note: I started this about 3 years ago on a different blog…figured I’d give it another go as I need something to kick my writer’s ass back in gear…
After staring for what must have been…well he really couldn’t say how long, a flicker of recognition burned into the eyes of the man in the gray suit. He recognized the black leather wrap around the steering wheel, showing the smallest hint of wear at ten and two o’clock where he usually gripped it. In the center of the wheel a shield with what looked to the man to be a horse rearing up, surrounded by squiggly lines and black and maroon bars. Yes. Yes, this was his car, his Porsche. Recognition slowly crept its way through the haze. He shifted his weight slightly and the smooth crunch of the black leather beneath him gave way. Yes, it even felt like his car. The five cascading dials in the dashboard leered out at him with a blood-red glow, looking like a cathedral pipe organ. It felt right.
He looked up at the starless sky. He couldn’t remember putting the top down. Maybe Briggs did it for him. Briggs…Briggs. Who was Briggs? He knew the name so clearly yet…
Through the windshield he saw water, murky water reflecting lights from somewhere on the far bank of…the river. Didn’t know which one. Everything was so familiar but just out of his reach.
What was not out of reach was the woman in a red dress next to him in the passenger seat. She, too, was staring up into the blackened sky with intense green eyes, her bright red mouth fixed in a look of awe, her head thrown back, blonde hair draped over her bare shoulders.
He started to smile, to ask a question, then realized answering was not on the menu anymore. Reality came in bursting flashes. Now he knew why her head was thrown back. The thick, black and chrome knife handle embedded solidly against her throat saw to that. Then he realized the dress was not red at all. At least, not originally.
He sat for another ten seconds then got out of the car. He closed the door, glancing inside for anything he should take with him. Seeing nothing he turned to walk away when he hear a tinny electronic version of People Are Strange coming from inside the car. On the floor next to the woman’s ivory leg was a black shoulder bag. The noise was coming from inside. “Cell phone,” flashed in his mind without really knowing what it meant. He reached in to get the phone, quickly crammed it in his pocket and walked away into the night.
The rain was relentless, slamming thick, fat drops like a howitzer against concrete, streaking across the grimy window. Michael Cochran didn’t care, the sound was no match for the throbbing behind his tired, gray eyes, a throbbing he knew too well to be the onset of yet another migraine. And all this before lifting his head off the yellowed pillow-case. He reached out to the worn wooden bedside table knocking over streaked empty glasses, reaching for the Relpax. Maybe if I knock a couple of these back I’ll be OK, he thought. He’d taken them before; Parker at the pharmacy was good at keeping him supplied. It was a trade off for not having any health insurance and Parker not having the monthly five large the other sucker shop owners paid him to keep the streets clean. Yep, Michael Cochran, defender of the law in the streets of Trenton, keeping the skanks and druggies away from the stores. Most of them had moved to the northwest side of Route One anyway and rarely came into center city anymore. He liked to think he had something to do with all that.
He popped the top of the pill bottle singled handed – a skill he progressively mastered out of necessity rather than desire. He knocked the open bottle over, felt around for two or three pills knocking glasses, the clock and his cell phone on the floor. popped whatever he had in his hand in his mouth and choked them down dry.
“Cochran,” came a raspy voice from the floor. Damn. He hated these phones, more like walkie talkies, never giving him a moments peace.
“Cochran!” shouted his boss. He better come up with something.
“What,” he moaned into his pillow.
“Get your ass out of bed and over to Monarch’s on 29. You’ve got a blonde stiff in a car waiting to meet you.”
“Now, Sleeping Beauty.”
On cue, Cochran felt four soft yet insistant pressure points on his back.
“A little higher, Dear.” A mangy orange cat with a stub tail and green eyes merely yowled at him.
“Et tu, Fuzzface?”
On a good day when the wind blew to the South, standing next to the Delaware River was tolerable; the industrial stench was driven downstream into the Atlantic. All the rain did was stir the pot the let the waters full bouquet fill the air. Cochran didn’t bother to turn his black raincoat against the weather. It was coming down so hard only an environment bubble would protect him. The smell of the river invaded his sinuses as he trotted from his twenty year old Buick to duck under the tarp forensics had constructed over the car. Under the tarp was worse. Death was not in the habit of smelling pretty.
The parking lot displaying the scene belonged to Monarch’s, a bar that thought it was a downtown Philly club where all the suburban white kids could get lit and grope each other to local white-kid bands. It was mostly a low-rent meat market for the local colleges and a lot of guys still hanging on to their past. The building was an old, dirty-brick loading warehouse from the days when commerce was done on the water. The inside was “cool” because the steel beam that held the loading wench, used to unload shipments off the riverboats, was still part of the building. Somewhere through the neon and psychedelic painted signs, the ghosts of the buildings usefulness remained in the broken-down facade.
“Figures you’d show up now. We’re just about done,” said a short man wearing a see through plastic jacket over a white shirt with knife-edge creases, a small Hitler mustache and round rimless glasses that magnified black eyes. He walked around the gray Porsche to flip back the sheet covering the woman in the passenger seat.
“Lovely,” Cochran said, choking the stench out of lungs. “OK, give me the gory details, Becker.”
“Fuck yeah. That’s the way I’d do it. Jam a hunting knife clear through the back of my neck. What time did she whack herself?”
“Tough to say right now but probably twelve, fourteen hours ago judging by body temp and rigor.”
“Oh, sure. This little honey’s been sitting in the pouring rain four nine or ten hours. Lots of great evidence to be found.”
“What about the vehicle.”
“Probably a total loss. The inside is shit now that it’s water-logged. Damn nice car, too.”
“Too rich for my blood. What is this about sixty k?” Cochran knew Becker loved cars. He asked him solely to keep in his good graces. This guy was a gusher of information once he started working on the body back at the medical examiner’s office.
“Try ninety seven thousand, sticker base model. This is a nine eleven Carrera 4S Cabriolet. This sucker winds up to about a hundred and sixty miles an hour wide open. You’re looking at, my friend, a hundred thousand dollars shot to shit.”
“Does the junk pile have an owner?”
“That’s your job. I’m more concerned with the contents. Here, I wrote down the license plate figuring you had no paper or pencil.” He handed Cochran a slip of paper then waved at the attendants hanging out in the ambulance. They had to put the body in the bag sideways because the womans legs wouldn’t straighten out.
“They’d have had more luck if it had been warm last night, she’d be a bit more flexible,” Becker said.
Cochran watched the ambulance pull away. A shiver ran up his spine, it always did when the victims were hauled away. Of all the bodies he’d seen in all the places, none of them impacted him like the death cart pulling away. It’s the only time when the finality of it all shot through him.
“Later this afternoon, Becker?” he called over his shoulder, his eyes still on the red and while van pulling out to Hamilton Avenue.
“Give me until morning. My kid’s got a tuba recital this afternoon. Got to be there.”
There was a war brewing at Greg’s Diner on South Broad. Cochran saw the signs every time he went there, but this morning guns were drawn and lines were crossed. Greg’s All-American was built in the McCarthy era and hadn’t changed much since. The name was born out of a fear for the safety of it’s Greek owner Gregos being labeled a communist and hauled away to some imagined detainee center where people disappeared without a trace. Greg Jr. was now in charge of scraping the grease off the grill top while Greg Sr. lounged in retirement in Sarasota. The place was no wider than a cannon barrel, with just enough room for a serving area, a row of stools in cracked green vinyl held together with duct tape and a single row of four booths huddled against the wall. The chipped Formica counter was yellowed with coffee stains and cigarette burns. This was an easy one for Cochran, free meals and he cut Greg Jr. a break on his “security costs”. The last improvement at Greg’s was the installation of an 8-track tape player that, somehow, still worked after years of smoke and grease, and endlessly played a single tape of blues standards from Etta James and John Lee Hooker to Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.
There were two waitresses, one working the counter and one working the booths. Cindy was a tall lanky blonde in her thirties who weighed less than air and applied make-up with a trowel. Rae was a twenty-something heavyset redhead, now heavier than usual with kid number two just a month away. Cindy and Rae mixed like fire and water, there was going to be smoke when the two met up.
“Did you see that?” Rae said, as an aside to Greg. “I made a new pot of coffee and she came over and took three cups out of it when there’s still coffee in the older pot. I said to her that there’s plenty in the old pot and she said “OK, Thanks.” and walked away. If she wants some pregnant red head attitude I can serve it up to her.”
Outside a siren wailed as a black and white went speeding by. Cochran thought it looked like Donofrio, who was probably late for his “weekly meeting” which everyone knew was a hooker he was shaking down, trading blow jobs for street freedom.
Cochran silently finished his coffee and scrambled eggs and left. “Can’t even leave a tip, that bastard”, Rae mumbled clearing the plates. “I don’t know why you put up with that shit, Greg.” Greg just scraped the leavings off the hot steel surface and wondered how he got trapped into his life.
“Brenden St. Croix,” Cochran read the neon green letters on the CRT screen.
“What about him?” Matt Tanner asked from behind his newspaper. Tanner’s desk faced Cochran’s and while twenty years his senior and two grades higher than Cochran, that fact never came into play. While not official partners, the two had been working together for ten tears bouncing cases, both murder and Jack Daniels, off each other. The four desks in the center of the large school green room represented the homicide squad, surrounded by dilapidated wooden desks representing other departments. At 6 AM, Tanner was on his second Coke of the day.
“He’s the owner of the car found at Monarch’s yesterday.”
“The one with the stiff?”
“Uh-huh. Address listed as 6 Whispering Willow Drive in New Hope. You know this guy?”
“You don’t?” Tanner said, chugging the last gulp and tossing the can into the trash.
“Are you nuts? You been under a rock all your life? St. Croix. That means nothing to you?”
“Enlighten me,” Cochran leaned back, lighting a cigarette. The room was empty enough to get away with a smoke. During the day, he had to go outside with all the other social outcasts.
“How’d you get to be a detective anyway? You couldn’t find your ass…”
“Just tell me.”
Tanner tossed the newspaper aside and leaned forward on the desk. “Brenden St. Croix is the progeny of one Jeremiah St. Croix, commonly known as Jerry St. Croix, more commonly known to the people that know him best, as God.”
Cochran shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t go to church that often.”
“I can’t believe this. Jerry St. Croix owns most of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, half of Philadelphia and a sizable chunk of Washington D.C. in the form of legislators and other notables. The St. Croix family has more money that seventy percent of the United States combined. Little Brenden is the heir apparent, if he can stay out of trouble long enough, something he’s not skilled at doing. I think there’s a special file cabinet around here somewhere filled only with summons for Brenden. Everything from DWI to assault.”
“Yet he’s walking around on the outside.”
“Never spent a day behind bars, never spent a day anywhere. Record as clean as a whistle. Seems Daddy’s influence reaches across the Delaware into our neck of the woods as well. Do yourself a favor. Lose the file.”
“Why? Maybe he can tell me what happened.”
“Sure. And right after that you’ll be bottom feeding in the river tied to an anchor chain. I’m telling you, go on vacation, get sick. Run away from this one because you don’t want to know.”
The train materialized out of the fog and squealed to a halt at the Trenton station. The rain had stopped, replaced by a thick mist as if the air had a three day stubble. From the platform, the greenish tint of the train’s interior revealed only three passengers: a business man in a raincoat, head thrown back in a exhausted snore as his iPod dangled from his ears, a gang banger in black from head to toe with a face that dared anyone to invade his space, and a woman, shuffling down the aisle and stepping off on to the platform. She had curly blonde hair to her shoulders and wore a jean jacket which she pulled around her to ward off the damp. She glanced into the sky with a heavy sigh, as if seeking guidance on what to do next, which wasn’t far from the truth, and headed right.
She walked with a pronounced limp, favoring her right leg and carried only a black knapsack over her left shoulder. Pausing by the trash can, she pulled a ticket stub from her pocket that read, “One Way – Pennsylvania Station New York City to Philadelphia”, crumpled it and threw it in the can. She didn’t know why she got off here instead of her destination. Something pushed her to get up and disembark. The habit of taking the silent voices, when they were gentle, seriously was one she was still developing but taking more and more to heart. She hobbled past the taxi stand filled with hacks, even at this time of night, but kept moving past into the city. Money was not the issue, she had more than enough. She just had no idea where to tell them to take her.
The wet pavement reflected the yellow street lights. She walked across the highway to Perry Street then hung a right on Stockton. She felt as if she’d been walking for days, but in truth it was more that, until recently, she never walked anywhere. Until recently she had two good legs to walk on and never used them. Now….She noticed how old all the buildings seemed, the faded brick and concrete. There was something oddly soothing about it and remotely comforting. It wasn’t glass and chrome, smoke and mirrors…illusions. Something very real about it all filled her with a wave of sadness that she quickly pushed away, focusing her attention on the sound of her footsteps. Stockton had turned into Market somewhere along the line which landed her at the intersection with South Broad. She stopped, her right leg aching from the long haul. The eastern sky over Route One was just starting to lighten from black to gray. She’d been up all night, without knowing why. The lights in the window next to her flickered on and she heard a door bolt unlatch. The gnat encrusted fluorescent flickered on over the storefront sign reading, in a faded red, white and blue, “Greg’s All-American Diner”. A sign in the window read, simply, “Help Wanted – Waitress”. The voice quietly said, “This is where you need to be.” She walked in and closed the door behind her.