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 (17 page)

Thirty-Six

Frank is rooted beside
me in silence as the Rolls drives off. After it turns the corner and disappears from sight, he reaches into a pocket and removes a square tin of his favorite cigars.

Unwrapping two, he snips the ends off with a slim stainless-steel cutter and hands one to me. I slip it between my lips as he flicks open a Zippo lighter and touches flame to tip. He does the same with his own.

His hand is steady, but a vein throbbing in his forehead tells me that he's using the ritual to contain a burning rage.

Bailey and Roxanne watch us smoke, nobody knowing what to say—or feeling too frightened to open their mouth.

“Let's walk,” Frank says, indicating the direction of my apartment.

The four of us walk.

“Lebed,” says Frank after the first block, “doesn't make personal appearances. He has people for that.”

“He wanted me to see his face,” I say.

“He's telling you that whatever you did at that building, it's personal.”

“No,” I counter. “He's telling me he's afraid.”

“Of?”

I nod in the direction of the two women walking with linked arms a few steps ahead of us.

“Of whatever secret their father knows.”

“And he thinks you'll expose this secret?”

“He's had twenty years to make it go away and failed. So, yeah, he's scared that I'm closing in.”

“Are you?” Frank asks.

I shrug. “I'll get there.”

“And will this secret protect you?” He jabs his chin at the women. “And them?”

I shrug again. “Maybe.”


Maybe
isn't good enough, Dix. This son of a bitch threatened you in front of witnesses.” His voice cracks and becomes a growl as gray smoke pours from between his lips. “He threatened you in front of
me
.”

“He thinks he's untouchable,” I say.

“Well, he better think again.”

I touch Frank's arm and give it a light squeeze.

We walk the rest of the way home in tense silence, but I know Frank isn't nearly done talking.

As
soon as we enter the lobby, Mr. French's door swings open. He's holding an uncorked bottle of champagne and sporting an ear-
splitting grin.

“Celebrating something?” I say quickly before he can speak.

His grin faltering, Mr. French reads my face and glances at Frank.

“Ah,” he says in understanding. “Yes, well, I just … just bought a rare stamp. The Bangladesh Falcon, in fact. It completes a rather intriguing collection that I've been working on for several years. I wanted to share the good news.”

“That's marvelous,” I gush too enthusiastically. “Maybe you can show me tomorrow? It's been a long night.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” agrees Mr. French. “That would be delightful. And,” his eyes twinkle in Bailey's direction, “welcome back, Miss Brown.”

As Mr. French beats a retreat into his apartment and closes the door, Frank looks over at me and rolls his eyes.

“I don't get it,” he says. “For such an experienced liar, there are times when you just suck at it.”

“That's because, deep down, I'm such an honest person.”

“I know,” he says. “That's why you need to stop lying to me.”

“Would never cross my mind.”

His lips twitch. “See. I nearly believed you that time.”

In my apartment, Bailey and Roxanne retreat to the bedroom while I open a can of soft food for a sadly neglected Prince and fix a tall rum and ginger on ice for myself. I make the same for Frank, minus the cat food and rum.

By the time I curl on the couch with my drink, Frank has pulled the Governor out of its case and is running the cleaning snake through its barrel and chambers. The gun is already spotless, but I can tell he finds the task calming.

“So tell me,” he begins, “why I have six dead bodies in a burning building that you're seen running out of?”

“It was hot,” I say. “And you know I can't stand the heat.”

Frank stops cleaning the gun and glares at me until I buckle.

“OK,” I relent and tell him everything. Well, almost everything. I don't mention Pinch. I can't. Pinch was there because I asked him to be. He killed those men because that's what he does, and I knew that going in. I may not have planned for a bloodbath, but I sure as hell was glad to leave that building alive.

“So let me get this straight,” says Frank. “You used the wrestlers to create a distraction so that you could rescue that woman in there.” He points at the bedroom. “Because somehow you feel responsible for her involvement with the Russian mob.”

I nod.

“That doesn't explain six dead bodies,” he continues.

“No,” I agree. “But I didn't kill them, and I have no idea who did.”

“What about the fire?” Frank asks.

“Wasn't me. It started on the floor above where Bailey was being held.”

“Strange coincidence.”

“Lebed has a lot of enemies.”

“And the enemy of my enemy—”

“Isn't anyone I know,” I finish. “My plan was crude but simple. Create a noisy diversion to keep the guard busy—he's the one you found stuffed in the garbage can, by the way—sneak in and grab Bailey while nobody was paying attention, and run like hell.” I point at the gun in Frank's hand. “That stayed at home.”

Frank reloads the Governor with a 50/50 split of shotgun shells and .45s before placing it back in its case.

“Keep this close,” he says, standing up. “I'll have a patrol car parked outside overnight, but we're going to need a more permanent solution soon. I suggest you find this man you're looking for before Lebed does, and use whatever secret he holds to strike a bargain. No story is worth having the Red Swan after your head, because he's one son of a bitch who always gets his way.”

“Always?” I ask.

Frank bristles. “For now.”

After Frank leaves, I lock the door, slip out of my clothes, and slide the Governor under my pillow on the couch. Once I settle in my makeshift bed, Prince leaps onto my chest and sticks his flat nose against mine to stare deeply into my eyes, as though he can read the jumble of my thoughts and wants to help unravel them.

I scratch his cheeks and chin; his purr is a balm for my stress and nerves.

Finally, I close my eyes.

They're not shut long before snapping open again with the nagging thought:
How did Lebed know he'd find me at the Dog House?
He wasn't parked outside when we arrived.

I glance toward the closed bedroom door where the two sisters are sleeping.

Has Roxanne made a deal?
I ask myself.
My head in exchange for her sister's?

The thought weighs on my mind as I reluctantly close my eyes again. Tiredness makes me paranoid. Then again, so does being awake.

Thirty-Seven

When the phone rings
before the sun makes its appearance, I immediately think of Dixie's Tips No. 1, and don't answer it.

When it rings again, I groan and convince myself that if it's really important, they'll call back.

When it rings for the third time, I pick it up and curse myself for forgetting Dixie's Tips No. 2—
again
.

“Say your name,” says the caller when I place the receiver to my ear.

“Dixie,” I say. “With two
g'
s, but the second one is silent. What's yours?”

“You already know.”

It's Pinch. He sounds irritable, which, in the short amount of time I've known him, is unusual.

“You OK?” I ask.

“I'm golden, but the Red Swan wants your head.”

“He must know that's not a smart move,” I say. “He threatened me in front of a cop. If anything happens—”

“He's angry right now. Not thinking. Watch your ass till he cools down, OK?”

“Yeah.” Shit. “Thanks.”

Pinch hangs up and I drop the phone on the coffee table. Prince Marmalade, stretched across my feet, opens one eye in a manner that asks if I'm quite done causing a disturbance so early in the morning. We both drift back to sleep just before the phone rings again.

“You forget something?” I ask grumpily. “Some cheerful news that a tsunami is rushing toward shore or something equally as uplifting?”

“You never just say hello, do you?” says a high-pitched, yet still gruff voice.

I groan. “Morning, boss.”

“Editorial meeting at eleven, looking forward to having you in attendance.”

“What time is it now?”

“Closing in on eight.”

“You must eat worms for breakfast.”

A slight chuckle. “Two dozen every day. See you at eleven?”

“Wouldn't miss it.”

I close my eyes and drop the phone for a second time. It starts ringing before it's even landed.

“This is getting ridiculous,” I say, grabbing the phone on its first bounce. “Is it Bug Dixie Day?”

“I'm sending a car over,” says Frank. “Be ready in ten.”

“Don't you people sleep?” I ask.

He ignores me. “The fire marshal has issued the all-clear to enter the building. I want you to walk me through what happened before the coroner removes the bodies.”

“Neat-o. Guess I won't eat breakfast first.”

“Cereal is fine, but I would avoid anything fried.”

“Ha, ha,” I groan. “No wonder you're dating a coroner. Nobody else finds you funny.”

“You've got nine minutes,” says Frank. “Brush your teeth.”

I hang up and look down at Prince. “Put the coffee on while I have a shower, will you?”

Prince's ears twitch, but he doesn't even bother to open his eyes. As I walk to the shower, I know there's not going to be any coffee waiting when I get out.

Men and cats. Bloody useless.

Detective Russell Shaw knocks on my front door and shows an inappropriate lack of disappointment at finding me mostly dressed and ready to go. I was sure he would be picturing me clutching a daringly short damp towel to my bosom and flustered at having been caught
au naturel
in my empty—well, mostly empty—
apartment.

Poor kid must lack imagination.

I leave a note for Bailey and Roxanne and lock the door behind me.

In the car, Shaw studies me with X-ray eyes. But instead of trying to see beneath my clothes, I can tell he's trying to see beneath my skin.

“What?” I ask. “Never seen a naturally beautiful woman at the crack of dawn before?”

He tries not to grin and mostly succeeds. “No, just curious.”

“About?”

“This. Me escorting you to a fresh crime scene—again.”

“So?”

“I haven't been allowed inside yet,” he says. “We only received the all-clear ten minutes ago, but Frank wants you there with us.”

“So?” I repeat, which I can tell gets on his nerves.

“You're not a forensic specialist, you're not even a cop. And to make it worse, you're a
reporter
.”

I decide not to repeat myself again in case the pressure causes his ears to pop off like a plastic Mr. Potato Head I had as a kid. “And your point is?”

“You shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the scene. At least not until we've finished our investigation.”

“So, you're saying Frank's lost his marbles?”

Shaw's lips fumble with uncertainty. “I'm not saying anything against the sergeant. It's just unusual is all.”

“Hmmm. You know what I find odd?”

“What?”

“That you haven't asked me out.”

“What!” His cheeks blush. His level of discomfort somehow makes me more relaxed.

“It's obvious that you're attracted to me.”

“I-I've never shown—”

“You're young, but that's OK. I like showing new dogs old tricks.”

Completely flustered, Shaw can't seem to find his tongue for the entire rest of the journey. Pity. I could have shown him what to use it for.

Frank meets us at the car and escorts me past the police barrier and into the building's lobby, where a large makeshift tent has been erected both to block my curious media brethren and as a forensic lock.

On one table inside the tent, somebody has stacked a neat pile of fresh body bags. Resting beside them are two plastic snow shovels whose purpose I really don't want to guess at. On another table, someone has kindly arranged a box of assorted doughnuts and a large stay-warm container of coffee from a nearby cafe.

I'm heading for the coffee when Frank cuts me off.

“Put these on.” He hands me a sterile package containing a blue paper suit, complete with a hood.

“Are we playing doctor?” I quip.

'Cause I think Shaw would make a great nurse.”

Frank snorts while Shaw blushes again as the three of us pull the baggy paper suits over our street clothes. After we're dressed, Frank hands us paper booties and disposable latex gloves.

“Don't wander,” Frank warns. “The fire marshal has mapped a safe route, but the structural integrity has been compromised, so stay behind me at all times.”

“And what about the coffee?” I ask hopefully.

“Later.”

Reluctantly, I leave the coffee and tantalizing thoughts of deep-fried dough behind to follow Frank out of the tent. The three of us walk into a soggy mess of soaked and charred debris that's been swept down the stairs from the upper floors by the fire hoses.

“Watch out for needles and glass,” says Frank.

“Charming,” I fire back. “Did the local knitting guild have a rave?”

Shaw snickers behind me, but I don't reward him with one of my come-hither smiles. I'm starting to get worried about what we may find on the floors above—and how I'll explain myself.

On the first landing, we stop in front of the dead man Pinch shot through the eye. The fire never reached this far, but the water certainly did. The man is ghostly pale and slumped forward to expose the gaping wound in the back of his head. Water pools in the hollow of his skull along with what's left of his brain matter. Behind him, the wall is streaked with long fingers of dirt, erasing the telltale splatter of his violent demise.

That could have been me
, I tell myself to stop from being sickened by the sight,
if Pinch hadn't been watching my back
.

Frank pins a tiny red flag into the wall where a ragged hole the size of my fist punctures the plaster.

“He was shot,” explains Frank. “The bullet expanded inside his skull and punched out the back of his head.” He indicates the red flag and turns to point up the stairs. “By the angle, we know the shooter stood above him.” He turns to me. “Know him?”

“He wasn't here when I ran out,” I say, betraying no emotion. “I would've noticed.”

Frank points at the man's hand, still holding a gun. “He was expecting trouble.” To Shaw, he adds, “Check if that was fired, or if he was beaten to the draw.”

The young detective instantly squats down to slip an evidence bag over the gun without disturbing the corpse. From past crime scenes, I know he'll retrieve the weapon after the police photographer has recorded the scene.

When Frank starts up the stairs again, Shaw turns to me and hisses, “You were here?”

“No, she wasn't,” Frank answers before I can open my mouth.

“God didn't give him those big ears for nothing,” I say, glad to find my dark bravado hasn't deserted me completely.

The second floor is uneventful, although Frank shares that somebody scrambled to salvage what they could from the rooms before the water and fire ruined the contents.

“A neighborhood crack operation,” he explains. “The rooms on the first floor are strictly low-rent hangouts for low-rent customers. So long as you're buying, smoking, and injecting poison in your veins, there's a spot on one of the couches for you. Spend enough and you can graduate to the redneck VIP lounge with massaging La-Z-Boys and crack hos with scabby knees.”

Frank glances over at me to gauge my reaction, but I've been a reporter too long to be shocked by the sad reality of the streets. I say, “So having this place burn to the ground wasn't necessarily any great loss?”

Frank shrugs. “They'll relocate and start again.”

He continues, “The rooms on this floor were used to cook cocaine into crack. A simple DIY process without all the toxic hassles of meth, although someone was trying to be inventive.” He shakes his head. “The fire department found vials of blue, orange, and red rock. There's even a rigged-up dumbwaiter between the floors, so the den mother didn't need to climb the stairs to supply her customers.”

“What does Narcotics say?” Shaw asks.

“Barely on their radar,” says Frank. “Most serious junkies consider crack a starter drug. It gives you a boost but wears off too soon. May as well snort a can of Red Bull. The colored rocks are bothersome though. Lebed may have been using this place to target younger users.”

“How young?” I ask.

Frank sighs. “They're using powdered Kool-Aid to give it a fruity smell, so I'm guessing elementary schools.”

“Bastards!”

“That just becoming clear?” When I flash him a dirty look instead of a reply, Frank asks, “Nobody tried to stop you on these floors? Either going up or coming down?”

I shake my head. “No one.”

Shaw glares at me.

“If I had been here,” I add quickly.

“That's unusual,” says Frank. “Normally, the cook house would have a couple of armed guards outside to dissuade the first-floor customers from climbing the stairs.”

I shrug. “Coffee break?”

Frank doesn't smile and judging by the intensity of his stare, Shaw looks like he's about to burst a few blood vessels in his eyes.

On the third floor, we enter the room where Bailey was being held. Frank moves carefully around the dark stain that streaks the hallway, and I find myself holding my breath.

When we enter the living room, I exhale loudly in relief.

There's no body.

Frank points to another dark stain on the floor and follows it back into the hallway with his finger. “Somebody was seriously injured here,” he says. “Must have dragged himself out.”

“Maybe when he saw Bailey wasn't here,” I suggest. “He came looking for her because of the fire upstairs, but we were already gone.”

I point to the overturned chair in front of the blank television set. “She was tied there.”

“Bailey was here, too?” Shaw squawks. “The woman in your apartment with the junkie sister?”

“Of course not,” I answer.

Shaw looks at Frank in frustration, but Frank gives him nothing.

“Let's go up,” Frank says.

The fourth floor is the most disturbing by far. Open and spacious, the giant loft looks like a gut-shot dragon coughed up a cancerous lung and spewed it from one end to the other. Every square inch is charcoal black and reeking of burnt wood, paint, gunpowder, and human meat.

Fortunately, most of the windows are broken, allowing for a breeze to soften the cloying taste, but the breach has also allowed the city's famous early morning mist to drift inside and crawl across the ceiling, making the space chokingly claustrophobic.

Jesus, Pinch
, I think,
was all this really necessary?

Frank points to a charred body that's curled nearest the door.

“He's not nearly as cooked as the rest,” he says. “Must have arrived to the party late.”

I glance at the body and notice his right foot is twisted at an impossible angle, as though a hollow-point bullet has shattered the bones. Fire may have burned away the rest of his hair and licked at his face, but I'd know this guy anywhere.

I turn away to hide a shudder and swallow a lump of bile that is threatening to climb up my throat.

“It's too dangerous to walk around up here,” says Frank, “but this is where the bulk of the gun play happened.”

He lowers himself to his haunches for a different perspective and points at several human-shaped black lumps scattered around the debris. “Not sure what they were up to in here, but these men were taken by surprise by someone who knew how to handle themselves.”

He points to scorch marks and bullet holes that only he can see; it's all black soot and water damage to me.

“He tossed an incendiary into that far corner to split the group apart and then took them down one at a time. He used the smoke and fire to his advantage—definitely a professional. The only anomaly is the guy by the door.”

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