The ring of the phone jarred me from a sound sleep and I reached for it, not wanting to see the time. It was still dark out, I'd started my vacation, and the only news that could come at this hour was not good.
"Yes," I said, eyeing the clock, its orange face reminding me of a full moon. Two-ten.
"Rocky Markowski. We need you down here."
So much for my week of leisure. "What's up?"
"Stabbing. Blue versus red this time. Got about fifteen witnesses that need to be interviewed. It was you or Zim. I sorta begged the LT."
"My lucky day." Not that I blamed him. Zim was not a well-liked member of the Homicide detail. "Give me about forty minutes. Kevin's staying with me for a few days," I said, referring to my late brother's thirteen-year-old son. "I need to get my landlord up here to watch him."
"Sure. One other thing..."
His tone told me I wasn't going to like what followed. "Yeah?"
"It was Nita Gonzalez."
I closed my eyes. Nita's death made the fifth gang killing in as many days. Another victim of a senseless war.
"Yeah," he said, reading into my silence. "See ya in a few."
My landlord, Jack, lived downstairs with his wife. I called him, dressed in jeans and a sweater, dragged a brush through my shoulder-length brown hair, and then hurried to wake Kevin, who was asleep on the couch. "You need to go to Jack's," I told him, tousling his dark curls. He was past the kissing age, at least in his opinion. "I have to go into work."
"Okay," he said, then rolled over. We'd done this routine before. Numerous times. I'd helped my aunt raise Kevin ever since my brother, Sean, had overdosed twelve years ago. Sean's was a death I had yet to reconcile, perhaps because he had always been a clean-cut, all-American kid. The poster child for wholesome. And he was a Narcotics officer at SFPD at the time. His death by heroin had devastated my father, so much so that when social services had discovered Kevin's existence—we knew nothing about him—my father had refused to acknowledge the child.
My aunt, on the other hand, took one look at Kevin, said in that no-nonsense way of hers, "He's a Gillespie, all right," and immediately set about raising him as one. His drug-addicted mother fled to avoid prosecution for my brother's overdose, and I enrolled in the police academy, trying to make up for my father's loss—right the wrongs that had taken my brother's life. My goal was to save the world—for Kevin.
How naïve I was back then, I thought, tucking my weapon into my waistband and zipping up my coat.
I passed Jack on the steps. The grandfather Kevin never had, he was dressed in striped pajamas and a green robe. "Take your time, Kate," he said. "I'll get him to school if you're not back."
"Thanks." My car was parked in the driveway behind Jack's. I figured I'd stop for a caffeine fix somewhere between my Berkeley Hills apartment and the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. The Bay Bridge was almost deserted heading into the city, and I found that I couldn't quit thinking about Nita. In addition to my duties as a Homicide inspector, I helped on occasion with the police Explorer post, a division of the Boy Scouts that allowed kids to learn about police work. The Gang Task Force brought Nita to me, hoping to get her off the streets and involved in something worthwhile. She'd told me she wanted to be a cop. And now she was dead.
The Homicide detail was on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice—we referred to it simply as the Hall, and when I got there, Rocky was waiting for me at his desk. Appearances were deceiving, and had he not been wearing a shoulder holster along with a badge clipped to the belt of his tan Dockers, I doubt anyone would guess his occupation as a cop. At five-five, he stood as tall as my forehead. His brown hair was cut in a flattop, a style that seemed at odds with his thick mustache. Round face and round gut gave testament to his love of food.
"Where'd it happen?" I asked.
"In an alley about a block away from the shooting last night. A bunch of kids were walking home from a party. Nita Gonzalez was with them. Wrong place, wrong time sort of thing is what it looks like to me," he said, grabbing his keys and overcoat. "I'll drive."
When we arrived, Rocky showed his star to a uniformed officer on the perimeter. He moved a barricade and let us into the alley lit with flashing red, blue, and amber lights from two patrol cars. On one side of the alley was a small white building that read "City Sausage and Meat Company," and on the other side, behind a neat whitewashed fence, was a house I'd been to numerous times on patrol. I was well familiar with the octogenarian owner, Harriet Maze, as was every officer in the department. Better known as Crazy Mazy, she reported a crime about every other week and was about as credible as a tabloid magazine. There was a bit of truth in everything she said, but it was lost in the mire of her imagination. "She a witness?" I asked, dreading his answer.
"The RP," Rocky said.
Reporting party. Great. "You talk to her yet?"
"Figured we'd save her for last."
"For last or for me?"
"Did I forget to mention that Andrews wants you to be the lead investigator on this?"
"Guess that tiny detail slipped your memory."
"It happened over there," Rocky said, pointing about dead center of Mazy's property. Yellow crime scene tape was strung across the alley from her fence to the bumper of a refrigerated truck belonging to the sausage company. Rocky lifted the tape and I stepped under. A crime scene investigator snapped photos of a dark stain on the asphalt.
I'd seen enough. More than enough for a lifetime. "Where are the witnesses?"
"All over. Patrol got most of the names. There's a few waiting at the Hall, and some are at home. Their parents came and got 'em."
"No one in custody. Crazy Mazy copied a plate number from a blue Monte Carlo, but they haven't found it yet."
I looked over at her house. There was a light burning in the back, and I figured we might as well get that interview over with. "Let's go talk to her," I said.
She lived in a white Victorian with yellow trim, a fortune of property and no apparent heirs. We walked around to the front and as we ascended the porch steps, the door opened a crack, Mrs. Maze undoubtedly peeking out at us. I pulled out my gold star. "I'm Inspector Gillespie," I said. "And this is my partner, Inspector Markowski."
The door opened farther, revealing a petite woman, her face a network of interlocking wrinkles and her long white hair swept into a spinster bun. Dressed in a pink housecoat, she held a flashlight in one hand, its weak beam the only light.
"Shhh," she said, putting her finger over her lips. "They're back there."
"Who?" I asked.
"The spies. Hurry. Before they leave."
She motioned us inside, shut the door behind us, then pointed the beam down the hallway, the dim light bouncing off hundreds of tiny glittering eyes. Harriet Maze had a teddy bear collection that filled up every crevice, shelf and seat cushion in her house, leaving very little space to walk. In the dark, the eyes seemed to follow us, an eerie sensation. No wonder the woman thought she was being spied on.
She led us into her kitchen, on past the white-enameled oven. A faint scent of something sweet and citrus filled the air. Switching off her flashlight, she pointed out the window toward the alley. "There," she said triumphantly. "Do you see them? The spies?"
Rocky cleared his throat, and I took a deep breath. This was our main witness? "Those are officers, ma'am. Crime scene investigators who are out there because you reported a stabbing."
"Of course they are," she snapped. "I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the spies inside that building where they make the sausage. They know I'm on to them." She gave me an accusing look, then paused. "Don't you have a brother on the force? You look just like him. Dark eyes, dark hair. I know I told him about this. He would have believed me. Such a nice young man," she added, shaking her head.
Rocky and I exchanged glances, and I figured he thought the same thing I did. Alzheimer's. Even so, I was touched that Mrs. Maze seemed to remember Sean so kindly, despite that he'd been dead these past twelve years.
"About the stabbing?" I reminded her. "You saw kids back there?"
"Kids. Hmmph." She patted a stack of political flyers on the yellow Formica table. "Democrats is more like it. They're after these."
"The kids?" Rocky and I asked simultaneously.
"The spies. Who do you think? They want these campaign secrets. They've moved their headquarters to that sausage plant right there." She pointed to City Sausage and Meat through her window. "They park that darned truck back there on purpose, leave it running all the time. You can hear it now." As if on cue, the truck's refrigeration unit kicked on. Nothing like adding fuel to her fire. She nodded sharply. "There, you see! They'll stop at nothing to win. I'm afraid to leave my house for fear they'll break in. Especially after what happened the other night."
"What was that?" I asked, resigning myself to the fact that she was never going to give us the information we came for.
"They were robbed. I was in the kitchen grating lemon peels for my lemon squares, when I thought I saw someone climbing in their window. Well, let me tell you," she said narrowing her eyes and planting her hands on her hips. "Those hoodlums, it just makes me sick the way they throw bottles at my back fence whenever they walk in my alley."
"Hoodlums?" Rocky asked her.
"Yes. You know the ones. They dress in those football jackets and black baggy pants. Well, I went out to tell them that I was fed up with their nonsense and that I was calling the police. I was frightened near to death when I saw someone climbing in their window."
"Whose window?" I asked, thinking that at last she was back on track with the gang activity.
"The sausage place. They got away before I could call the police, and I just know they'll blame it on the Republicans, and quite possibly come after me."
"The hoodlum boys?" I asked.
"Heavens, no," came her exasperated reply. "The Democrats. They'll think I'm on to them, that I was the one to break into their headquarters."
"I can see why you'd be concerned," Rocky said, "what with elections coming up in the next few months."
I wanted to kick him. Instead I tried to guide Mrs. Maze back to the homicide. "You reported to the officer that you saw the stabbing."
"And that's exactly what I've been telling you," she said, shaking her finger at me.
"I need a unit to clear," came a dispatcher's voice on Rocky's radio. "Vehicle four-five-nine in progress."
That was as close to divine intervention as I could get. We were about a block away from the location given by the dispatcher, so I volunteered our services, hoping it might be related to the homicide in the alley. Maybe one of the suspects was hiding while he waited for the cops to clear the area. I smiled apologetically to Mrs. Maze and grabbed Rocky's radio. "Someone's trying to break into a car. We have to go."
"Oh." Suddenly she looked lonely and very much her age. "Well, let me pack you some cookies for the road."
"Only wish we had time," I said, as she picked up a plate filled with lemon squares.
Rocky grabbed two, and to be polite, I took one myself. "Thanks," I said, handing her my card as we left. "Call if you think of anything else you've forgotten."
This time I drove.
"She's wacko," Rocky said. "But she makes a mean cookie. You shoulda let her give us more for the road."
"And cheat you out of a possible arrest stat? Not a chance."
Rocky called in our arrival. I shut off the headlights as we rolled to a stop.
"Should be right up the street," he said.
"Let's get out here. Move in on foot."
The coastal fog was patchy, and there was a faint smell of brine in the air. We exited our vehicle, quietly shutting the doors. At the corner we sidled up to a townhouse and peeked through the hedge to the street beyond. I saw a slight movement, a dim light coming from the interior of the fourth car parked on an incline to our left.
"There," I whispered as I pointed. "Inside the white Toyota."
We drew our weapons, kept close to the houses, made our way to the vehicle. Rocky's chest heaved from the exertion of running low up the hill. Nevertheless, flashlight in hand, he moved around to the driver's side, while I took the passenger side, noting the door was slightly ajar. Whoever was inside ducked.
"Police," Rocky called out, aiming the beam of his Streamlight as well as his weapon into the window.
The figure inside shot up, bumped his head on the dash and stumbled from the door, landing in the gutter.
"Hands up," I shouted.
"Hey man, it ain't what you think," the burglar said in a high-pitched whine that I recognized instantly. Squeaky Kincaid, a snitch I'd used for information in the past and unfortunately, like gum on the bottom of my shoe, hadn't been able to shake since. He sat up, his sunken cheeks and sallow complexion contrasting sharply against his black clothes. "I was just trying to get warm."
"Really," Rocky said, moving around to my side. "Thought maybe you were wearing them gloves because you didn't want to leave prints. Now get your hands behind your back like a good little dope addict, and we won't rough you up too much."
"I didn't steal nothing. The car was unlocked."
That I didn't doubt, about the car being unlocked. Squeaky usually went after easy prey. I holstered my weapon, then took out my cuffs. Rocky covered him. "You got any needles on you, Squeaky?" I asked. "Or do you want to know what'll happen to you if I get stuck?"
"Got one in my right sock."
I patted him down, found a pocket full of quarters, the needle in his sock, but nothing else. My guess was the change in his pocket came from the car. Parking being at a premium in the city, there was no guarantee that the victim's car was parked in front of the victim's house. "Run the twenty-eight, Markowski."
He radioed in the license plate. The registered owner, a Marsha Welch, lived three houses up, and was adamant that she always left her car unlocked—so no one would be tempted to break in. Although she thought the loose change from her car's ashtray was missing, she wasn't willing to sign a complaint.
We kept that bit of information from Squeaky. Better to let him think he was being taken in—the proverbial ace in the hole, I thought, watching him shivering against the front fender of the victim's car. He was still handcuffed and no doubt contemplating how he was going to get his next fix from jail.
"What'dya think?" Rocky asked loud enough for Squeaky to hear.
"I think his PO will be mighty interested to know what he stores in his sock." I secured the syringe into a plastic biohazard tube. "What're you looking at, Squeaky. Six months? A year?"
"Lemme work it off." He looked at me, his eyes pleading like a puppy's. "Tomorrow or the next day. I'm working on something big. Soon as my sister gets here with her car. Got it all scoped out."
"I'll be holding my breath," I said. I fished out my handcuff key and unlocked his cuffs. "If the temptation to take the chill off in anyone else's car strikes you tonight, stifle it with the thought of how much fun it is to swallow methadone instead of fixing a nice shot of heroin. You catch my meaning?"
"I'm outta here. I swear I'll call you."
The following afternoon I'd pretty much dismissed him from my mind, wanting to find Nita's killer and then return to my vacation. I was almost finished with my paperwork when Gypsy, the Homicide detail's secretary, walked in with a report in her hand. Built like a centerfold, she ran the office with all the efficiency of a captain running a ship.
"I know it's late," she said, "but the lieutenant wanted me to get this to you right away. Interrupted burglary, possible gang ties related to your last homicide. Victim's in the hospital, not expected to live."
So much for the remainder of my vacation. My phone rang and I answered it while scanning the report. "Gillespie, Homicide."
"It's me. Squeaky."
I nearly dropped the phone at the sight of the victim's name written in the investigating officer's neat block printing: "Maze, Harriet."
I stared in disbelief, then shook myself, as I realized Squeaky was waiting for me to acknowledge him. "What is it?" I asked curtly.
I cradled the phone on my shoulder, turned to the body of the report, and scanned it. Someone found her in the alley near her fence. There was some gang graffiti sprayed on the fence boards, and the officer made a note that it might have something to do with the gang stabbing in the alley, quite possibly a retaliation because she had called the police.
I listened with half an ear while Squeaky talked about some burglary he'd committed not too far from where we found him, unfortunately without enough details to do me any good. If he was confessing to me, he must have gotten caught in the act.
"Did you hear me, Inspector?" he whined in his usual nervous, high-pitched voice.
"Hmm? Yeah," I said, unable to believe we'd stood in Mrs. Maze's kitchen just the night before. "Is there a point to all this? Like, what you stole? Where you were? Anything I can use?"
"I've got to talk to you right away. And not on the phone. Something big's going down in about five days."
"Can't. I get off in twenty minutes. I've got plans for the night."
Suddenly he burst out crying.
I pulled the phone from my ear for a couple seconds, wondering how I'd ever had the misfortune of hooking up with the likes of Squeaky Kincaid. For whatever reason over the years, he had latched on to me like I was his personal cop. He'd often said I was the only one he could trust, no matter how many times I'd encouraged him to call Narcotics with the information he wanted to sell for drug money.
Several seconds later he still hadn't calmed down. Tempted to hang up on him, I asked, "You okay?"
"They're gonna kill me," he sobbed. "I saw them and they're gonna kill me."
"Foust. I got something he wants."
"Foust? Jesus. Can you at least give me an address? Tell me what you've got?"
"Not over the phone... Oh, God. Please... you have to help me. It's not just Foust. They're right there. All around you. Like I told you the other night, this is big, man. Bigger than you and me." I could hear him sniffling, but my mind barely registered it. Antonio Foust was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. He'd made a couple of attempts on my life, was suspected of killing two other cops, and I definitely wanted him arrested.
"You need me to pick you up?" I asked. Squeaky didn't drive.
"My sister's in town. She'll give me a ride. It's gotta be tonight."
I thought about Kevin, waiting for me in my apartment. He'd had what I assumed was a normal prepuberty-driven argument with my aunt, which was why I was letting him spend the week. And while he was old enough to be left alone for a few hours at a time, it didn't mean I liked doing it. Then again, as unreliable as Squeaky was, whatever he had to offer up on Foust couldn't take that much time. "Tonight, then," I said.
"No one's listening, are they?" he asked.
Rocky walked in just then and I waved Harriet's report at him. He took it and I saw his eyes widen as he read the name. "No," I said into the phone. "No one's listening."
"Okay. In the alley past the old print shop at eight-thirty."
"Eight-thirty." I glanced out the window toward the Bay Bridge and saw that traffic for the onramp was at a standstill. Which meant I wouldn't make it home in time for dinner. Kevin would have to eat at Jack's. "I'll be there."
"Alone. And don't tell anyone. Please," he begged.
"Look—" I started, but he'd hung up on me.
I replaced the phone on the cradle. Rocky, I noticed, was still reading the report, his expression hard. I flipped through my phone list, found the number for ICU at the hospital, and called it. "Can you give me the status of Harriet Maze? She was brought in early this morning," I told the woman who answered.
"Hold on, Inspector." I heard a rustle of papers and some muffled talking. "She's hanging in there."
"Any chance of an interview?" I had to ask, as heartless as it sounded. My priority was to find her attacker. The hospital's was to save her life, and I would defer to their wishes.
"No. If anything changes, we'll let you know."
I hung up, feeling deflated. Crazy Mazy. Lemon cookies.
And she had remembered my brother as an officer after all these years.
"What do you suppose happened?" Rocky asked, handing the report back to me.
"I don't know. But I intend to find out." If she died, I couldn't let her be just one more statistic. I knew every cop who worked that area would feel the same way. We might hate getting called to her house, but she was part of the culture, part of the beat. Ours alone. For now, all I could do was wait. I glanced up at the clock. Fifteen minutes before the end of my shift and then it was homeward bound. No, correct that. Meeting with Squeaky. I looked out the window and saw it had started raining. Hoping it wasn't an omen, I asked Rocky, "What are you doing tonight?"
"Nothing. My mother-in-law's coming over."
"Good. Then you won't mind coming out with me for a contact."
"Squeaky's dropping the dime on something big tonight. He says he can give me something on Foust. Whether it's legit, I don't know. He wouldn't give details."
"Yeah. Sure," he said, when I told him where. "Give me a good excuse to get out of the house. How about I meet you about a block from the rendezvous, say, ten minutes early?"
I called Kevin and then my landlord, Jack, letting them know I'd be tied up for a few hours. For dinner I ended up buying a bag of tortilla chips from the vending machine and spent the remainder of the evening looking up reports on Harriet Maze that might have some connection. I would have had better luck printing the case numbers and throwing a dart, she'd called the police so many times—never mind that trying to discern fact from fiction in her reports was nearly impossible. When it was time to hook up with Rocky, I checked my weapon, shoved it in my shoulder holster, grabbed a radio, then pulled on my jacket, managing to make it to my car without getting drenched.
The rain sounded like rice bouncing off my windshield—and reminded me of my wedding a couple of years ago, a six-month disaster. I drove for fifteen minutes, finally easing my car into the narrow alley about a block away from where Squeaky had directed me to, and where Rocky had said he'd meet me. I switched off my headlights, parking about a third of the way in beside a vacant warehouse, battle-scarred with shattered windows and boarded doorways. At the far end of the alley the lifeless glow from a street lamp slashed across the wet pavement like a stroke in an oil painting.
I killed my engine, then rolled down the window about an inch. And waited. Rain sluiced through the opening. I shivered, but not from the cold. Rocky never arrived. It was ten minutes past the time he'd said he'd meet me and so I called him. When he didn't answer, I left my cell phone number on his pager. I was there on my own. Against department policy. Without backup.
Only me and God.
And maybe out there my damned informant—waiting somewhere—not that I intended on meeting him without Rocky.
Glancing at my watch, I wondered what Squeaky could possibly give me for my trouble. He was known for his tall tales.
My cell phone rang and I picked it up. It was Markowski. "Where the hell are you?" I asked.
"My kid got sick. Had to take her to MEH," he said, referring to San Francisco General Hospital's emergency. "I couldn't get ahold of Shipley, so I called Zim. He told me he'd cover you. Isn't he there?"
"No, he isn't," I said, keeping my anger at bay. "I wish you'd called me earlier."
"I meant to. I'm sorry. I didn't plan this. What're you gonna do?"
"Leave," I said. I couldn't depend on Zim. "Hope your kid's better," I added, then disconnected.
As I tossed the phone onto the seat, the far end of the alley lit up from the headlights of a car that had yet to turn the corner. But instead of the car, I saw a man barreling toward me as though running from the light source. Lit from behind, only his silhouette was visible until I switched on my own headlights.
"What the hell?" I wiped some of the fog from the windshield. Squeaky. And someone chasing after him.
My hand froze midair.
The man tearing after the hype held a gun.
I recognized him. Abernathy. Narcotics detail.
Sometimes with the adrenaline racing you never hear the shot.
I heard this one.
Saw the addict's empty hands.
His body lurched forward.
Crumpled to the wet pavement.
I grabbed my radio. Threw open the door. Apparently Squeaky's ability to stay one step ahead of the law just ran out.
I keyed the mike to call for an ambulance and a supervisor. SOP for officer-involved shooting.
Abernathy shoved his foot into Squeaky's side and rolled him over. Shot him in the chest.
I saw them. They're gonna kill me.
I hadn't believed him. He'd lied before. Anything to get money for heroin.
I watched as Abernathy, whom I'd known for years, looked in my direction.
And pointed his weapon at me.
I never had time to go for my gun.
Bullets hit metal.
"Son of a—"
I slammed the gearshift in reverse. Stabbed at the gas pedal. Tires screeched. Slick pavement. More shots.
"Go, car. Dammit, go!"
Trash cans clattered off fenders. Free of the alley, I never stopped. Never remembered shutting my door. Only shoving the gearshift into drive. Metal ground against metal.
Gas pedal floored. Down the street, up a hill and down another. On past warehouses. Past towering high-rises. Past Chinatown. Sidewalks deserted. Rain.
What the hell had Squeaky told me when he'd called this afternoon?
My right wheel hit a pothole, jerking the car. I gripped the steering wheel more tightly and cursed. My hands stung from adrenaline.
All I could see was Squeaky's body. The muzzle blast from each shot. I couldn't think. Nausea gripped me. Refused to let go.
On the outskirts of Chinatown, I pulled my car to the side of the road, threw the door open, leaned out. Dry heaves racked my gut. I tried to take a deep breath.
I glanced skyward, letting the rain cleanse my face. When I closed my eyes, I couldn't erase the sight of Squeaky's body, lying there while the rain beat down. An image burned in my head, one of blood running through puddles of water.
Not over the phone... you have to help me. It's not just Foust. They're right there. All around you. Like I told you, this is big, man. Bigger than you and me.
Brakes squealed. The familiar sound of a radio car. I forced my mind to alertness. Slammed my door, ducked down, killed the lights. The patrol car turned down my street. It grew closer. A spotlight reflected off a nearby building. It swept over my car, flooding the interior with light.
Instinct and pure fear held me still.
I should flag it down. Call for help. I told myself its presence could be coincidence. The officers could be on routine patrol. But what if they weren't? What if they were looking for me?
Squeaky had alluded to something that was too big for me. Why else would a Narcotics officer try to murder a potential witness to the homicide of a heroin addict?
And what recourse did I have? I glanced at the dashboard clock. Eleven minutes had elapsed. And with each of those minutes came a deeper problem. It was my duty to report what I'd seen. Immediately. The time lapse was inexcusable. Precious minutes wasted. Minutes that needed to be accounted for. Explanations as to why I was letting a police cruiser go by without notifying them of what happened.
But something kept me there, riveted to my car seat—not picking up the radio, though time bled away.
The sound of fear in Squeaky's voice.
One particular word he had used.
Several times, in fact.
As in They're gonna kill me. And They're all around you.
As in Abernathy wasn't the only one.
© Robin Burcell
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