Robert W. Walker’s
O’Dule’s bar and bistro stood like an invitingly cozy, ivy-laden, green painted Irish drawbridge at the bottom of a large brownstone castle—welcoming at the base of an older structure with pinnacles and spiral outcroppings, missing only the gargoyles. The building had character, the character of the sixties, but like Rydell’s building down the street, it’d been slated for eventual knock-down. Another mall was needed. And while the wrecking ball might take a year, it would find O’Dule’s, despite the sad hue and cry of old-time patrons. Blind as a wrecking ball had become the battle cry of the opposition in op-ed pieces in the Atlanta Constitution. To be sure, a small but vocal minority favoring old Atlanta to new—the same group that stood against gambling casinos and urban renewal plans geared only to the tourism trade. The same group who preferred to say confound it instead of a four-letter word. Still, who could fight it? The New Look of ’Lanta with its own theme song, an old Disney favorite about blue birds and butterflies, peaches and sunshine? And jobs! Men at work, even women at work alongside illegals at work. Meanwhile the fat got fatter, rich richer—men of position and wealth made it so; men with deep pockets who laid out small fortunes on a media campaign blitz that proved Pavlov’s Dog was alive and well.
A whole other world of concerns Marcus had little use for as he made his way down the humid street to the bar.
O’Dule’s flanked two streets—Peachtree Street and a peach pit of a court named for a governor lost in time. In summer, extra seating outdoors enticed the yuppie crowd to sit among the twittering birds in the trees, which would not be here next year. Outdoor seating under the stars blotted out by the city lights. Seating amid the sweet Oleander bushes but the odor of flowers always lost out to car fumes.
A blustery wind kept threatening to become more than just gusts. It kicked up debris from gum wrappers and matchbooks to political flyers and plastic bags to discarded vials and tossed Styrofoam cups, plastic utensils, and ticket stubs. A virtual parade of trashed items happened by in the growing river of wind. This oughta make outdoor seating even more of an adventure than it already was, he thought. The whole notion needed to be lampooned by a comedian of Louis Black’s stature.
Rydell hated the little iron chairs along the side street. He much preferred the dark interior of the old Irish bar, as it reminded him of his days as a young patrol officer in Chicago. However, Dr. Holley had gotten to O’Dule’s ahead of him and had taken an outdoor table. Wrought iron on the rear, he thought and frowned, most unpleasant.
Dr. Holley waved him to the table she’d located alongside the city gutter where a thin black metal railing separated the table from parked cars on the side street. He said nothing about it, sure that for her smile, a man could put up with any discomfort. Instead, Marcus waved and joined her under the absent stars, amid the war between Oleander perfume and car fumes, alongside the twittering of small rodents where the entertainment consisted of a discarded paper bag dancing to the whims of the wind—as opposed to a TV inside tuned to ESPN’s sports highlights of the day.
“Hope you don’t mind,” she began as Marcus approached.
“The table? No, nahhh…love the great outdoors, if you can call this the outdoors,” he lied and joked simultaneously while pulling out a seat. Multi-tasking, he thought but said, “Nice night for under the stars if only we could see them.”
She grinned up at Marcus, and he sat opposite, listening to the squirrels and birds chattering at one another, leaves waving in the warm Atlanta night, the breeze like a whisper of spirits all round them, cicadas in the distance.
“I tipped the waiter, and here’s your favorite right here!”
Her eyes suggested which direction he might look—over his shoulder. A waiter balancing a pint glass of Guinness was heading straight for him. The foam thick, the rich dark beer slopping over the heavy glass, Rydell shook his head, impressed. “You have my drink down.” A flash message inside his head asked how much else does she know about me?
“Like I said, I’ve seen you here before.”
“Ain’t no secrets here, heh?”
“You’re an open book.”
He laughed at this, thinking, and you wanna quick read?
“What? What’d I say?” she replied to his laugh and the quizzical look on his face.
God, she’s cute, he thought. A blink of a thought that God had ushered her to him, perhaps? In order to save him from himself? Such thoughts began to take root and form even as he worked to dismiss them, as he seriously doubted that God would have anything to do with a man filled with such venom as he. “No one’s called me Detective for a long time,” he finally explained his laughter to her. “I’m a PI now, but I suspect you already know that too.”
“I’ve heard as much around the building.”
“Yeah, and here.”
“Some PI, huh?” He again laughed and found it like a new experience. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the city isn’t—I repeat isn’t—supposed to know a PI is a PI.”
“Then how do you get clients?”
“Another trade secret.”
“No budget for it anyway.”
They shared a smile, and she said, “In any event…the distinctly Irish-O’talian bartender here, named Mario?”
“Yeah, Mario…what about him?”
“Mario told me he was your secretary, so there.”
“You caught that did you?” he asked, eyebrows raised. “So you’ve been making inquiries as well as watchin’ me drink?” Yeah, just as I suspected, he thought. She wants to hire me. Business. Shit.
“Gotta know who I’m dealing with,” she continued. “A girl can’t be too careful these days.”
He nodded then sipped at his beer. “So who do you want killed?” he only half-joked, expecting her to finally lay down her cards, discuss the real reason for her having flirted her way into his life—her need of his services.
“A man I’ve never met,” she replied in as cold a tone as he’d ever heard.
“Hey, listen to me, Dr. Holley. I was only kidding. I don’t do murder for hire.”
She ignored this. “The man got my husband killed.”
He was only mildly curious about the details. Some drug dealer had gotten her husband hooked on cocaine or heroin perhaps? Or someone had talked the young fool into some other danger, say robbing a bank? Or some schlep had involved him in a criminal mastermind plan that unraveled before it was raveled? She’d said he was a cop, so it may’ve been a dirty-cop entanglement.
Everything comes clear now, he realized. She has no interest in me beyond certain professional talents. Wants a hired gun. Wants some sort of revenge and closure.
“You should go home, Doctor.” His tone was dead.
“Home?” He watched her teeth clench at the suggestion.
“Yes, home and think about your future and don’t look back.” Marcus took a deep gulp of his dark beer to chase his words.
“I’ll meet your price, Detective.” Now she’d become haughty like a rich client talking down to her hired man.
“I said I don’t hire out for murder.”
“I can lead you right to him—the bastard.”
She wasn’t hearing a word he said. “I don’t care if you’ve done the footwork or not.”
“Footwork?” she seemed distracted by the word.
“Yes, said you have a lead on the guy.”
“Ahhh…” She nodded. “I do.”
He nodded and sipped again at his beer wondering if hemlock was this color. “Don’t care if you do. Like I said—”
“I can give you his address, his name.”
“Doctor, you’re talking murder-conspiracy.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“I don’t wanna know another word. No address, no name.”
“Whoa, that’s our building, Doctor.”
“First rule of murder or adultery—don’t shit where you eat.”
“Can’t be helped in this case.” Her eyes bored into him.
“One of your neighbors? You want me to kill someone who—”
“What?” He expected her to next suggest he calm down.
“Rydell is the mark’s name.”
His eyes narrowed to slits, while her arms stiffened, and next her hands slipped beneath the table.
“You mean…me?” He laughed. “This is a helluva note; irony at its finest.” He stopped short of telling her that two hours before he’d tried to eat his gun.
“I’ve got a .38 under the table pointed right at your big gut. Can’t miss.”
“Are you on meth, PCP or what?”
“I’m quite within my senses and my rights.”
“Doctor, I don’t even know you. This is crazy.”
“All the same, any last words?”
“Yeah, I have a few.” He thought of all the suicide notes left at his place. “Look, Doctor…” he swallowed hard. He didn’t want to die like this, not at the hand of a stranger, not knowing why. “You fire that gun and you can kiss your entire life goodbye.”
“Not much to kiss off any longer, not without Terry.”
“”Terry?” A light flashed on at the back of his head. “Terry Mallory?”
“I’ve seen plenty of gut shot wounds in the ER, Detective. Leaves a man in long, suffering agony. Rips up multiple organs, a .38 slug.”
“That oughta make you feel better. Killing me.” His deadpan voice and expressionless face slowed her racing mind, he hoped, surprised at himself, surprised at the gnawing desire to live beyond this conversation. Why was it I don’t wanna be killed by Holley when I’ve been toying with death by my own hand for weeks now? He didn’t know the answer to that one, except that he didn’t want her wasting her life this way.
“I want to see you suffer.” She said it through clenched teeth, her tone raw and icy and full of intent and venom. This rendezvous, he guessed, was a long time coming and quite premeditated. “That’s what I want for you, Rydell. I want you to die a slow and painful death.”
# # #
Marcus Rydell knew from the record that Officer Terry Mallory had bled out, dying slowly. Mrs. Mallory, sitting across from him now with a gun pointed at him, must’ve learned as much. He decided he must take another tact to salvage the situation before an explosion from her weapon struck him.
“Don’t let the doily table cloth fool you, Doctor. This is a wrought iron table we’re at.” He let this sink in, watching her free hand examine the table lip. “You fire that gun, and I may be hit, may even be killed, but shards of iron’ll hit you and others around us as well.”
“It’ll be like a bomb going off in Beirut, shards of metal going in every direction.”
“Might blind that girl next to you, might hit someone in the jugular or the femoral artery. Person bleeds from there, he’s dead in minutes. You want innocent blood on your—”
“I said shut up.”
He refused, going on. “The iron will deflect the shot, slow it down. I could survive, suffer paralysis maybe, but will that gain your ends?” Total vengeance, he thought.
“I mean to kill you un—”
“It’s all a matter of particle physics, as smart as betting on a dumb animal in a horse race. Booth had more going for him when he shot Lincoln. He was smart enough to place the muzzle a hand’s width from the center of the back of the head.”
“God, you are exasperating!”
“You don’t want to chance hurting those around us, I’m sure. So why not take me hostage, make me walk the plank so to speak back to the apartment, do the job right, make it look like a suicide?” His tone solemn, Marcus’s low-key manner and awful words seemed to throw her off her game plan.
“Are you serious?” she asked.
“I’m deadly serious. Are you?”
She regarded him closely, studying his eyes and watching for any slight twitch or chink in his armor, but she found none. Her features remained pinched, somehow ugly. She’d become a female Hyde.
“You really have a gun under there?” He saw that both arms and biceps had gone tense. That the trigger already must bear some tension. Her eyes had filled with flame, her eyebrows twitching. The explosion was imminent. He thought of overturning the table onto her.
He might leap up, take the shot lower down, or he might sit calmly in place and die as she wanted. Hell, how many times have I wanted out? This might be the way to go. But he took no action. Instead, he relied on more words. “Doctor, do you know how to fire that weapon?”
“It belonged to my husband.”
Marcus recalled the boyish good looks. “Hardly answers my question. Look, if you’re going to do the job, I don’t want you flubbing it.”
“T-They returned Terry’s weapon to me along with his uniform and badge.” If she hadn’t already been crying for years, perhaps she would have shed a tear now, but nothing came. A-And that damned flag that’s been stuffed in a box since. That’s what I got out of it…a handful of useless things.”
“I’m sorry about what happened to Terry and all the—”
“You don’t get to say his name.” Her anger flared even more, eyes determined. “A twenty-one gun salute, a flag, all the pomp and ceremony in the world means nothing against his life!”
“I didn’t kill him or any of the others, Mrs. Mallory. Kill me if you like. but at least know that.”
“Bingo, chalk one up for Sherlock here. I know damn well who killed Terry, and I know all about your infamous black out.”
“You’ve been tailin’ me all this time?” he asked, realizing the truth of it. “Takin’ up residence in my building. Following me here with a gun in your purse? Waiting for the right moment to strike?”
“And you said you weren’t a detective anymore.”
“So now what?” He gritted his teeth, bit his lip. “You fire?”
“This is my show; I’ll take my own good time. Watching you squirm is the first justice I’ve had in four years.”
“You kill me this way, and your life is over, Kat.”
“Don’t call me that, not you, ever.”
“Listen to what I’m saying, Doctor.”
“My life’s over anyway! Without Terry—”
“Then whataya waiting for, Kat?” he shouted now, drawing stares and attention from the tables around them.
“Keep your voice down!”
“Worried about decorum? At a time like this? Think you’ll find much decorum in the slammer?”
“Will you just sit and squirm and shut up, Rydell!”
“Fire that weapon and you’ll hear a lot more shouting and screaming.”
“Shut up. Let me think.”
Obviously, she had thought out every detail except pulling the trigger. Birds chirped in the dark leaves. A taxi whizzed to a stop halfway down the block, its horn blaring at a jogger. A large group of rowdy, noisy friends poured out of O’Dule’s, laughing, shoving one another, joking how one of their number had been scorned by some Diva at the bar who turned out to be a man in drag.
“You were the only one!” shouted one.
“Man-o-man…Tony!” came another.
“You didn’t know?”
“I knew! I knew!”
“Bullshit, Tone! You didn’t know shit,” shouted the loudest of the group.
“Come on, Kat, pull the trigger.” Rydell’s eyes continued the dare.
“Don’t tempt me!”
“Go ahead. You’ve waited a long time for this—” and so have I flit through his brain like a rabid butterfly. But I don’t want to die at her hand, he repeatedly told himself. “You’ve waited too long already,” he continued, taunting, hoping he’d not already gone too far.
“Yeah, I’ve waited and watched and watched and waited long enough,” she agreed, “but…”
“But I want to know why first. Why, Rydell, why?” Now she was drawing everyone’s attention. Their waiter had set up vigil, about to pounce and ask them to please leave, but he held off.
“Is this what you think revenge is?”
“It might help, yeah.”
“Shooting me…killing me won’t get you any answers or closure, but go right ahead, Doctor…healer of the sick.”
“I damn sure will!” she shouted through clenched teeth. Everyone around them now stared, talked in whispers, moved away.
“Be my guest, Mrs. Mallory. What should I call you before I die? Are you really a doctor?”
“Fire at will…or rather at me.”
“Will you shut up?”
“Do it, kiddo but let me ask everyone out here to get down the block first, OK?”
He carefully watched her body language. Tense, face quivering, lips palsied, eyes wide. She might very well pull that trigger via accident as much as purpose. Guns had a way of enticing accidents. “Go on. I’ve tried to off myself a hundred times since your husband’s death. My partner, Stan Miersky, died in the same incident along with Terry’s partner, Joely Blankenship.”
“I know the names. I know all there is to know, and I know you didn’t even have the decency to be at Terry’s funeral.”
“You think so? You think you know everything?”
“Do you know that Terry’s come after me long before you?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“His ghost? Their ghosts, all three. You don’t need a funeral after that.”
“I’m talking about this world.”
“Getting even, you mean?”
“Exact some good old-fashioned vigilante justice, heh?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, that and closure.”
“Lady, don’t for a moment think that I haven’t suffered since that day from everyone around me, not to mention the self-recrimination rooted in my brain.”
“This isn’t about you, Rydell. Well, maybe it is but—”
“No, it’s about you and your inability to cope since…”
“Since Terry’s murder.”
“Which I didn’t commit.”
“They say you let it happen, allowed it.”
“A lie told by liars.”
“Like you gave his killer a…a pass or something, that maybe you owed the guy a pass, and then he opened up on all of you, killed you all…all except you. Why is that, Rydell?”
His reputation for cutting deals with bad guys had come into question during the IAD investigation. “I don’t know, but it’s not what people think. Fact is, way my life’s been since then, you can say Iden Cantu killed all four of us that day.”
“And he’s never been apprehended.”
“The bastard had an escape route well planned long before we got there.”
“Go on. I’m listening.”
“Fooled us all—this was Iden Cantu, the infamous wild game hunter and ex-marine sharpshooter we were going to see.”
“You didn’t take it seriously; you didn’t do your jobs? Isn’t that it?”
“Exactly, Terry included.”
“Terry was the best, so you just shut up about Terry.”
A silence followed; Marcus expected the explosion but he had gotten her to talk, so perhaps she wasn’t as resolute as she pretended. Finally, she said, “So then they all let Terry’s memory fade and his case goes cold.”
“Cantu has family, safe houses across the country, and plenty of retard and frightened friends who are all too willing to harbor the bastard.”
“You sound just like the detectives supposedly working the case—nothing but excuses.”
He forged on, adding, “Not to mention the densest forests since Vietnam—the Georgia mountain country. The man’s got better cover than Osama Bin Laden.”
“So why haven’t you gone after him? You once wanted revenge, justice. You vowed you’d have it, or have you forgotten?”
He recalled the shouts into the cameras he’d made years before, ashamed of them now.
“A lot of us said a lot of things back then.”
“Lame answer, Rydell. How can you not have gone after the creep. You were once a marine, trained for guerrilla warfare same as Cantu, right?”
One psychological profiler who felt she had Cantu’s “number” and nature down pat, had suggested that Cantu somehow knew that Marcus had been ex-marine, and that this figured in his allowing Rydell to live. Marcus had not wanted to believe it, and he could not accept it. How would Cantu have known? Then again, on previous cases, Marcus and Stan had been written up in the Atlanta Constitution. Cantu could have read about his military service. Even so, what kind of logic was that?
He must focus on the here and now, however; must focus on the threat that Mrs. Terry Mallory represented not just to him but to those around them. He could tell that she still held the gun, but she’d relaxed her grip around the deadly part that made it go boom.
Maybe he had talked some modicum of sense into her. Maybe.
He wondered if she’d bothered taking off the safety; wondered if she’d taken lessons before coming after him. Imagined his picture in her target practice.
Tears now formed in her eyes. A good sign, he thought. Maybe.
He gulped, expecting the explosion to hit.
It didn’t come. Minutes ticked by.
Marcus wondered how clumsy he’d become to let her get the drop on him this way. He again wondered what might happen if, right now, he up-ended the table. He thought better of it. Any sudden movement, the gun could go off. He most certainly did not wish to get anyone else in this life killed. Nor did he want to see her land in the slammer for life. Then again, doing nothing could also get him and others killed.
“So what’ll we do now?” he finally asked.
“Drink your damn beer. It’s going to be your last unless—”
“Unless?” Had she said that before? “What unless?”
“Unless you agree to locate Terry’s killer—this Cantu person.”
“And if I do?”
“Then you turn him over to me.”
“To you? Not the authorities?”
“To me, damn it.”
He took a deep breath, believing she’d not wanted to kill him after all—that the gun under the table routine was primarily to gain his undivided attention. In that much, she had succeeded. “And what’ll you do if and when I hand this raving lunatic over?”
“I’ve plans for Iden Cantu.”
“Sister, you’re like a dog chasing a car.”
“You catch it, it could kill you. This maniac is far too much for you to handle.”
“I’ll handle the sonofabitch all right. I know how to use a scalpel, remember?”
Rydell grimaced at this. “It’s been like four years. No one’s got a clue to his whereabouts. Theory is—”
“He’s out there somewhere.” She indicated the general direction of the street. “He’s here…in the city.”
“In Atlanta? No way. He’s not that stupid.”
“I tell you he’s here, and he’s findable, and you’ve got as much reason to hate the bastard as I do.”
“And this is how you negotiate my help? At the end of a gun? Pointed at me?”
“Come on, Rydell. Got the old blood moving in your veins, didn’t it?”
“You’re some piece of work, Doc Holley.”
“Who’re you kidding? We both know it’s exactly how you negotiate with yourself.”
Marcus winced at this. Not because it was true, and not because it touched a nerve, but because she knew. She knew his darkest, most shameful secret. But how did she know? “You think you’re some kind of psychic?”
“Doesn’t take a psychic to figure you for a suicidal washout. It’s been four years and you haven’t burned yourself yet, so I figure you haven’t really given up on life either.”
Marcus saw one of her hands rise above the table. “Maybe the hatred has kept us both here.” He grabbed for her one free hand, held up her wrist and for the first time examined the scar camouflaged below several bracelets.
She pulled her hand away. “OK, no secrets between us now, heh, Detective?”
“We’re both refugees from life, so to speak.”
“I admit, life’s been a bitch for me since, but I’m managing,” he lied.
Terry could lie with just that same straight a face, Rydell.”
“I’m managing.” He didn’t flinch.
“Then take the case and my deal. With the money I’ve saved, you’ll be well paid.”
Marcus did not know what to say. If he said no, he’d never see her again, and despite her having held him at gunpoint, or perhaps because of it, he didn’t want to believe he’d never see her again. But if he said yes, he didn’t believe he’d be able to live up to her expectations. He’d lived now for a long time without any expectations of himself. In fact, he could not recall the last time he’d had any.”
“Will you take the case?”
“I’m on the case. Have been for the last four years. I tell you, all the leads have dried up, and this guy has turned into the invisible man.”
“What do you mean?”
She must be holding the .38 between her knees, he thought as she rifled now through her bulging purse and plopped down several letters. He could get hold of the gun if he made an attempt now. Instead, he stared at the letters.
“What’re these?” Rydell’s nose twitched.
“Notes…notes from a stone cold killer.”
“Written to you?”
“Says he wants to meet me. Says he’s admired me from afar too long now.”
“Personally apologize, he says. “Bastard.”
“You can’t do it.”
“With your help, I can and I will.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
“I’ve given it a helluva lotta thought, and you, Mr. Experienced Detective Rydell—you are going to help me pull it off.”
The old, tried and true line that ran through his head as he stared across at her proved all too familiar: the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. But what’d he have to lose?