Mystery and Crime Fiction posted June 30, 2013 Chapters: 1 2 -3- 4... 


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Cleve Hawkins takes on a new case.

A chapter in the book Fatal Beauty

Back in the saddle again

by Mastery










Waking up alone is a bitch.

I woke up about twenty minutes to seven within the bright tangible silence of my bedroom, but I was glad to be there.

Stretching my aching body, I made my way to the living room and parted the curtains. The sky was gray, and the wind was blowing in the parking lot; pieces of newspaper were flapping and twisting through the air. The earmarks of a shitty day were brewing.

Dirty dishes were stacked in the sink, a Cheerios box on the counter, a pillow on the couch in front of the television. An open, half-empty bag of Doritos cluttered the coffee table. The bathroom was far from clean. Two toothbrushes. Two razors. Towels on the floor. Toilet lid up.

I was glad the meeting was to be at my office, even though I knew it needed cleaning too.

I squeezed a big glass of orange juice and drank it while I put the coffee on to perk and pondered my agreement with Betty Rohrman at The Redhead bar, the night before. Call it crazy or whatever, but I had turned down plenty of other detective jobs recently. So, I was really questioning my motives.

The woman was attractive, true enough, and she had those damn beautiful legs--for which I have always been a sucker, but I'm sure that wasn't it. Was it? No-- not really. So, why did I let this girl's story get to me? I think it was because of my nagging blue-colored cop's blood. And, although I hadn't told her in so many words, I was plenty concerned about the serial killer currently on the loose. In recent weeks, the entire missing girl thing ranked real high on my badshitometer.

I took a shower and shaved very carefully while the coffee brewed in the old percolator I had salvaged out of my grandmother's things when she died. Funny--I always thought about that fine old lady when I made coffee. The thing always made such a soothing sound until it was finished perking.

When I was through in the bathroom, the coffee was ready, and I drank a cup while I thought about breakfast. I really wanted a donut--a sugar donut-but there's this thing with cops and donuts that people find funny for some reason, and I wasn't going to have a donut today. Well, maybe later.

I shuffled to the front door and retrieved the newspaper, then turned and got a carton of milk from the fridge. I grabbed a box of Frosted Flakes from the cupboard and straddled a chair at the kitchen table. Sipping the coffee, I savored the wonderful taste as I eyed the bold headline on the front page of The Chicago Tribune.

"TWO MORE COOK COUNTY WOMEN REPORTED MISSING"

The serial killer certainly was getting his space. It had begun as the report of two young women's bodies discovered in an abandoned warehouse on the southwest side. The first report had been on the inside of the second page, three weeks ago, April 13. Now, two more women had disappeared, this time from the DePaul University area. The type was bold, and included head shots of the women just below the fold on the front page. I suspected, however, that this report did not include Betty Rohrman's sister, Chelsea.

It was a little after eight when I left the apartment, full stomach and clear of eye. Overhead, the sky had turned to the color of gunmetal and lightning broke across it in brilliant spider-web lines. I drove over to Gold's Gym on the second floor of the old Nautical Building on Clark Street.

I set my duffle bag down and took out my membership card. Jessica, who works behind the desk, is a young woman with a big chest and a small sweater. Obviously, she had come straight from her own workout, wearing lavender leotards, pink knit leg warmers and white sneakers. She pointed her ample chest at me and said, "Morning,Cleve," as she slid a clipboard over to me and smiled.

"Our machine is on the fritz. Just sign in, handsome."

"Morning, Sweetness." I scribbled my signature. "That machine thing seems to happen a lot. Tell your old man I said he needs to get a new one." She shook her head as if there were a horsefly on it. Her husband, Junior, was an okay guy, but he had to be careful not to drag his knuckles when he walked. And he was cheap.

Jessica always looks pretty good, with her corn-silk hair and eyes a darker blue than the sky, but she fights back with layers of foundation, blush, rouge, mascara, eye-liner, lipstick, and a daily drenching of a perfume that, when mixed with her tobacco smoke, reminds me of the odor of a cat's neglected sandbox.

The place wasn't busy for a Friday morning. In fact there were only two other men working out. One, lifting weights looked like a steroidasaurus. The other, a silver-haired gent, looked exhausted and ready to fall off the treadmill.

I rarely miss my gym time, no matter what. Continuing my workouts saved my ass when I left the force, and I found myself getting lazy and overdoing the Scotch day after day, a few months back.

Anyway, today, I launched into a circuit on the machines. Starting off with my upper body, shoulders, chest, triceps, and then onto back and biceps. I jumped from one exercise to the next, giving myself no rest or downtime. I finished off working my legs and lower back. Counting off two minutes on the clock, I repeated the circuit two more times. Using heavy weights, I took twelve to fourteen reps on most exercise. On the last cycle, I felt fatigued but strong.

Ordinarily, I tuck my 9mm Glock into a belt holster in the small of my back, and, because I'm slightly paranoid, a little .380 auto in an ankle holster, but today I had them packed inside my gym bag. I might change clothes at my office before my new client showed up...then again, I might not, but either way I didn't feel naked knowing I had my tools with me.

My office is on Wells Street. It's not much of a space, but it suits the location. It would be an ideal spot for a VD clinic or a public exterminator.

A middle-aged black guy they call Deckle was perched on the stoop puffing a cigarette when I parked at the curb. He wore a grimy ball cap, cruddy jeans, mis-matched running shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt of indeterminate color. Stained thermal underwear showed at the neck of the sweatshirt. He had what looked like a three-day-old stubble,and his eyes were lined and narrow. Deckle tells everybody that years ago his nose had been reshaped by a gun butt. I actually think he fell flat on his face in a drunken stupor.

Deckle, is a down-and-out homeless hundred-and-eighty pound ferret, who has problems, but he's a good gopher, and an excellent snitch. He could steal the stink off shit and not get the smell on his hands.

I locked up my car and watched him as he took a long pull at a half-pint bottle. He drank about half of it down, his Adam's apple bobbing like a yo-yo. When he spotted me, he jolted like an invalid woken from an afternoon nap and gave me a face as expressionless as water before he tucked the bottle away.

He was smoking a cigarette that looked as if he'd found it, and it wiggled wetly in the corner of his mouth as he spoke. "Well, if it isn't Fearless Fosdick. Jesus-- what're you doing here, my man?" He slowly dragged his fingertips through his eye sockets. "Ain't seen you in one helluva long time."

He had that dumb glazed look of a guy who had conditioned himself to go through life with absolutely nothing.

"Hey, Deck! This is my office, remember? Business, strictly business here, my friend. You haven't seen anybody hanging around the door, have ya?"

"No, but I do move around. You know how it is. I coulda missed a lot. Why? You spectin somebody?"

"Not really," I said. "Just asking."

He was right on my heels as I went up the steps. "Mind if I come in?"

"Nah, not right now, Deck. Got a client on the way--she should be here pretty quick. Maybe later we'll chew the fat, okay?"

"Right on, my man. Right on." He gave me thumbs up.

I turned the key in the door and went in, hoping Deckle wouldn't traipse in behind me as he was prone to on occasion. The lock snicked into place behind me as I stepped over the three-week pile of mail on the floor under the mail slot and went to open the window. The office is one room with a desk, a file cabinet, and two chairs. The old iron radiator has no control and the room, closed for about three weeks, reeked with heat.

The smell of old and nasty, like the stale odor of cigarette smoke assaulted my nostrils and I pulled the blinds, then retrieved a can of Glade from the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. I sprayed the room, and slowly looked around.

A spider made its way down a thick web along the window. Dust was thick on the sills. A red plastic milk crate sat on one of the chairs and held my baseball mitt, bat, and some tennis balls I'd collected for a dog I sort of kept around. A stack of files were piled on my desk, and a dead houseplant sat on a small table by the window. Coffee cup rings were everywhere, which reminded me that I'd better start a pot of coffee. The Mr. Coffee couldn't begin to brew a cup like my percolator at home but it worked. I measured the coffee into the filter basket and the water into the reservoir and turned it on.

By nine-fifteen I was quickly tidying things up a bit and the timing couldn't have been closer, because at exactly nine-twenty, Betty Rohrman came in. Right on time.

"Good morning, Mr. Hawkins."

"Morning, Betty--and, it's Cleve--okay? Mister Hawkins died thirteen years ago. Here, have a seat." I pulled out the client's chair and she sat down in front of my desk and opened a large brown purse on her crossed knee. I noticed the sunlight shining in her face, so I went over and adjusted the blinds.

She said, "Are you aware that a very seedy-looking man is sitting on your front steps?"

"Yeah, I know he's not exactly GQ material, but he's a harmless friend of mine, no problem."

She looked me over like a weight-guesser at a fair. "If you say so." She faked a shudder with her shoulders.

I noticed she had dark circles at her eyes and her nose appeared a bit red, from crying. She was wearing a green blouse, designer jeans and tennies. She fumbled around for a pack of Mistys in her purse, then tapped one out and put it between her lips.

"You know I've been meaning to give these up," she said. The unlit cigarette bobbed up and down in her mouth as she spoke. I picked up the silver table lighter and held it to her cigarette.

"Thank you."

I watched her sit back blowing a slow stream of smoke,somewhat relaxed in the cushioned green chair. She had noticeably changed in some way since yesterday at the bar. More nonchalant, I guess. She remained quiet and concentrated on the cigarette, bringing the ash to a point.

"Let me get you a cup of coffee--my special blend-- cold water and Maxwell House." I smiled, but she didn't catch it.

"Sure, that would be good, thank you, I..." She paused, but I felt her eyes on me--casing my every move. "My, but we are so polite this morning," she finally said, as she sat her bag on the floor next to her chair.

I shrugged and winked. "We always are, when possible."

When the coffee was ready and I poured a cup for each of us. She took the steaming cup from my hands, and at the same time, still managed to tap the ash off her cigarette into a makeshift ahstray (empty coffee cup) on the corner of my desk.

"Sorry, no ashtrays here," I said. "You take cream or sugar?"

"No, thank you." She stared at me over her coffee mug and it reminded me of last night's meeting. Awkward. Tense. She exhaled a stream of smoke and looked at the cigarette.

"So, Betty--did you bring some things for me--especially those pictures?"

"Yes. I have them right here." She sat her coffee on the corner by her ashtray and picked up the brown bag which was about the size of a briefcase.
Then, reaching inside, she pulled out a brown 8x10 envelope and handed it over. It was a bit heavy-- had a little heft to it.

"Good. Thanks."

"They're all in there," she said. "I got her Social Security number from my mom, but I don't have her driver's license and we don't think she had any credit cards. A copy of her birth certificate is there, though." She started to wring her hands.

I slowly glanced through the photos. Most of them appeared to be taken with family in group shots at the beach, picnics, church, and so on. There were school pictures covering her elementary and high school days, I guessed. In one picture, her sister's hair was done in pigtails. The eyes were vacant. Her small mouth was set in a thin, unemotional line. No joy, no sadness, no feelings at all. Further, what looked like a yearbook picture, was a typical glamour shot of sorts and probably, the best one of the bunch.

In one more, her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she wore amber sunglasses with Day-Glo frames and a silver one-piece bathing suit at a beach.


"Chelsea's a pretty girl," I remarked. "Do you have something more recent? I mean besides this grad picture?"

"No, not really. Oh, wait, of course I do--silly me. I have one from two years ago, right here." She pulled her wallet out of her bag and handed me a head shot of her sister. It looked like one of those taken at JC Penny's as part of a package deal. No question, it was the most recent picture.

Her hair was dark and pulled back loosely behind her neck. Her eyes were brown and appeared to be moist. She had strong facial features that were striking. I had all of the pictures spread out on my desk and examined them, one at a time, while Betty lit another cigarette.

"So--tell me about Chelsea. What's she like?"

Betty sighed. "My sister is very confusing. When we were kids, she could be sweet and sensitive, unafraid to show her affection to our mother, my brother and me, and a moment later, bratty and selfish, making demands of the entire family." She paused and stared at her feet for a moment.

"Sometimes . . . sometimes I think the only reason she stays close to the family is to borrow money from us. But, she is really a quiet type, you know--doesn't do drugs and she's not a weirdo."

"Weirdo?"

"Yeah, like this girl at work who has a safety pin in her nose and a platinum screw through one eyebrow and an I-bolt in her right ear. We call her 'toolbox'."

"I see. And your father? How did Chelsea get along with him?"

Betty's eyes suddenly took on a cold look. She squeezed her fingers, like she could ring the answer out of her hands. Disappointment or hate manifested itself in those eyes. I couldn't tell for sure, which. Then, she seemed to smile--for whatever reason and her eyes turned glassy, like a good cry was on the way. Her face reddened and she began to cry. Some tears, but not a downpour. I stood and put one arm around her shoulders and stayed with her, looking out at my car parked in front.

"He was our stepfather, actually," she said. "Our real dad died in Vietnam in 1971." Again, she paused. "You must understand--my mom. My mom is a saint. Oh, we weren't like Beaver Cleavers with a stay-at-home mom in pearls making us pies and pouring us milk after school. That isn't her. She is just a decent soul, with an untested heart that didn't deserve to be wrung like an old dishrag."

Betty struggled to get another cigarette out of the pack before she went on while I returned to my chair.

"My stepfather didn't deserve her. He's dead now--thank God. He was a short, potbellied and sour-faced man who always seemed to have an unlit cigarette over one ear and a Bud in his hand. He was a drunk that got mean and sometimes he used my mom for a punching bag."

I was lost for words for a beat, but I said, "Fate, unfortunately, which might have been kind to your Mom in the past, was obviously pissed off for some reason and so . . . anyway, shit happens. I'm sorry." I murmured, "They oughta make body armor for the soul. She sounds like a strong woman."

"Yes, indeed she is. Don't be sorry, though. We're not. The sonofabitch died three years ago--Diabetes complications. You may think I'm cruel, but I really am glad he's gone."

I drummed my fingers on the edge of my desk. "So how did your sister get along with him while he was alive?"

"Huh! How do you think? She hated his guts. Couldn't wait to get out on her own when she was barely seventeen."

I cupped my elbow in one hand and rubbed my chin with the other. Mulling this over for a bit, I was trying to decide if I'd have reacted any differently if I'd known all this last night. I mean this kind of stuff was not in my clue bag, but if it was, I might have at least put it into my paranoia pocket.

Betty blushed slowly but pervasively. "I think you get the point," she said tersely.

"Yes, I understand."

She suddenly leaned forward. "Listen, Cleve, what does all this have to do with the fact that my sister is missing? I already told you she's a loose cannon when it comes to men. How much more do you need? I want you to do something now!"

Tears slid from her eyes and down her cheeks. "Nobody seems to care. I didn't even see anything about her disappearance on the ten o'clock news. Look, I'll pay you whatever you say, just help me, please?"

"This is not about money, Betty. I told you we can discuss my fee later. And, of course, I care. You wouldn't be sitting in that chair if you didn't believe me now, would you?"

She settled back in her chair and exhaled a puff of smoke. "No . . . I guess not."

"See, I've found that when I take the time to learn that much about someone, there's usually a reason for the interest that's not readily apparent to everyone. Please, just trust me and bear with me here. First of all, we don't know that your sister has met with foul play. Not at all. I need time to do some investigating, and I promise I'll stay in touch. I can reach you at this number you gave me, right?"

"Yes." She folded her arms. "I'm trying to understand . . . really, I am, but..."

I leaned forward across the desk. "Listen to me. I already know the guy the cops are looking for. Mind you, not his name, but him. The man. He's independent--one of those guys whose life is invested with imposing control and power over others. Especially women. You know him, too. The self-serving bastard who enjoys the possession of knowledge for the feeling of superiority it gives him over others and secretly enjoys reducing the beauty of butterflies to pinned insects on a mounting board."

She bit down on her lower lip. Her eyes were wide and fixed on me. Her right hand was opened on her breast approximately above the heart. There were more tears on her cheeks.

I leaned over and patted her hand.

"Don't worry. I'm getting right on it. I've got to track her car through the DMV and talk to some people. Lots of people. I have contacts on both sides of the law, including some real dirt bags."

"Really?"

"Yes, but let's not dawdle over that. I just want you to realize some things here from the get-go. I know you are scared, but realize that fear is an irrational emotion that sort of floats from object to object like a helium balloon that you touch with your fingertips. I know you won't let it go--but don't cling to it anymore than you have to. Don't be so hard on yourself or your family for that matter. You have to let me work through this the right way."

"Well, I'll try real hard, but it's so difficult." She blotted her eyes with Kleenex and we shook hands.

Outside, cars rushed past in a hiss of wet pavement.

As Betty and I shook hands and said goodbye, Deckle walked to the curb and spit in the gutter. Betty looked up at me with giant stunned eyes before she got in her car and drove away.
.

Damned Deckle.


.


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Thanks again, Lilac Collas for the artwork.
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