Authors: M. C. Grant
Tags: #Suspense, #mystery, #Fiction, #medium-boiled, #M.C. Grant, #Grant, #San Francisco, #Dixie Flynn, #Bay Area
I rush down the
concrete stairs, taking them two at a time, grabbing the sticky handrail to propel me across each landing and down toward the next. At the same time, pounding feet are rushing up from below and I wonder if it's Frank, and if so, what his face will reveal when he sees that it's me.
I hope he's not too disappointed.
I round the next bend just as an armed Russian comes into view on the stairs below.
He raises his gun before I can reach the Beretta, and I know he's going to shoot despite my hands reaching for the sky in a sign of surrender.
His trigger finger whitens in the moment before his right eye implodes and the back of his skull is smeared across the wall.
I only hear the gunshot's echo, no louder than a cough, after I watch him die.
It came from behind me.
As I turn, Pinch reaches underneath my coat and removes the Beretta. He's holding a silenced pistol in one hand as he pockets the Beretta and hands me a lemon-scented disinfectant wet wipe.
“That's the last one,” he whispers into my ear. “Everything go OK with Bailey?”
“She's outside,” I say, struggling to find words.
“Join her,” he says. “And use the wipe. It's best to have clean hands.”
I feel him move away. By the time I complete my turn, he's vanished again.
Not entirely knowing why, I use the napkin to clean my hands. The ritual is oddly soothing and I rub the disinfectant deep into my flesh as I quickly finish my descent.
Outside, I take hold of Bailey's hand and tell the wrestlers to disappear.
“You're sure?” one of them asks.
I nod. “I appreciate all you've done, but I don't want you getting in trouble with the police. I've set up a tab at Bulldog's, but just remember that I'm a poor working stiff.”
Red and blue lights are rushing toward us from both ends of the street.
“You just want all the firemen to yourself,” says the wrestler with a smirk.
I can't help but smile. He could be right. Looking around at the chaos they've created, I ask, “Where's the other guard?”
The wrestler returns my grin and winks. “The cops'll find him.”
As the wrestlers disperse in one direction, Bailey and I cross the street to vanish into the open-mouthed crowd.
Better nobody knows we were here than try to explain why we were.
Bailey insists we stop
at Scissors & Sizzle before continuing on to the Dog House. The owner, Marjorie, lives above the salon and after one look at Bailey and her tape-strewn hair, opens the shop without question.
Bailey sprints to the bathroom then joins Marjorie at one of the sinks at the back. I make sure the front door is locked and the window blind is firmly closed to block out interior light.
I have no idea what the Red Swan is going to think of the mess we've made of his building or what he'll do about me springing his trap, but I know it's best if we're surrounded by friends rather than on our own.
With Marjorie busy tutting her tongue and snipping her scissors over the mess of tape in Bailey's hair, I pick up the salon's phone and dial Kristy.
“It's me,” I say. “You can let Roxanne go now.”
“I've been watching the news,” says Kristy in a tone that manages to mix both concern and uncertainty. “Is that you?”
“Depends. Is it about a lottery winner who's moving to the Bahamas to soak up the sun and be fawned over by half-naked sex gods who make a bottomless Long Island iced tea?”
“No, it's about a street riot that seems to have set fire to a building containing an illegal arsenal. The police are warning everyone to stay clear because bullets keep going off in the blaze. And there are bodies inside, but it's too dangerous to retrieve them. Even the firefighters are having to wear bulletproof vests.”
“Now why would that make you think of me?” I ask.
“Roxanne was talking about her sister while you were gone. Well, I say talking, but it's more like ranting. You didn't tell me she's possessed. I'm scared to get too close to her in case she tries to bite. Is she on drugs?”
“Open the door and unlock the handcuffs; she'll run away.”
“Yeah. But first, tell her that her sister is safe, and if she wants to see us we're heading down to the Dog House. But also tell her to be careful. You too.”
“Just don't talk to any strangers. Some bad men might come looking for me.”
“Oh, Dix, what are you into?”
“It's OK. I'm handling it.”
“Not very well! A man tried to shoot you in your own apartment!”
“That's dealt with.”
“So this is
I hesitate. “Kinda.”
“You need to talk to Frank.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “It might be time.”
“Keep safe, sweetie. Our baby needs an auntie.”
I inhale sharply, my voice filling with unexpected emotion. “Are you
“Not yet,” says Kristy, cutting me off. “But I will be.”
So long as I don't bring angry Russian mobsters to your door
, I think.
Jesus, what have I done?
I hang up the phone and walk to the sink where Bailey is having the last of the gunk washed from her hair. Looking down at her, I suddenly begin to laugh.
“What?” Bailey asks, horrified.
“You've just escaped the clutches of a mad Russian mob boss and what's the first thing you do?” I ask. “Go to a hair salon. How frickin' girly is that?”
Bailey's mouth is caught between a pout and a smile. “I'm a hairdresser,” she says. “Besides, some of those wrestlers were cute.”
I laugh even louder.
“I like you Ms. Bailey Brown,” I say. “You're my kind of gal.”
I turn to Marjorie. “Is there a TV around?”
She points to a small flat-screen mounted near the row of industrial hair dryers that still look like they belong in the 1950s. The remote is attached to the wall beside the TV with Velcro.
I tune into the local news and am rewarded with a full-screen image of black smoke and steam billowing from the building we recently exited. Firefighters pour on the water. The fire appears to be mostly extinguished, but the top two floors have been gutted. The camera pans down to focus on an attractive Asian woman with
perfectly symmetrical eyes, seductive lips, and overly wide shoulders. Her face is serious to let us know this isn't the weather report.
I notice her lips moving before the words scroll across the bottom of the screen. Because of the noise usually generated by the full-helmet hair dryers, Marjorie has the TV set to display closed captioning.
Authorities are saying they have no explanation for what started the initial melee that is believed to be responsible for spreading the fire to the building. One witness has described the events as spontaneous hooliganism, and indeed the police did find one man hog-tied and stuffed in a nearby garbage can. We're told that man has been taken to the hospital in police custody and will be facing several weapons charges after his injuries have been treated. Despite rumors currently trending on Twitter under the hashtag SFAttack, police are adamant there is no terrorist connection being considered at this time. However, authorities on the scene are also reluctant to offer any explanation for the large arsenal of ammunition that has been igniting inside the building. Nor are they saying anything about what are believed to be numerous bodies still inside. One reliable source has claimed there may be as many as twelveâ
The reporter touches her ear as a question comes in from her anchor.
That's correct, Clive,
she says when the captions catch up to her lips again.
When we asked about a possible gang connection, Detective Sergeant Frank Fury blanked us with a strict “no comment.”
The fiery twinkle in her eye tells the viewer that she doesn't appreciate Frank's unhelpfulness. She touches her ear again and nods.
Drugs have not been ruled out either, Clive. In fact, one bystander who didn't want to go on record has informed me that the building housed at least one illegal meth lab. And as you'll remember from my award-winning investigative piece last year, crystal methamphetamine is an extremely dangerous drug to produce exactly because of its flammability. This,
she indicts the building behind her with a subtle hand gesture,
could quite easily be the result of a drug cook gone wrong.
I switch off the TV. When the on-the-spot news teams aren't spoon-fed information, they tend to ramble and hope nobody notices.
Drug cook gone wrong?
I turn to Bailey. “You nearly ready? I could really use a beer.”
The taxi picks us
up in front of Bailey's apartment, a short walk from the salon, and takes us to the Dog House. While I look like I've gone three rounds with a bruise-knuckled smoke monster, Bailey is practically glowing with a freshly scrubbed face, new haircut, clean underwear, and fresh clothes.
If this were a fairy tale, it would be called
The Princess and the Ugh
“You sure know how to make a girl feel good about herself,” I grumble as we push open the doors to the bar.
A loud cheer erupts as soon as we step inside, shattering my feelings of inadequacy and sweeping them off to a corner. The bar is packed with gorgeous, muscled men with too much alcohol diluting their blood and enough scar tissue to show it isn't a new experience.
Before I can speak, two of the wrestlers hoist me on their shoulders and parade me around the tiny bar as if I've just bagged the Snitch to win a Quidditch match. Despite a brief flush of embarrassment, I find I enjoy itâ
especially when I reach the bar and Bill hands me an ice-cold Warthog.
The men quickly turn their attention to Bailey, and a fresh round of beer is soon flowing as I slide into my usual spot beside the stool reserved for the ghost of Al Capone. I clink glasses with Bill.
“I take it the boys did alright,” he says.
“Couldn't have been better,” I say. “Overturning the car was a nice touch. Brought the cops running.”
“How about inside? Any trouble?”
I shrug, unable to be glib. “Any trouble you can walk away from â¦ ”
“I hear that, butâ” Bill's large forehead furrows. “Dix. I've been watching the news. You're wading in some deep muck here. They're talking terrorists, gangs, arsenals, drugs?”
“Would you believe me if I said it's supposed to be a nice little upbeat story for Father's Day?”
Bill's mouth splits into a wide grin before a rumble erupts from deep in his belly to become a room-filling guffaw. He still has tears running down his cheeks when the door bursts open and Frank shoves inside with a face like he's been chewing a nest of wasps.
The crowd quiets slightly as Frank pushes his way through to the bar and sits next to me.
Bill wipes his eyes and pours Frank a non-alcoholic O'Doul's.
“Busy night?” Bill asks.
Frank nods silently before turning to me. “You been watching the news?”
“The fire?” I ask.
“Building has links to your Russian friend, Krasnyi Lebed.”
“Was he inside?”
Frank squints as if trying to get a better read on my face. I can't tell if he's amused or angry, but I'm leaning toward angry.
“There's at least six bodies and signs of a gun battle.”
“Rival gang?” I ask.
“Not their style.”
“Hmmm.” I take a swallow of beer.
“One witness saw two women fleeing the scene.” Frank glances around at the crowd. “Plus a group of very large and boisterous men.”
“Hmmm.” I take another swallow.
“One of the women was described as having red hair and wearing a green trenchcoat.”
“Hmmm,” I say for the third time and hand my empty bottle to Bill in exchange for a fresh one.
“Did you go to the gun range today?” Frank asks.
I shake my head. “Too busy.”
Frank reaches into his pocket and removes a small bottle of clear liquid and a clean handkerchief. He takes my right hand and turns it palm side up.
“You mind?” he asks.
I turn my attention to my fresh beer, not wanting him to see the nervousness in my eyes.
He sprays the liquid on my palm and waits.
After a minute, he wipes off the remaining liquid with his handkerchief.
“OK,” he says. “Now tell me what you were doing there.”
I turn to look him in the eyes. “First tell me what that was about.”
“Diphenylamine solution,” he says. “If you fired a gun recently, it would turn blue. I'd hate to think that I'm helping a killer.”
“You could simply
Frank's lips twitch. “Have you killed anyone today?”
“No,” I say, relieved that I can be honest. “Not today.”
The street door opens again, and Roxanne bursts into the bar like Hell's slobbering hounds are on her tail. She takes one look at me and I understand why Kristy was so frightened. There's a streak of poison running deep within this one that's been festering for too long. It's in her eyes and in her blood.
My hand tightens around the beer bottle in case I need to defend myself, then she spies her sister. Her face instantly softens and with a squeal of delight, Roxanne runs into Bailey's arms and squeezes her tight. The affection appears genuine.
The wrestlers let out another mighty cheer and call for more beer as the reunited sisters weep with joy.
Frank lifts the O'Doul's to his lips.
“This better be good,” he says.
“This isn't the place to discuss it,” I tell Frank. “Feel like walking us girls home?”
“And here I thought you were planning an all-nighter.”
“Me?” I say as if insulted. “Perish the thought.”
I slide off my stool and walk over to Bailey and Roxanne.
“We've got an escort home,” I tell them. “Best we take it.”
Roxanne looks at me with a mixture of both hate and resentment, but it's fighting with something else: a gnawing need for acceptance.
“What about me?” she asks.
Bailey looks at us in confusion, unaware of what's happened in her absence.
“You're welcome too,” I say. “But you need to want to be here. I'm not putting up with any more shit, I've already got enough of my own.”
Roxanne nods. “I want to be here â¦ with Bailey.”
The wrestlers groan and protest as I leave the sisters to bid their goodnights. While walking away, I notice one of the men slipping a card with his phone number into Bailey's hand. Bailey blushes slightly when she catches my eye.
I smile my approval in return. A good strong protector might be exactly what she needsâespecially now.
While the two women extract themselves, I step outside the bar to clear my head. The night is dark and moist. It reminds me of the disinfectant wipe that Pinch pushed into my hand while a gunman's brain matter slid down the wall.
Always the professional
Frank said there were six bodies inside the building, and I watched Pinch kill one of them in front of my eyes. Yet I don't feel a twinge of remorse. True, they weren't nice men; in fact, at least two of them showed little compunction about trying to kill me. But have I changed so much that a human life can now be placed on a scale? Tip toward evil and your passing doesn't matter?
I pinch the skin of my forearm between finger and thumb. It hurts. No armor there, still just flesh.
The deliberate clunk of a car door makes me lift my head to glance across the street.
Krasnyi Lebed is standing on the sidewalk beside a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Flanking him on either side are two men with masks of determined evilâgargoyles carved out of granite and humanized by Italian tailors. They are different from the behemoths who guard his office; these men are bred to kill rather than break bones.
Lebed doesn't say a word. Just stares. And for once I don't have a cheeky comeback. I'm honestly too scared.
The door behind me opens, and Frank exits the Dog House with Bailey and Roxanne in tow.
I don't turn around, even though I want to tell them to go back inside and bolt the door.
The Red Swan offers me the thinnest of smiles as he lifts one of his gloved hands to his throat and slowly drags his index finger across the flesh.
Frank moves to stand beside me as Lebed slowly climbs back inside his car. He doesn't even care that Frank sees him. He doesn't care at all.