the office.”
“That would be putting it mildly.” Sal added, as Rafferty punched the button for the elevator.
Instead of the small, cramped space of the elevator bay that one would expect, there was a larger darkened space beyond the doors. I stepped into the space.
Rafferty hit a switch on the wall and the space beyond the elevator doors lit up, as garish strobe lights re-enacted the atmosphere of a stripper joint, complete with blaring techno music. This night was only getting stranger.
I looked around, noticing something familiar about the setting. Had I been somewhere like this before?
Sal interrupted my thoughts. “Yeah, you’ve been here before, or there I should say. It was that stripper joint where that under-aged girl got knocked off last year. I believe they called the joint, The Gentlemen’s Groan. It appears to be an exact replica of it.”
I gave him a piercing look and he fumbled adding, “From what I remember, that is, of the investigation.”
Yeah, right, I thought to myself, as I turned away to inspect the room. Sal’s weaknesses were well known throughout the office.
What could all this mean, I thought to myself? I had a dead Iraqi civilian and a complete model of my very own precinct, along with a nightclub lounge.
Yesterday, at 4:30pm, an Iraqi born citizen had stumbled into the office and made a wild report about being held hostage in an abandoned warehouse, in an elaborately set up hoax, as he had put it. It had seemed a little too much to be believed, but a report was filed anyway to be checked by a patrol cop later.
Earlier tonight, at a little past ten, Ahmed Sazzar was found dead in his hotel suite. He had been cruelly tortured for what had appeared to be hours, and then his neck had been broken. His murder had prompted us to look into the report filed earlier in the day, and this was where it had led.
Instead of providing answers, all it had done was raise more questions.
I had looked into Ahmed’s past, but had come up with little to go on. He had emigrated from Iraq a few years back, and he had no ties with any terrorist activity that anyone was aware of, or was telling me anyway. Ahmed didn’t strike me as a bomb maker though. By all appearances, he had come to America for the long haul. He had married an American woman last year and had no history of wrongdoing or violence. He had been an antiquities dealer in Iraq, and had also dabbled in the archeological field as an ethno linguist.
Upon moving to the United States five years previously, he had dropped the antiquities business in favor of a job at one of the cities’ prominent museums where he had helped manage the Middle Eastern collection.
It had been a good job and his finances had all been in order and accounted for, with no debts to speak of. He seemed to be both the model citizen and husband.
The people at the museum had nothing but good to say about him. In their words, he was one of the best hires they had ever made.
Why then had he been so brutally tortured and then killed?
He likely would have died just from the injuries sustained during the torture. Snapping his neck almost seemed symbolic somehow.
Something else that bothered me about the whole torture scene was that it appeared that he had been gagged the entire time. The torture had been sadistically carried out, in his hotel suite and yet no one had heard his screams of pain, which confirmed that he had been gagged the entire time. It seemed more like a ritualistic killing than it did a quest to find out information.
His wife had discovered what was left of his body and I could still remember the quiet horror, I had seen reflected in her almost vacant gaze. Her life would never be the same after witnessing the body of her husband torn apart in the perceived sanctity of their room.
I had seen many grisly sights like that one before, but not many that had been worse. I pushed the dark images away and came back to the present.
My working hypothesis had been that the most likely cause for such a brutal murder, given the absence of seemingly anything in the present, was that the murder stemmed from something that had occurred in his antiquities dealing past. Perhaps he had cheated someone or stolen something. Grave robbers and the underworld of the illegal antiquities market weren’t good people to tick off.
They were more than capable of doing something like that to someone to make a point, but this elaborate sting operation didn’t seem to fit their M.O.
This place had cost a small fortune to build and accessorize, only to be torn down two weeks later. Who had these kinds of resources and would go to such great lengths to gain information without torture? It seemed more government related than thieves’ world.
Was this something to do with terrorist activity?
I doubted it. Because if it was, some higher up brass would already be crawling all over my investigation, essentially taking control of it. If the people who had built this place had tortured Ahmed, why had they allowed him to awake from a drug induced slumber and walk out of here, only to torture him later?
They’d had all the opportunity in the world to torture him as they pleased in this deserted warehouse, and yet they hadn’t. They’d spent thousands of dollars to get information without the use of torture.
That didn’t even sound like the government, come to think of it. It was clear that there was a third party involved, and my head was beginning to ache with the possibilities.
The blaring music and lights were only making my emerging headache worse. I needed sleep, but sleep had been hard to come by recently. Old nightmares had been haunting me again.
The brutality of this case wasn’t likely to positively aid my sleeping efforts either. I glanced around once more. So many people had worked to make this elaborate operation come about.
I swung around and addressed Rafferty, “How did you say the homeless man described the two groups of people? The first group of people looked like cops and the second group were strippers?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding his head looking puzzled.
“He didn’t say they looked like strippers, but instead that they were strippers in actuality?” I asked by way of definition.
“Yeah, that’s the way he said it. He seemed to think that they actually were strippers,” Rafferty said.
I had something to go on now.
“Sal, I want you to continue digging deeper into this fictitious company and see if you can find out where the wire transfer originated. Rafferty, you and I are visiting the nightclub district, in particular The Gentlemen’s Groan.”
“Hey, why do I get stuck with the paperwork and you guys get to have all the fun?” Sal whined.
My eyebrows quirked up as I smiled imperially, “I’m not sure I know what you mean, Sal? I don’t bend that way and Rafferty is a family man.”
Sal’s face reddened slightly, but he muttered, “You know what I meant.”
“And I know that I need an objective partner and not just an interested onlooker.” I reproved firmly, and he shuffled off quickly away from us.
My eyes met Rafferty’s, only to see a slight reproof in them, “That was a little hard, don’t ya’ think?”
“Not at all. He gets on my nerves sometimes,” I responded heatedly.
“Pretty much everything’s been getting on your nerves lately. Want to tell me what’s going on?”
I pushed past him instead, “Come on. You’re starting to make me regret not taking Sal instead of you.”
“Ouch!” he said good naturedly, as I brushed past him.
I winced inwardly. That had been mean of me to say and it hadn’t been right how I had cut Sal, even if he had deserved it. Neither man deserved my bad mood.
Rafferty and I were almost to my car when Sal came running up, waving a paper. “You’ve got to see this!” He thrust the paper into my hands and my eyes widened.
“Who?” I asked, looking up shocked.
“The homeless guy! Can you believe it?” Sal exclaimed.
I couldn’t actually. I walked back into the phony precinct to where the homeless man sat at a desk with the sketch artist’s supplies laid out before him.
I flipped the paper around and asked, still not quite believing it, “You drew this?”
He ducked his head down a little in awkwardness and nodded before saying, “I used to be something of an artist in another life.”
I flipped the paper back over and stared at it for a moment before looking back up at the homeless artist and addressing him, “I don’t know how life has let you down to be where you are now, but I don’t think the world of art is done with you, should you wish to try it again. Thank you for this!”
His cheeks flushed a little red above his scraggly beard and he husked out a low, “Thank you”.
I looked down at the picture he had drawn. The silhouette of a sleek black sedan formed the background that outlined the tall striding figure of a man in the foreground. He was a white male, deep tan and well over 6’ in height. He was dressed in a suit and was in the process of an easy stride forward that bespoke of a man confidently within his element. His eyes were shielded by a pair of dark aviator glasses of a simple classic design. His shoulders were broad and in general, if the picture was accurate, he was a big man. As impressive as his powerful, athletic build was, what was most captivating about the man were the intangibles that seemed to leap off the page at me.
I got several quick impressions. First was that this was a dangerous man. He had the poise that bespoke experience and a perceived intelligence that said he was quick on his feet, able to easily adapt to a new situation.
He was, in a word, perhaps the most intimidating man I had ever seen, other than my father. Where had he gotten such a poised bearing?
CIA or something like it or was he closer to a soldier of fortune type? It was hard to say.
He appeared to be a little of all of them and something else more ancient. If I had to say a word that encapsulated him as well as the picture seemed to, it was: warrior.
I looked up at the homeless artist, “Earlier, when my fellow detectives questioned you they said that you didn’t remember most of the people. Why do you have such a vivid memory of this man?”
He shrugged. “The others were like pigeons, seen one you’ve seen them all. But him, he had a real presence. You don’t see many people like that, not anymore.”
He looked up at me speculatively and then added, “You have a strong presence too. Mind if I do a sketch?” he asked, as he reached for the sketch pad in front of him.
I felt my face flush slightly at his offer and I quickly said, “No, no, I have to be going. Perhaps some other time, but I do appreciate the offer. Now, we are going to keep you in custody for a little while. It’s for your own protection. This case has gotten a lot bigger and I’m not quite sure what or who is involved yet and as you are our only witness you could be in a lot of danger.”
He held up a hand. “Can I get some food and keep this sketch pad?”
I turned to Sal, “On it boss,” he said.
He turned to go, but I reached out and grasped him by the forearm quickly, “I’m sorry for what I said earlier.”
He shrugged and a smile flashed out at me, “I’ve got thick skin, don’t worry about it. I’ll get that research for ya and see if any of the data bases comes up with anything on this guy in the sketch.”
“Thanks,” I said, as I continued on to the car with Rafferty.