Read Devil With a Gun Online

Authors: M. C. Grant

Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area

Devil With a Gun (13 page)

Twenty-Five

When the phone behind
the bar rings, Bill picks it up and listens before tucking the receiver under his chin and fixing me with a concerned gaze.

“You cheating on me?” he asks.

Not sure where he's going, I quip, “How could anyone else compete?”

“Eddie the Wolf?” he says. “I thought I was your bookie.”

I flush slightly and hold out my hand for the phone. “It's not what you think. I needed information.”

“He's dangerous.”

“So are you.”

“Not to my friends. A wolf may entice you with a smile, but inside he's always thinking how best to eat you.”

“Thanks for the advice,” I say impatiently, still holding out my hand, “but I'm a big girl.”

Bill shrugs and hands me the phone.

“Eddie,” I say, “how did you track me down?”

“Second phone call,” he says. “You walk a small circle.”

“And here I thought I was a wild and crazy young thing.”

Eddie grunts.

“So did you find her?” I ask, turning serious.

“Of course.”

“And?”

“The Russian wants someone to come for her.”

“What do you mean?”

“He has her on the third floor of a four-story flophouse with one guard on the door. The guard likes to take long smoke breaks. That part isn't a secret. Every junkie and whore in the neighborhood knows the score.”

“But?” I inject.

“There is also a small team camped out on the fourth floor. They're waiting for someone. I don't believe even the Russian would go to that much effort for you.”

“No,” I agree. “How's Bailey?”

“OK for now, but the Russian doesn't sweeten a trap with sugar. Whoever he's baiting will need to act soon if he wishes her to remain in one piece.”

“Do you have an address?”

“You sure you want it?”

“Yes.”

He tells me the address.

“Thanks. Guess you owe me five hundred now,” I say.

“Minus my fee.”

“Ahh, and your fee is—”

“Five hundred.”

“Of course it is.”

I hand Bill the phone and decline the third beer he pulls out of the cooler.

“Bad news?” he asks, returning the bottle to ice.

“Let's call it mixed.”

“Anything I can do?”

I think about it. “Are any of your old wrestling pals living in town?”

Bill grins. “There's six of us who play cards once a week.”

“They all as big as you?”

Bill grins wider and the pectoral muscles beneath his shirt do a little dance. “They wish,” he quips, before adding, “but they're still pumping iron if that's what you mean. Why?”

The seed of a plan stretches for the light.

“Think they'd be up for causing a little chaos to help a lady?”

This time, Bill's grin sends a shiver down my spine. “You ring that bell,” he says, “and they'll cause all the trouble you want.”

Twenty-Six

I arrive in the
newsroom to let Stoogan catch a glimpse of my unconcerned, I-have-everything-under-control-and-still-look-marvelous face, then immediately detour to the morgue before he can pick up the phone and summon me to his office.

Lulu brightens at seeing me.

“The newsroom is buzzing over your FOK note, Dix,” she says.

I'm puzzled. “Why?”

“You're our shining star, sweetie. If you can't tell the publisher to stick his notes where the sun don't shine, what chance do the rest of us have?”

I grunt. “If they're looking for Norma Rae, they need to get their eyes tested. I have all the leadership qualities of an expired corner store sandwich. Hell, I don't even
like
most of the newsroom.”

“So you're still doing the Father's Day piece?” Lulu's painted eyebrows arch to new heights.

“Of course,” I say with a smile. “But that doesn't mean the publisher will get exactly what he wants.”

Lulu sticks her tongue in her cheek and makes it pop, while her eyes sparkle mischievously. “Uh-huh. See, you don't have to be a leader to inspire, you just have to remain true to you.”

“Well, I don't know how else to be, but if I was recruiting for J-school, I certainly wouldn't pick me as the poster child.”

“Of course not,” Lulu agrees. “You'd want somebody sexy.” She strikes a hooker pose. “Like me.”

We both grin until I say, “You know they'd be more likely to put Mary Jane on the poster with the slogan
Journalism: It's not that hard anymore
.

Lulu erupts into such a loud gale of laughter that she has to sit down, while several people in the newsroom across the hall stand up at their desks to see what is going on.

After calming down and giving me heck for wrecking her eye makeup, Lulu asks, “So what can I do for you?”

I hand her a piece of paper with an address written on it. “I want blueprints for this building,” I say. “I need to know the layout of every floor, fire exits, any recent renovations, the works.”

“And this is for your FOK note?”

I shrug. “The story has become a little more complicated than I counted on. How soon can you have the plans?”

Lulu glances at the clock. “I have a friend at City Hall who can sweet talk the engineers in Planning. End of day?”

“Perfect. If I'm not back, leave them on my desk.”

“Count on it, but I have something else for you, too.”

Lulu hands me a large brown envelope with a waxy, waterproof coating that looks like it's been stuck behind an outhouse for a few decades.

“What's this?” I ask.

“The photos from that funeral that you asked me to dig out from the archives. I also found the photographer. His card is inside, although I tried his phone number and it was disconnected.”

I beam. “This is brilliant. I could kiss you.”

“If I wasn't a straight woman, I'd take you up on that.”

A witty retort raises its hand from the back row in my brain and begins to call “Ooh, ooh, ooh”, but I ignore it. There's a good reason it's in the back row.

“My loss,” I say instead.

I turn around to make my exit, but the doorway is blocked by Ishmael's nemesis.

“Hey, boss,” I say. “I was just coming to see you.”

The look on Stoogan's puffy white face says he doesn't believe me.

If I wasn't lying, I might be insulted.

After reassuring Stoogan that I have everything in hand and he shouldn't give the cover away to one of Mary Jane's sex-themed masterpieces of investigative spanking journalism, I slide into my office chair and open the waxy envelope.

Inside are half a dozen photographs, a creased business card that looks as if every corner has been used to remove kernels of corn from between somebody's teeth, and a rectangular cardboard sleeve.

The photos had originally been in color, but newspapers never aim for museum quality when they're only one day away from lining a birdcage. The pre-digital lab techs were trained to print the best images circled on a contact sheet and get them to the photo editor ASAP. So long as the image lasted long enough to make it into print, the editors could care less about historical value.

Thus, the photos are cracked, faded, and water damaged. Superimposing my memory of the newspaper clipping that showed Krasnyi Lebed as a pallbearer at the funeral of the man he replaced as boss, I can tell these were shot at the same funeral, but the poor quality makes even that much a deductive leap.

I open the cardboard sleeve to find the film negatives stuck together in a celluloid blob. Useless.

With a sigh I push the envelope away and close my eyes to think. What was I really hoping to find? A concrete connection between Joseph Brown and Krasnyi Lebed, the Red Swan, of course. But I already have that, don't I? Bailey told me her father was doing a job for Lebed when he disappeared, and the tea house maitre d', Mikhail, said Brown—
if he's alive
—has evidence that could bring down the Red Swan.

The trouble is that every question leads to another question; to write a story, I need answers.

I pick up the cardboard sleeve again and notice the date penciled in the corner. It's faded but still legible.

I pull my own notepad out of my back pocket and write it down. The year of the funeral is the same year Joe Brown went missing—the same year that Lebed came into full control of the city's Russian mob.

Could Brown have been more than he seemed?

Instead of being an underling, could he have been an equal? A threat to Lebed's throne, even? If so, he would surely have been one of the pallbearers.

I need a better look at the funeral photographs. I also need to know the exact date when Brown went missing, and the only person who accurately knows that information is Bailey.

Twenty-Seven

The taxi drops me
in a part of town that smells of home. Not
my
home—too often filled with the static undertone of bickering and not-quite-good-enough—but home just the same. The humid air promises doughy perogies on the boil, onions in the frying pan, smoked ham on the bone, and hand-rolled cigarettes.

I find the photographer's shingle on a blink-and-you'll-miss-it doorway nestled between a Korean convenience store and a Ukrainian import food emporium with jars of jellied pigs feet displayed in the front window. I'm not sure if the display is meant to entice customers inside or scare them away.

There's no buzzer or bell in the entrance alcove, so I try the door. It's unlocked but not necessarily inviting. Inside, the narrow landing at the foot of the stairs is littered with broken glass vials, burnt squares of aluminum foil, and dead disposable lighters. The air is heavy with the stench of urine, rancid body juices, and no shortage of despair. Fortunately, the stairwell dwellers are out on their daily rounds.

At the top of the stairs, I'm given the choice of two doors. The one on my right has a discolored plastic sign that boasts
Mavis's Makeovers and Alterations
. The sign on the other door is etched metal, but the black paint that once made the letters stand out has cracked and peeled to the point where you need imagination rather than good eyesight to read what it says.

By process of elimination—
i.e., I don't currently need a seamstress—I knock on the left-hand door.

When there's no answer, I knock again. Harder. And press my ear to the door.

A distant grunt and cough from inside is followed by a shuffling of feet and the
click-clack-click
of something solid hitting a wooden floor.

The noises continue until I can sense someone standing on the other side of the door, catching his breath. There's no peephole, so I don't have to fix my hair or put on a friendly smile.

Finally, a hoarse male voice calls, “Who's there?”

“Dixie Flynn. I'm a reporter with
NOW
and I'm looking for a photographer who used to work for us.”

“You got ID?”

“Business card OK?” I pull one of the few cards that I carry with me and slide it under the door.

After a moment, the voice asks, “How old are you?”

“Same as my bra size, how about you?”

The man grunts again, but he must have liked the quip, since a bolt slides back from the other side of the door.

“Watch your step,” he says as the door swings open to expose a maze of newspapers, magazines, books, and camera equipment of every vintage.

The passageway between the piles of fermenting pulp is deliberately wide to allow the man room to move as he sways from side to side like a penguin. Neither of his legs appears to work that well, and he relies heavily on a metal cane with a stabilizing tripod end. One of the rubber stoppers has fallen off the tripod, exposing a sharp-edged metal point. I glance at the floor and notice the scars it's left along the hallway—a trail in inverted Braille.

I close the door behind me and follow him through the warren into a cluttered room where two armchairs rest in front of two large windows with a view of the street. One of the chairs is indented in the shape of the man, while the other looks barely used.

He plops himself into the worn chair with a grateful sigh before pulling a pouch of loose tobacco and a pack of rolling papers out of a well-used pocket sewn into the chair's side.

The man jabs his chin in the direction of the other chair as he expertly rolls a thin cigarette and slips it between his lips. He lights it with an ancient steel Zippo and the smoke drifts to a gap at the sill of the window closest to him. I patiently wait for him to settle and open the conversation.

“I still read them,” he says between puffs, “the newspapers … but I can't say I'm impressed. They've turned photojournalists into photographers and dulled their teeth with rubber caps. The only one with any guts anymore is that young punk up in Seattle, Hackett I think his name is, who stood his ground when a vigilante gang assassinated that murderer in the middle of the street. That took nerve. Everyone else is shooting grip 'n' grins and puppies licking ice cream. Even you”—he points his lit cigarette at me—“with that dead artist piece. The narrative was great, but the paper didn't run the crucial photo—the headless body and bloody canvas. Where's the balls?”

“The publisher keeps everyone's testicles in a jar,” I say. “Kinda like those pickled feet downstairs. Break open only in case of emergency.”

The man grins and holds out a hand. “I'm Victor Hendrickson. My shriveled jewels are locked in that jar, too.”

I lean forward to take his hand. The skin is softer than I expect, like well-oiled calfskin.

“So, what're you looking for?” Victor asks. “Something for an anniversary piece? A look back at what
NOW
published before it became scared of its own shadow and everybody else's checkbook?”

I remove the photocopy of the funeral clipping from my pocket and hand it over. “I'm wondering if you still have any more shots from this day.”

He blanches when he unfolds the paper and looks at the image. “Alimzhan Izmaylovsky's funeral,” he says with perfect pronunciation.

“Good memory.”

“Not really.” He rubs his left leg. “That photo cost me both knees. The docs were able to replace my right one, but the left didn't take and the bastard insurance wouldn't let them try again. Too expensive, they said. Some fucking number cruncher refuses to tick a box and that's me, screwed for life. Sweet land of liberty? Bullshit! Only if you can afford it.”

“How did the photo cost you your knees?” I ask.

Victor crushes the damp stub of his cigarette into the photocopied face of Krasnyi Lebed.

“Musta shot his bad side, I guess. Not that he has a good one. The same day the paper hit the streets, I was jumped by two guys and driven to a warehouse near the docks. The Swan was there, but the bastard didn't say a word. Just watched with those dead eyes of his as his goons took an axe handle to both my knees. When they were done, they drove me back to the paper and dumped me on the street. It took awhile for people to realize I wasn't a homeless drunk sleeping off a bender and needed medical help. But I got off easy.”

“In what way?” I ask.

Victor sighs. “The copy editor who wrote the cutline—just a young guy in his twenties—he had the tops of all his fingers snipped off. They generously left him his thumbs and cauterized the stubs with hot tar.”

“Jesus!”

Victor nods. “The Red fucking Swan knows how to send a message. I was warned he would take my eyes next, so I never did go back to the paper. Not sure what happened to the editor.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Yeah, me too—sorry I couldn't nail that son-of-a-bitch with something that would stick.”

“Did you keep any of your photos?”

“Silly question.” Victor grins. “Of course I did. He took my mobility, not my ego.”

“What about from Izmaylovsky's funeral? The ones in our archive are ruined.”

“Newspapers may write our history, but I've never trusted them to preserve it.” With some effort, Victor pulls himself out of the chair. “Heat up some water for coffee and I'll dig out my scrapbooks.”

I smile. “Deal.”

Over cups of instant coffee, Victor and I flip through a dozen scrapbooks filled with photographs and newspaper clippings. Although he has blessedly arranged his lifetime's collection by year, with at least a dozen scrapbooks dedicated to each one, he hasn't organized the photos into any subcategories beyond that.

Victor comes across the funeral first.

“I hid inside a crypt,” he tells me. “I knew the Russians would post guards at each entrance to keep the media away, so I paid the groundskeeper to unlock one of the family tombs on a small hill near the gravesite, and I spent the night. Good job I don't have much of an imagination, 'cause that place was on the spooky side. But the next morning, the view was perfect for a long lens and steady nerves. None of the goons spotted me.” He chuckles. “I even took pics of the cops setting up their surveillance, but they weren't exactly trying to go unnoticed.”

I sit beside him and look closely at the photos.

“Anyone in particular you're looking for?” he asks.

“A man named Joe Brown. I'm wondering if he was one of the pallbearers.”

Victor shakes his head. “No chance. Every pallbearer was pure Ruskie. If you're born in America, you can only go so high in this organization. And with a name like Brown, he wouldn't even make it to middle management, but—”

Victor flips forward a few pages and stabs his finger at a photo. “This could be your man.”

I look down to see a plain face frozen in time, unkempt hair and an ill-fitting suit, standing beside a giant oak. The picture is grainy, obviously shot from a long distance and enlarged, but I can see Bailey in the shape of his face—especially the eyes, which are tired and forlorn.

“Looks like he wasn't invited,” I say.

“Nope. He was standing quite a distance away, but you can see in his face that he wants to be there. That's why I snapped it. Curious, huh?”

“This didn't run in the paper, did it?”

“Nope. No reason to. Is that your man?”

“I think so. Any chance I can get a copy?”

Victor peels back the plastic sheet that's holding the photo in place. “Take this one,” he says. “Not even sure why I held onto it.”

I take one more look. The face, apart from its passing resemblance to Bailey, is that of a stranger. A small romantic part of me had secretly hoped Joe Brown and my Good Samaritan would turn out to be one and the same. It would have made my next step so much simpler.

I slip the photo into my pocket and stand up to go.

“One more thing,” I say. “I forgot to check the story, but how did Izmaylovsky die?”

“Heart attack,” says Victor. “Died in his sleep. Not the way a bastard like that should go.”

I nod. “Thanks for your time,” I say. “It's been helpful.”

“Anytime.” He takes my hand and holds on to squeeze it with tight sincerity. “And if you ever get a chance to bring the Swan down, give me a call. I'll bust open that jar, strap on my balls, and join in.”

“You know, Victor,” I say. “I just may take you up on that.”

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