CHAPTER 1 - WHEN WILL THIS BE OVER?
The pressure was building in Victor’s back just below his left shoulder. It wasn’t an intense pain; it was like the fist was gone but the punch lingered on. He did his best to ignore it. The pressure never turned into the pain he expected but a tingling feeling moved down his left arm to his fingers. Was this the big one? Dr. Wilson said the stent was in place and in good shape.
“Just rest a bit and in a few weeks you’ll be back on the job, Mr. Verie.”
Doctor? Hell, the kid grew up two doors down from us. White coat and stethoscope hanging from the neck or not, to me he’ll always be the kid who yelled “Trick or treat!” louder than the rest.
Victor shifted his weight slightly in the bed, hoping to make the pressure go away, but the tingling got worse in seconds. Victor reached for the nurse’s call button but his hand stopped short. He had heard Nurse Olivia moving up and down the hallway all night. Bells had chimed and buzzers had buzzed with barely a pause. But the numbness was moving. What if this is normal and I would just be wasting her time?
In the dark, Victor attempted to press his middle fingertip to his thumbnail. When he wasn’t sure the two had met, Victor touched the button. He heard the chime ring, and then came a sound he didn’t expect to his left. Something squeaked. It was leather on leather, the same sound his holster made when he slipped his gun onto his belt.
By the time his eyes adjusted to the glare of the overhead light the nurse had turned on, whatever or whoever made the noise was gone and Olivia was at his side.
“What can I do for you, Detective?”
“I don’t know if it’s supposed to feel like that, but my arm is going numb.”
“Numb arms are definitely frowned on here, Victor, but I think I can put that right in a second.” She slid a hand through the side rail on the bed and gave a tug, and Victor felt the pressure disappear immediately. “Victor, try to avoid laying on the TV remote. I need you to go to sleep now, so I can wake you up in forty-five minutes to take your vital signs.” She tossed him a little grin as she brought darkness to the room again.
Maybe this was going to be like the Wilson kid said after all. Another day of people lifting his gown to poke at his groin and he would back on the street. How he wished he could take a deep breath of outside air instead of one that was followed by the touch of a cold stethoscope.
Victor opened his left eye to a slit in hopes of catching sight of who or what made the noise without he, she, or it noticing. Light leaking through the gap between the door and the frame from the nurse’s exit revealed a shadow profile. It was a female silhouette. Did someone call his daughter, Amy? He had told them not to. She wouldn’t have come anyway.
“Who are you?”
A cool hand settled over his on the rail. “Nicole Whitman sir.”
“What are you doing here?”
“We can go over that later, sir; the nurse said you’re supposed to be resting.”
Victor fumbled for the control pad and turned on the lights. For the first time, his eyes scanned the room. They paused on the barred window for a split second, then circled the room to stop at Officer Nicole Whitman’s gray-green eyes.
“What are you doing here and why am I in a secure room?”
“I don’t know if I am supposed to tell you, sir. The boss is supposed to stop by on his way to the shop to see how you’re doing. Maybe he should be doing the explaining.”
“If I had my pants, I would pull out my gold badge and show it to you, and you would tell me what the hell is going on. I’m here, you’re here, and that damn badge is here somewhere, so talk.”
“Well, I took the call when you went down in the grocery store. I got there just in front of the EMTs. Nobody was doing anything, so I tried to help until they got there. Then I followed procedure and led the ambulance here. You know, you had four boxes of mac and cheese in your cart. That probably is what got you here in the first place.”
Victor’s eyes followed a sweeping hand gesture that gave him the impression there were a lot of dance lessons in Nicole Whitman’s past. Her hair was absolutely golden and hanging down to the middle of her back in clumpy strings. “How long have you been sitting there, Whitman?”
“Since you came back from ICU yesterday. I don’t know exactly. I went home and picked up some things.”
“Well, you can grab your stuff and go home. I’ll be fine.”
“What do you mean you can’t? I just told you to.”
“My orders are taller than yours.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“That’s squad room talk, sir; you haven’t been there in a while. It means the word came down from the top. Taller than you, sir.”
Nicole Whitman slipped out of her chair and the room when Olivia came in to perform the required blood pressure, take a deep breath, and temperature check.
“Olivia, do you know why I’m in the lockup and why I have an armed guard?”
“Well, you going to tell me?”
“How long have we known each other, Victor? You know I can’t discuss that kind of stuff with you. Maybe if you were in a regular hospital room, but not here in security. I’m not even supposed to call you Victor: it is supposed to be Mr. Verie and that’s it.
“I’ll tell you one thing, boy’o, I heard you bossing her around and I want that to stop. If it wasn’t for her and her bottle of aspirins, there would be one empty bed in this place tonight. So, you start in forgetting you’re the big wheel and take for a fact she and I are in charge for a while. You better learn to like it.”
Before Victor could even gather his thoughts for a comeback, Olivia had turned on her heels and was out the door. Officer Whitman returned to pick up a knapsack that was under the visitor’s chair and pulled out a bristle brush.
“You should get rid of that.”
“Why? It’s a brand new brush.”
“The hair. Someday one of the jamokes on the street will grab it and take you down and maybe out.”
“I’ll take that under advisement, sir. Now, you better get some sleep; it’s almost day break and you only have thirty-six minutes left before Olivia comes in to wake you up.”
It seemed as if no time had passed at all when Olivia filled the room with glaring light yet again.
“I’m going to have to forge some times on the computer for your benefit, but you were finally sleeping so nice I didn’t want to wake you. It was kind of cute, the way she held your hand and you fell right off.”
Victor stared at his left hand, like it appeared out of nowhere, then asked, “Where is the young warrior?”
“Listen, Victor, I know that a procedure sometimes brings out the worst in folks, but what I told you about talking to her with a little respect also applies to talking about her. Remember, I have a whole lot of needles out there that I could be using on various portions of your anatomy, plus I could hold on to these for as long as I want.”
“What are ‘these’?”
“Your discharge papers, and soon as you can produce an acceptable bowel movement, I might consider the two of us having a signing party. Now, I want you to swing your legs over the side of the bed over there. Use your right hand to put a little pressure on that dressing and I’ll take the left and help you up.”
Victor experienced a little wobble when he hit vertical. Before he could steady himself, Olivia surrounded his waist with a wide mesh belt. She slipped a hand inside the loop as she maneuvered herself behind him. “Now, remember to keep pressure on that dressing going down and coming back up.”
“Down and up where?”
“I told you, we are going to potty-land and don’t you dare flush. I have to take a peek or you don’t leave here.”
“Is nothing sacred around here?”
“As far as you are concerned, it is the Father, Son, and the word of Olivia.”
Crossing The Centerline
It wasn’t what Detective Michael McCaffery heard that woke him, but rather what he didn’t. Something familiar was gone. He had been living on this boat for three weeks now. The groans of the lines, the squeaks of the dock bumpers, and thumps of the hull had given him many sleepless nights. By now he was used to all he should have been hearing and wasn’t.
He lay in the queen-size bunk in the aft cabin and tried to figure out what had changed. Mike really didn’t want to brave the dew before the sun was high enough to drive the chill from the air. There was something wrong, though; he could feel it.
Mike was a transplant from New York’s Hells Kitchen, a true Irish copper. He claimed to
be what his grandfather called Black Irish, which prompted most people to think he was Italian. Whatever his inherited traits were, they did not include a love of the sea. He never cared much for water of any sort, especially if it wasn’t in a glass and couldn’t be called a chaser. But when a friend asks you to keep an eye on the one thing left in his world he truly loves, you compromise.
For the last month someone had been vandalizing boats in marinas up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline from Port Washington to Kenosha. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Mike’s friend Carl to leave his boat unattended for a month.
Carl was enrolled in a Coast Guard Auxiliary course in Florida, studying for his captains license. He was hoping to start a new career on the water. His last job, Mike’s partner on third shift as a sheriff’s deputy, ended abruptly a year and a half ago. A stolen semi-tractor demolished his car, his right leg, and the lady he planned to marry.
Carl was, after all, Mike’s oldest and best friend, depending on how you measure them. He did know Carl would risk his life for him and had. You don’t say no to a guy like that, even if it was to baby-sit his dumb-ass boat for a month or more.
Mike wrested himself from the bunk and crossed the cabin floor with an ear tuned
for anything unusual. There was nothing at first; then the boat moved with the wake from an early morning charter boat going out. Instead of hearing the air squish out of the big white bumpers
between the boat and the dock, Mike heard a click. Now where did that come from? Thought Mike. Did I leave something loose on the deck?
“This damn thing better not be sinking,” he yelled as he bumped his head on the companionway hatch for what seemed like the five hundredth time. “Damn small doorway,” he cursed. Mike never considered maybe through the years, all forty of them, he had gotten a shade wider and perhaps a bit less agile. In the cockpit, he bent over, swearing under his breath. While he held the top of his head with both hands, he felt through the thick black curls for seeping blood.
“Son of a bitch, damn, damn, damn,” and then the click.
There was nothing loose on the deck; Mike waited for what seemed to be a damp, cold forever, then click. It was behind him; no beside him. It seemed to be coming from the boat itself. It was louder out here than below; it had to be here and close.
Mike took one last tender touch of the growing lump on his head. Quietly, he stepped off the boat to the edge of the dock and waited. Another boat passed, the wake hit, and then click.
The click came from the back of the boat. Carl always backed the boat into the slip. He called it the Mediterranean style of tying up. When Mike moved toward the stern he found the source of the noise was plain to see. Tangled in one of the lines was a denim-covered leg, and Mike presumed the rest of the body was below the water line. His years of experience in law enforcement left no doubt in his mind, this leg was dead.
Train well and the game is easy…. unlike detectives on TV, a real detective calls the cops even if he is one himself. Mike dove into the cabin, clearing the head-bruising hatch by at least a quarter of an inch. He started the search for his always-misplaced cell phone. Finding it really didn’t matter; as usual, the battery was as cold as the water around the body outside.
Exiting the cabin didn’t go as well as entering, Skull Bump Two was well into development as Mike entered the bait shop at the end of the pier. Dialing the sheriff’s office on the pay phone, Mike appeared to be the only one not to notice he was wearing a baggy pair of boxers and nothing else.
Because the dispatcher recognized Mike’s voice, the call for an ambulance and
investigating team took but a few seconds. By the time he got back to the boat, everyone within a city block was standing between him and suitable apparel. He had to get some clothes on before all his peers showed or he would never hear the end of it.
Fortunately, no one else went in the water trying to catch a glimpse of the leg. Some even voiced their disappointment at how little there was to see.
Mike had dressed before the rescue squad arrived. He also managed to produce a pot of coffee for the people he normally worked with, who were now crowding the dock.
Gallows humor flowed about in an effort to ease the tension officers
always felt when dealing with death. No one wants to be near death, even those who train and get paid to endure it.
“So Mike, is this some angry husband who found out, or just someone you owed money to? Ha ha . . . ” came from somewhere in the group. Mike ignored it.
He knew he was going to have to call Carl and it wasn’t going to be nice. Carl would realize, of course, it wasn’t his fault, but he was pretty particular about his boat. Someone dying on it wasn’t going to go over well; Mike could sense it.
Suddenly the word liability popped into Mike’s head. He started looking around to
see if there was something he had done to contribute to the demise of old dead leg over there. All though he wasn’t a religious person he heard himself say, more as an expression than a prayer, “Oh
God, don’t let someone sue old Carl. I don’t think he could take a shot like that right now. He was just getting his shit back together, please just leave him alone.”
The shift commander touched his arm. “Were you talking to me, Mike?”
“No, Cap, I was just thinking out loud.”
Just then, the firemen lifted the body up onto the pier, and the medical examiner moved in. Time seemed to drag on forever; Mike felt the sun touch his face.
Everyone was doing his or her job in turn. After the medical examiner came forensic, then the detectives. Not that there was a lot for them to do. The first thing they found in their effort to identify the body was an overabundance of identification. The only thing worse than no ID, in the process of putting a name with a body, is finding too much. This body was carrying five drivers’ licenses with five different names on them. They all knew then this wasn’t going to be a simple case of drowning.
Crossing The Stateline
“Ever consider marriage?” The tires were making that hissing sound as they sprayed the mist from the road.
“I think every little girl does. It must be part of the nature of the female of the species.” Her eyes locked on the road ahead.
“I didn’t mean generally, I meant me. Have you ever thought about marrying me?”
Even in the dim light of a very grey day, he could see a trace of pink moving from her collar to her cheeks. She blinked once, then again. Her eyes searched the fog ahead of the car for the words she needed.
Huge water drops pounded the windshield. He kept glancing her way; he couldn’t stop himself. He swallowed hard. This was bad and he just realized it now. Whatever prompted him to say such a stupid thing? He eased the car to the curb as he planned an apology.
She could feel his eyes on her as he took a deep breath. She gave a quick nod and whispered, “Yes.”
Her eyes still straight ahead glistened with tears. She gave the same answer.
A Midnight Clear (a Christmas story)
Chapter 1 - FINDERS KEEPERS...MAYBE
"How long do you suppose he's been like this, Moss?"
"What, Gibby? Dead or a druggie?"
"Either, I guess."
"Drugging, I have no idea. You know how it is: Some of them die the first time they try it. I hear some of them go on for years and then that's it."
"What do you mean, 'What's it'?"
"You said, "'That's it.' What does that mean?"
"They usually die, Gib. A lot of them end up like this. They take too much of something and they always want more. That's what it does to them, Gib. They can't help it. Sooner or later they end up something like this. Lying in the snow."
"He don't look like the last one we saw. This guy has a suit and everything."
"There ain't no rules about this kind of thing, Gib. Like they say, it takes all kinds."
"Who's they, Moss?"
"They. Who is that they, that says all those things?"
"It's just an expression people use when they want to quote someone and they don't exactly know exactly who. I suppose we should check and see if he has anything on him."
"Like what, Moss?"
"Gibby, Gibby, Gibby. Like a little cash, a wallet, maybe."
"We didn't do that to the last one we found."
"I didn't want to touch that guy."
"I don't want to touch this one."
"Why not? He can't hurt you. The least we could do is brush the snow off of him. That's really gross. While we're at it, we could just kind of frisk him. Don't you think? Look out for that needle there by his hand; you don't want to touch that, Gib."
"Okay. I'll start down here at his feet. You can do that up there. I wish he hadn't come here to our alley. I wish he didn't die in front of our door. I think the neighborhood might be slipping a little, Moss. Don't you think, Moss?"
"I don't think it can slip too much, Gib. After all, our front door is on an alley. Look here, Gib, I got his wallet. Quite a bit'a dough here, my friend. Oh, God."
"Pictures, Gib. Look at the pictures. He had kids."
"I don't want to see, Moss."
"Here, Gib, hold the wallet. I'll roll down the guy's sleeve so he looks decent. Then we'll go."
"Go where, Moss?"
"We'll find Deputy McCaffery; he'll know what to do with him."
"What about the wallet, Moss?"
"We'll give it to Mike to take along. I suppose the kids will be needing the money more than us, Gib."
"How would we go about getting in touch with him?"
"Who you talking about, Gib? Get in touch with who?"
"Mike McCaffery, Moss. I mean, he usually gets in touch with us for one thing or another. I don't remember ever having to look for him. He always seems to be right behind us, looking for us."
"Good point, Gib."
Moss's left thumb and index finger tugged at the middle of his lower lip while he was in deep concentration. He tucked the corpse's wallet into the pocket of his worn black sport coat and, with effort, raised his bulky frame upright. "Come on, Gib, we'll go to the little bodega at the corner and see if the night guy will call Mike for us. You let me do all the talking, Gib; we don't want you turning this into a stuttering marathon. Oh, and Gib, while I explain the situation to that grumpy old clerk, you check out the sell-by dates on a couple of those boxes of cheese. We might want to help the guy out and get them off his shelves if they're getting old. It might be some kind of health risk, you know what I mean? It's sort of a public service thing you could do, and Gib, you better check out a couple packages of crackers too."
The cold blue eyes of the store's owner clerk locked on Moss and Gibby as they tried to pass through the entryway's metal detector simultaneously. The boy standing in front of the checkout dug into his pockets for the last penny of what was intended to be his week's lunch money. At this point, he was certain that the four packages of highly preservative-laden dessert cakes seemed far more attractive than what the lunch lady, Agnes, had labored over on his behalf.
"You need another penny, kid, or one of these has to go back on the rack." The flat, dry voice left no room for negotiation on the young customer's part. Reluctantly, the boy picked up a package of cream-filled wonders and turned to replace them on the display when a hand reached out with a penny in it. Moss's eyes widened in wonder. He couldn't believe Gibby was giving money, real money, to a stranger when neither of them had eaten in at least two days.
An apologetic grin crossed the little man's face. "It's almost Christmas, Moss."
"Harrumph," was the only reply Moss could render as the boy snatched the plastic bag of treasures from the clerk's hands. A faint whispered "thank you" flowed to his two benefactors as the boy hurried through the space between them.
"What do you two want, or did you just come in to get out of the cold again? I know you aren't buying anything 'cause it isn't double coupon day."
Gibby sidled away as Moss squared up in front of the store owner. "We were wondering if you could possibly make a phone call for us; it seems the phone at our place is out of order. Perhaps the snow has affected the lines."
"Lines? Don't you have a cell phone? Hell, nobody has phones with lines anymore."
"It seems both Mr. Gibson's and my cell phone currently need charging. Coincidence, isn't it?"
The clerk cast a wary eye at Moss but plucked a small phone from his belt. "Who you want me to call?"
"Officer Mike McCaffery at the sheriff's department. If you could tell him we have a dead man at our doorstep and we would like to report him."
The store owner took a half step back and used two hands to pull his phone to his chest. It was the closest thing to a security blanket he could get his hands on. "This your personal dead body?"
"No, we don't know him personally."
The silence that followed was broken by the 911 dispatcher shouting through the phone, "Hello, is anyone there?"
The phone moved slowly to the shopkeepers face, his eyes never leaving those of Moss. He slid back to his position at the counter and bent just a bit to place his hand on the gun he kept under the register.
"Do you have an Officer McCaffery available?"
"I'm sorry, sir, we do not take personal calls at the 911 desk. If you want to speak to a specific officer, it is best to call his desk number directly."
A squeaky voice interrupted from behind Moss's bulk. "Tell them it's Gibby calling for Mike."
The storekeeper pressed the speaker button of his phone and relayed the message.
"I'm sorry, sir, we don't have an Officer Gibby."
Gibby and Moss turned to each other and said in unison, "Must be someone new."
"Sorry we were not able to help you, sir."
The shopkeeper was near panic. "Don't hang up, please! Send an officer, any officer, to the Super Shopper on south Main. There are two guys here that say they have a dead body."
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