Read Dead Fall Online

Authors: Matt Hilton

Dead Fall



A Joe Hunter Story




A Joe Hunter Story

one way up to Mick O'Neill's penthouse apartment on Davis Islands, South Tampa. Two ways down. You could take the express elevator up, which required use of a key to access the private floor. Coming down you could also use the elevator. Or—option two—fall sixteen stories to the unforgiving sidewalk if O'Neill's protection team tossed you off the roof. No one but a suicidal fool would choose option two, but it appeared that this was the case with William Murray.

Murray was a fool but I'd never tagged him as being suicidal. He enjoyed life too much. It was because he valued his hide that he'd made the mistake of answering the summons to O'Neill's lofty pad. Murray had angered the Irishman, but thought he could charm his way out of a kneecapping. Sadly, when he'd hit the ground at one hundred and twenty miles per hour, his kneecaps were the least of it. He'd burst on impact and there was little left of him that was recognizable. Apparently, if the Medical Examiner's report was to be believed, he'd broken ninety-two percent of the bones in his body. CSI examiners had used tools akin to snow shovels while removing him from the sidewalk.

Not a pretty image.

William Murray was a low-level street hawker, his wares not entirely lawful, and beneath my usual circle of friends, but he was likable in his own way. He didn't deserve ending up as sidewalk pizza for Mick O'Neill's amusement.

It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened up on the sixteenth floor.

Murray had gone in, cap in hand, tried to lighten the mood somewhat with a self-deprecating joke or two, but his geniality hadn't won him any friends. Mick O'Neill was someone I'd been hearing a lot about lately, and none of it had anything to do with his humanitarian ways. Murray would have been slapped around, threatened perhaps, and then O'Neill would have lost any patience he had with the man and ordered that Murray take an impromptu swan dive from the roof.

That's the way the cops believed that events transpired, and I for one was with them. However, there was no evidence, no witnesses coming forward to offer their support. In fact, all four men and two women in O'Neill's penthouse at the time of Murray's death swore that they hadn't seen him. The first they knew of his “suicide” was when the sirens of the first responders arrived on the scene and one of O'Neill's “home helpers” took a look over the balcony. O'Neill had extended his assistance to the police investigators, throwing open his home to them, and no trace evidence had been found to place Murray in the apartment. The cops knew O'Neill was lying, and even pulled him—plus his pals—in for questioning, but with no evidence to incriminate him or any of the others in Murray's death, they were released without charge, and O'Neill was offered a humble apology for wasting his valuable time.

The police moved on.

They understood that they couldn't make anything stick to O'Neill, and to try was a waste of their resources, their time, and their energy. Their best strategy was to hope that O'Neill would slip up another time, and they'd send him down for this future crime. Typically, I didn't have the patience to wait.

I've never been known to keep my peace. I'm impulsive. When something bites me, I bite back. And right now the fact that O'Neill was smirking over the crushed body of a friend was gnawing at me like a junkyard dog on a bone.

My initial response was to front the Irishman in his lair, then beat the truth out of him before letting him feel the breeze in his thick mane of silvery hair as he plummeted to earth. To do that I'd also have to send his protection detail off the roof, because no way would they be blind witnesses this time. Admittedly that plan was a bit too harsh. Plus, to do such would ensure that I was the one that the police sent to prison for the rest of my life.

My friend, Jared Rington, had cautioned me against doing anything rash. But then Rink's always more level-headed than me. He prefers to think things through, formulate a plan, and initiate it when the time is right. I've always been the go for broke, fly by the seat of my pants, kind of guy. And in the past, what I've lacked in subtlety I've gained in a healthy dose of luck and daring. But Rink was correct this time: if I went to O'Neill's penthouse carrying this much anger, then the inevitable ending would see one or all of us taking a fall—quite literally for some.

It was an effort to dampen down the urge to take violence to O'Neill, but I managed. I soothed my ego with the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. It worked for a while.

Then Candice Berry turned up dead and the rage surged afresh through my veins.

doing here, Hunter?”

I pursed my lips at Detective Holker's question, didn't bother with an answer because whatever I said wouldn't soothe him.

“Stay back behind the line, goddamnit, this is a crime scene.” Holker waved over a man-mountain of a uniformed cop. “Make sure this asshole doesn't step a foot nearer my scene.”

“Nice to see you, too, Detective Holker,” I said.

The uniform posted himself in front of me, crossing arms like hams on his chest. He was a humorless kind of guy, I could tell, and big enough to ruin most people's day. He wasn't large enough to block all of the view. Candice Berry was under a white sheet, but I could tell from the blood seeping through it that her death hadn't been easy.

“What happened to Candice, Detective?” I asked.

Holker shook his head wearily. He shoved a latex-gloved hand through his salt and pepper hair and approached me. He placed the same hand on the big uniform's shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. “I'll handle this, Buck.”

The big cop grunted in monosyllables, but moved aside.

“Joe, you being at my crime scene isn't helping.” Holker was shorter than I, but not by much. His Cuban heels helped balance the disparity and he studied me eye-to-eye. “How'd you even know what happened to Candice? I've only been here minutes.”

“News travels fast on the streets,” I said, “especially when it's bad news. Candice Berry was much loved by her friends and neighbors.”

“ ‘Much loved' being the operative words. She was a hooker, Hunter.”

“It was her way of making a living, supporting her kids,” I corrected. “Being a hooker doesn't make her a bad person.”

Holker shrugged, but the move didn't do much to stir the shoulders of his overly large suit. Holker had lost some poundage since last I'd seen him. Didn't look in the best of health. But then, when you make a living from violent death and chasing down the scumbags responsible, you could be forgiven for not looking your best.

“You scanning the police channels, Hunter? Tell me you're not like those other ambulance-chasing parasites who call themselves private eyes these days?”

“Never chased an ambulance in my life, and I don't call myself a private eye, neither.”

“But you're not denying scanning our radio traffic?”

I held up my empty palms, shook my head. I was telling the truth. It was one of my work mates at Rington Investigations, Raul Velasquez, who'd given me the heads-up on Candice's murder. “I just happened to be passing,” I said, and this time I was lying through my teeth.

Holker squinted around the grimy alleyway between two warehouses off Guy N. Verger Boulevard, close enough to McKay Bay that the occasional breeze carried the tang of brine, and close enough to Causeway Boulevard that the exhaust fumes of vehicles passing to and from Clair Mel practically overwhelmed the smell of the sea.

“And what brings you to Palmetto Beach,” the detective asked, “or rather this end of Palmetto Beach? It's not as if you've chosen the nicest lookout over the bay. I'd have thought Desoto Park was more your kind of place for passing time.”

“Didn't say that I was passing time, I said I was passing. I had business down on Lehman Street.”

“What kind off business?”

“The private kind.”

“And if I were to ask them, the port authority cops would confirm that?” Lehman Street was deep in the port district and the area heavily monitored by Tampa Port Authority officers.

“Knock yourself out,” I said, my face flat and concealing the lie. “If you want to waste time checking on my movements instead of concentrating on finding Candice's murderer?”

“Maybe you're one and the same. Oh, no, wait! You don't do your vigilante thing to women and kids, do you? Just the bad guys that deserve it.”


“Allegedly, my ass.” Holker shook his head, his mouth twisting in a lopsided smile. “I'm just ragging you, man. I know this isn't your style.”

Eyeing the formless shape beneath the stained sheet, I said, “Any idea whose style it is?”

“Like I said, I just got here a few minutes ago. I haven't come to any conclusions yet. And—even if I had—I wouldn't be sharing them with you. No offense, but it doesn't help my clean-up rate when my prime suspect turns up dead.”

I didn't respond to his words. There wasn't much point. Like a number of cops in Tampa, Florida, Ben Holker had made his mind up about me. But like those others, he'd realized that my worth as an ally in their fight against crime was more than the trouble of trying to put me away. Some had even gone as far as helping me out with information on certain criminals, particularly those that lawful process couldn't touch. It was a mutual arrangement of sorts. Their badges wouldn't allow the kind of proactive law enforcement I took to those villains' doors.

“This isn't Candice's patch,” I pointed out.

“I'm aware of that, Hunter.” She was generally found working the street corners between East Seventh and East Palm Avenues in Ybor City. “Maybe she was picked up by a shy john who wanted to find somewhere more private for their dirty rendezvous.”

“Maybe,” I concurred. “How'd she die?”

Holker thought about divulging the information, but realized that soon enough it would be readily available via all the media channels. “Nine millimeter to the back of the head.” He made a gun out of his fingers and mimed shooting.

“Any sign of rape?”

“Hunter, you know what business Candice was in. How would I tell?”

“I'm talking scratches, bruises, as if she tried to fight off an attacker,” I said.

Holker shook his head. “That's the damndest thing. Apart from the hole in her skull there are no other signs of injury. I know what you're thinking: why'd a john bring her all the way here, then shoot her without having his wicked way first?”

“That's what I'm thinking,” I agreed. “If sexual gratification wasn't the motive, Candice was lured here and then shot for another reason.”

“Shit. Listen to you. You sure you don't want me to get you a nice new detective badge to flash around?”

“Holker, you can like me, or you can hate me, but you have to admit I'm right.”

“Personally I don't give a damn about you one way or another. Right now you're stopping me from doing my job. Time you left, buddy.” Holker nodded at the big uniformed cop standing just out of earshot. The big man stirred. I held up a hand, indicated that I was going. But I didn't, I turned back to Holker.

“She was murdered by her boss, and we both know who that is.”

“Sheridan Brown?” Holker snorted. “You think she's the type to put a bullet in the skull of one of her favorite girls?”

“I'm not talking about her madam, or even Whalen, I'm talking about Sheridan's top boss.”

“Man, you ain't the only one that's got a boner for Mick O'Neill. But it's a bit of a stretch saying he's the one responsible for shooting Candice.”

“Just saying,” I said.

Holker squinted at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Is that why you were down on Lehman Street? I just bet there's a clear view from there across Hillsborough Bay to Davis Islands.”

“Depends which way you're looking,” I said, but it did little to dissuade Holker. He knew as well as I did that you could stand on Lehman and get a good view over the water to Mick O'Neill's penthouse apartment on Channel Drive.

Despite years of fooling terrorists as to my true intentions, Holker could see right through me. I guess I was a bit rusty, it had been nigh on six years since I was active with Arrowsake, the UN coalition counterterrorism group I was part of for fourteen years, and it hadn't been necessary to fool the villains and crazy men I'd gone up against in retirement. They generally knew I was there with only one thing in mind.

Beyond Candice's shrouded corpse two CSI techs were discussing something. Farther back, Holker's partner was heading our way along the alley. Likely she'd been checking for possible witnesses to the crime in one of the adjacent warehouses. When she saw me her frown told me everything.

“Look at what the cat dragged in,” said Detective Bryony VanMeter.

“More like what the cat coughed up with its latest fur ball,” Holker added.

“Hi, Bryony,” I said.

“What are you doing here, Hunter?”

“Déjà vu,” I said to Holker.

“He's sightseeing,” the detective told VanMeter.

“Nothing much to look at around here,” Bryony said, then with a nod toward Candice, “Nothing nice, any way.”

Bryony VanMeter was very nice to look at, but I wasn't about to say so. Not while Holker was around to get the wrong impression. “I was just leaving.”

“Yeah,” Holker said, with another gesture toward Buck, the uniformed cop. “You were. And I suggest you go back to your office by another route than Davis Islands. Avoid Channel Drive . . . you get me?”

“I get you, Detective,” I said.

VanMeter hadn't a clue what we were talking about, and it showed in the way her mouth hung open a slither. I watched her tongue dart over her teeth, and pulled my attention away before she caught me looking.

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