Just A Matter of Time by B. R. Stateham

We walked out of the neon glare of the hospital’s front door and sank into the gloom of the hot still night like unwanted nightmares. Neither of us felt like talking. Behind us, in Intensive Care Unit, was a friend of ours struggling to find the strength for his next breath. A dizzying array of tubes and electronic devices were plugged into his body. Bright screens for monitors filled the soft light of his hospital room with the note of every breath, every heartbeat, every electronic pulse zapping through his cranium. Except the screen for the brain scan was flat lined.

Two bullets in the chest did that to you. Turned you into a zombie. A zombie kept alive by machines.

As far as the doctors would say . . . which they wouldn’t, but you could see it in their eyes . . . Patrolman Darnell Goodland was gone. The odds of pulling out of this one, after all the blood loss, wasn’t looking good. He was alive . . . yes.

Barely.

Temporarily.

But forget it, brother. There was no hope here. Hope packed its bag and left in a taxi for Cleveland about an hour ago.

We found his wife, mother, father, and the kids in the hall outside his hospital room. Each one was emotional wrecks. Eyes red from torrents of tears. Drawn, pale expressions on their faces. And the silence. No one saying a word. All just stood in front of the door and stared down at the dark squares of the linoleum floors and waited for the inevitable to happen.

It was just a matter of time.

We tried to say a few kind words. Tried to offer some measure of hope. We hugged each one and told them to have faith. We failed. Each one smiled faintly, their eyes filling with tears again. But each just nodded and kept quiet. In the eyes of each family member was the stark reality their husband . . . son . . . father was gone. Gone forever.

There was nothing we could do. So we stood around for a few minutes more and then left them. Left them to suffer in their own quiet miseries.

In the clingy darkness of the parking lot, Frank and I made our way to the ’66 Pontiac GTO convertible we were driving tonight. It sat underneath a barely lit parking lot light pole, alone, in a vast sea of empty asphalt. It was one in the morning and the parking lot looked more like an empty morgue than anything else. It was a very hot night. A really hot night. Here and there were a dark form or two of cars sitting waiting for their owners to come and claim them. But for all intents and purposes the large parking lot was as silent as a Quaker cemetery.

That’s when I noticed the dark figure, arms crossed across his chest, a narrow rimmed fedora pulled down over his eyes, leaning against the left rear fender. A small, compact man. Leaning on the fender with one leg crossed over the other. Looking relaxed and without a care in the world.

Frank saw him the moment I did and stopped beside me and grunted in surprise.

Frank and I are cops. Homicide detectives. I’m Turner Hahn and my partner is Frank Morales. And we’ve been partners for a long, long time. As we stood in the darkness, just outside the bubble of dim light the light pole was throwing out above the GTO, each of us stood there and eyed the lone stranger for a second or two. And then, without saying a word, we split. Frank went to the right and I went to the left. Each of us was pulling weapons out of our shoulder holsters in the process.

“Turner . . . Frank. No need to do anything foolish. I’m not here in any official capacity involving you two.”

The voice.

So different.

So unique. So instantly recognizable. A loud whisper. Soft enough not to carry too far. Yet loud enough for each of us to clearly hear. Stopping in mid tracks, I turned and glanced at Frank and then, with the .45 caliber Kimber still in hand, began walking toward the dark figure.

His name was Smitty. Without question he was the coldest, most professional, most efficient killer I had ever met. One so good neither Frank nor I had ever found enough evidence to arrest him. Even if we could have found him . . .

If Smitty didn’t want to be found he wouldn’t be. He would disappear. Fade into the night silently. Like an after thought. Like a bad dream. Like an afterthought. He was that good.

That he was leaning against the rear fender of the GTO, arms folded across his chest, meant he wanted to be found. Wanted to talk. That in itself sent chills down my spine. He might not be here to talk to us on an official capacity. But that didn’t mean he was here, at this time in the morning, in this parking lot of the city’s largest hospital, to swap hoary shop talk with two old, seasoned cops like us. He was here for a reason. A reason that somehow involved Frank and I.

“You responsible for that back there?” Frank snapped, his face a rolling dark thunderstorm about to rip open as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder back at the hospital.

“I got there too late to stop it, Frank. I swear. The kid was mistake. In the wrong place at the wrong time. Walked in on something he had no idea about. It was a trap set up to tag me. Unfortunately he walked in first. I was the one who found him. I was the one who called it in.”

I nodded. It had been an anonymous 911 call, which had sent the ambulance and a couple of squad cars out to the scene. They found the kid . . . a rookie patrol officer barely thirty years old . . . lying in the wet street beside the open door of his black and white. Lying face up on the pavement with blood everywhere.

“So what’s this all about?” I asked quietly.

“There’s a contract out on me. Apparently a recent acquaintance I had dealing with in the last twenty-four hours has, shall we say, taken umbrage over how I treated him. About a month ago I was hired by someone you know to find a guy by the name of Normal Jones. It’ll come as no surprise to hear Normal has a habit of taking things that don’t belong to him. I was asked to find him and the thing he took and return it to its rightful owner.”

“Uh oh,” I grunted, smiling and shaking my head. “We know this guy. He has family. Lots of family. Powerful family.”

The dark outline of a face underneath the snap down bill of the fedora, strategically hiding most of the man’s face masterfully, imaged a cruel smile on thin dark lips. Even the guy’s smile sent chills up my back.

“Apparently so.”

“You found Normal?” Frank asked.

“Found him and the item he borrowed. Normal was upset when I insisted on taking the object back to its rightful owner. Words were said. Maybe . . . just maybe, mind you . . . the disagreement became somewhat violent. In the end Normal relented.”

“Norman’s still among the living?” Frank grunted, rubbing an index finger on his right temple.

“He was when I left him,” the answer came back in the dark.

“So why are you here telling us this? Or do you want us to do something for you?” I asked.

“I have a deal you might be interested in,” the hiss for a voice came back from underneath the fedora. “I know who the guy was who pulled the trigger and shot your rookie. Only problem is he works for Normal. And Normal is in hiding at the moment.”

“Ah,” nodded Frank and almost . . . almost . . . smiling. “You want us to go after the shooter in the hopes we’ll flush the shooter out into the open. And in the process shake loose Normal as well.”

“We get the shooter. You take out Normal. Is that what you’re saying?” I asked, holstering the Kimber in the process. “Making us accessories to a murder in the process.”

“I didn’t say I would harm one hair on Normal’s head. I’m just hoping you can find him for me by hunting for his number one shooter.”

“Just what do you plan to do with him?” I asked.

“If my plan works out, you’ll have both in jail. Normal will confess he was the one who gave the order to shoot the cop. All you got to do is find him. In the next four hours.”

“What? Four hours?” Frank shot back, lifting an eyebrow in surprise. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve got someone to meet in four hours. He’s flying in from Denver. It’s one of those meetings you can’t get out of. So that’s why I’m asking you two for some help. You know Normal and his friends far better than I do. I’m sure you can find him faster than I could. So whatta you say? Do we have a deal or not?”

I frowned and glanced at my partner. He tilted his head to one side and shrugged. Both of us didn’t like the deal. It had that feeling some piece of vital information wasn’t being shared with us. On the other hand, Smitty was Smitty. Usually his word was good. If he said he was going to do something he did exactly that. He said we would get to cuff both the shooter and Normal and throw them behind bars. It was a deal we couldn’t refuse.

“Okay,” I nodded. But feeling uneasy about it in the process. “We flush the shooter out. Who are we looking for?”

“Normal’s right hand man. Gordon Strong.”

We knew Gordon Strong. A handsome sociopath who could charm the socks off elderly matrons and doe eyed damsels. But one who also enjoyed the act of inflicting pain on others. Twice Frank and I arrested Gordon on Suspicion of Murder. Twice his boss, Normal, somehow weaseled his right hand man out of the charges. There were scores to settle with Normal Jones and Gordon Strong.

So yeah, we had a keen interest in going after the two. But still, looking at the shadow encased assassin beside me leaning against the GTO, I could not help but think there were cards Smitty was not showing in this deal. But what other choice did we have?

“So we’re going to do this or not?” came the quiet voice whispering in the night.

“We’re going to do this,” I answered for the both of us, with Frank nodding in agreement.

Smitty came off the GTO and slid between the two of us and started walking across the half deserted parking lot. Frank and I watched him disappear into the darkness on the other side of the sea of asphalt. Grunting, Frank glanced at me and then opened the passenger side door of the convertible and slid into the bucket seat just as I slid behind the steering wheel and reached for the ignition switch.

“You know he’s got something hidden up his sleeve.”

“I know,” nodding as I slid the gearshift down into second and started rolling car forward. “But for now we’re going to do our part.”

And we did. Turned out it wasn’t all that hard to find ole’ Gordon baby.

Gordon had a younger brother. The kid was name Jessie. Jessie Strong. A hotheaded smart ass who thought he was a gambler. He wasn’t as mean as his older brother. He didn’t kill people for profit and or for pleasure. But he liked to screw people out of their money. He was big into extortion. He liked to rig big poker games. And we knew just where to find him.

Driving across town, with the top down and the hot summer night air playing through our hair, neither of us said a word. Our thoughts were on the cop lying in a hospital bed with tubes running out of him and electronic gadgets beeping and burping in a monotonous drone. On his grieving family. On his children he would never again reach out and touch. On the quiet agony of his wife sitting, red eyed and all drained from the crying, quietly waiting for death to claim her soul mate. On all of that and knowing there wasn’t a damn thing we could do to change things for the better.

Except, maybe, find the bastard who did this to him and bring him in alive and throw him in jail for the rest of his ratty little life.

In the darkness we sat in the car and waited for the poker game to break up. Across the street and down three buildings was an empty storefront owned a friend of the brothers. The windows were blacked out. The front door had a steel bar cage barring anyone from entering. The ground floor windows had steel cages as well. But the back door worked. The door that opened out into a dark alley. Here was where we would find Gordon’s little brother.

After the last sucker walked out of the back door and disappeared into the dark ocean of blackness of the alley Frank and I rolled out of the car and made our way down to the building. Entering the place wasn’t a problem. Not if you have Frank as a partner. The big man’s hairy knuckles rapped twice on the steel reinforced back door of the building softly. A small door about eye level in the door popped open and a set of eyes appeared on the other side of the door. One of Jessie’s bodyguards always had with him on card nights. The peep door opened and eyes appeared almost at the same time a rolled up fist the size of a dinner plate rammed its way through the peep door and slammed into the thug’s face.

There was a grunt of pain. Then the unmistakable sound of a very heavy weight thudding into the floor. Frank stepped back and used his size fifteen shoe to kick in the door. The door, steel reinforced, remained intact. But the blow splintered the doorframe like a pretzel being snapped in half. The two of us went through the door the moment it splintered open.

I floored the second mug with the butt of my .45 caliber Kimber just as one of Frank’s big beefy hands reached out and caught Jessie leaping up from the card table and turning to take a run for it. Instead, the twenty two year old kid’s ass was hauled up into the air by Frank and then thrown like a rig doll back into the wooden chair he had just vacated.

I had to grin. Jessie’s face was so white he’d have given Casper the Ghost a sun tan endorsement. He glanced up at Frank and then at me and even more color drained from his face.

“Listen! I had nuthin’ to do with no shooting of a cop. Nuthin’! I’ve been here playing cards for the last twenty hours. You can ask anybody who was here. They’ll vouch for me!”

The red haired, rectangular cement block of a head called Frank bent down and pushed his face almost up nose to nose with the kid. The look on Frank’s face wasn’t pleasant. Not that Frank would be considered handsome in anyone’s opinion. But when the big guy gets mad. Well, let’s just say he can scare the piss out of Dracula. A Dracula with—or without—a wooden stake driven through his chest.

“You like card tricks, Jessie?” Frank’s voice, unbelievably soft and almost gentle sounding in tenor filled the still air of the dark building menacingly. “I hear you like card tricks. Let me show you a trick. I know you’ll like it. Watch.”

There was a fresh pack of cards (still in their wrapper) sitting on the card table in front of Jessie. Frank stood, swiped the deck and shoved it directly in front of Jessie’s nose, then simply tore the box and cards in half as easily as if he were tearing a traffic summons.

Try that little trick, friend, when you want to impress someone. And good luck to you.

But he wasn’t finished. He sat one half of the torn cards on the card table in front of Jessie, and laid the other half on top of the first. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, as fast as if an industrial sized jackhammer had materialized out of thin air, Frank’s fist smashed the torn deck of cards through the tabletop. Jessie jumped out of his chair as if he had been hit with a strong electrical current. But Frank pushed the kid back down into his seat and bent over to speak to him again.

“Reach down and pick the deck of cards up off the floor, kid. Take a close look at ’em. A real close look.”

The kid, shaking in terror so bad his teeth were chattering and clacking audibly in the still air, barely was in enough control of his bodily functions to comply with Frank’s request. But the kid did bend over and retrieve the deck of cards. The torn deck of cards.

Except . . . they weren’t torn. They were pristine. Fresh and intact, the same deck of cards lied on the floor at Jessie’s feet.

Jessie, shaking violently, blinked incredulous eyes at the deck of cards in his hands and then looked up at Frank with wide, bulging eyes. Frank smiled. Smiled almost pleasantly. In a sick, testosterone filled, maniacal way.

“As you might have guessed, Jessie. I’m not in a good mood right now. I want to find your brother. And you’re going to tell me where he is, aren’t you?”

It took a second or two for the kid to finally be able to speak coherently. But he told us. A few seconds later, walking back to the GTO in the darkness, and after leaving Jessie Strong still sitting in the empty building behind us, I looked at my friend and grinned.

“That was impressive. How did you do that with card trick?”

Frank’s lips twitched. His version of laughing.

“There were two fresh decks of cards on the table. Not one. I just palmed the second deck and then exchanged the decks when I punched them through the table. The poor kid was too scared to see it.”

“Kudos, killer!” I grunted in admiration as we reached the convertible and slid into the seats. “I didn’t see it either.”

Yeah. When Frank wants to be, he can be that fast. And yes . . . it’s scary as hell to think about it.

Twenty minutes later Frank and I found ourselves walking up a dark sidewalk in front of a small ranch style home in what usually is a very quiet neighborhood. But not tonight. Tonight three black delivery vans sat on the streets, along with five patrol cars, all with their emergency lights lit up and illuminating the entire block with red, white, and blue lights. Each delivery van was a police TAC unit in full gear and armed with enough weapons to start a small war. The three units surrounded the little ranch house a menacing intent inescapable to the wandering eye. Add in the additional uniformed officers, all with guns drawn, and the statement was fairly clear to one and all. No one in that house was getting out alive unless they surrendered and came out with hands over their heads.

Frank and I were walking up the sidewalk to accept the surrender of Normal Jones and Gordon Strong. Which, frankly, surprised the hell out of me. I didn’t think either would just give up. And I never thought they’d just surrender without some kind of a fight. But they did. Just like that.

As we were walking them to a black and white, each of flanking the two, I had to ask. Had to ask Normal why he surrendered.

“Got a phone call. From a dead man.”

Later, at the precinct, Frank and I looked over Normal’s cell phone and tracked the last two incoming calls he had. The last one sent us down a dizzy road of Smitty madness.

We tracked the very last call back to the Hotel LeBlanc downtown. Righteous in its opulence is the LeBlanc. Only the rich stay there. Or . . . apparently . . . high priced hit men. ‘Bout the time we found out about the LeBlanc the booking desk downstairs called up to the squad room and told us there was a dead body lying in an elevator . . . in the Hotel LeBlanc. A body we might find very interesting.

We did. The dead man’s name was Harry Reid. From Detroit. The Harry Reid from Detroit. Maybe the most well known contract killer out there. Until somebody broke his arms before slipping the cold steel of a stiletto into his heat after one very violent fight in the narrow confines of the elevator.

We got the hotel’s security tapes. We say exactly what went down. And, pilgrim, it was amazing to watch. We used the entire squad room and had a big screen up to watch the tapes. Every cop in the precinct who could get away was up there watching with us. We all knew who the killer was. Smitty. It had to be Smitty. But there would be no way in hell to prove it.

The tape showed Harry Reid checking in at the hotel desk and walking across a semi-deserted lobby of the hotel toward the bank of elevators. Why he picked the one elevator, and how the hell Smitty knew he would pick that elevator, will be a puzzle that’ll never be explained. But Reid did. When the elevator doors opened he stepped in, turned, and waited for the doors to slide shut. They began to slide shut, but stopped and opened again when a hand appeared suddenly and the form of an elderly bald man, slightly bent over with arthritis and using a cane, stepped in at the last minute.

The old man nodded, said something to Reid, then moved to one side of the elevator. The doors slid shut and the elevator lurched slightly as it began to ascend. That’s when Smitty began working his trade. The old man, leaning on his cane, turned toward the silent Harry Reid and said something. Reid jumped. Physically jumped. Like he had been hit by electricity. He dropped the one suitcase he held in his right hand as he turned and lifted it up to pull the gun from his holster. But the old man . . . Smitty . . . went to work.

Smitty moves were nothing but a blur of hands and feet. And vicious. Such a small man capable of hitting a bigger man like Reid was and lift the heavier man off his feet was astonishing to see. Feet, fists, elbows, knees . . . were all weapons for Smitty. Even though the elevator security tape was soundless, as all of us watched, we all could hear the bones breaking in each of Reid’s arms when the blows came in. And all of us jumped in surprise when we saw the blade of the stiletto in Smitty’s hand suddenly materialize out of thin air and bite deep into Reid’s chest.

But what came next surprised us all. Bending over, the old man reached inside the dead man’s coat pocket and pulled out his cell phone. Standing up Smitty calmly dialed a number, lifted the cell to his ear, then spoke maybe four, five words. As the elevator doors slid open, Smitty, still perfectly disguised as an old man, calmly tossed the phone onto the man’s chest, stepped over the lifeless body of Reid, and disappeared.

Just . . . disappeared. Try as we could, we couldn’t find another security camera that had the old man’s image on it. Smitty just simply vanished.

It was that phone call which convinced Normal Jones he and Gordon had a better chance of living if the two of them surrendered and confessed their sins. Neither would tell us what Smitty said to them. But whatever it was, it was enough to convince them a confession wasn’t the least of their worries.

Case closed. Smitty slipped into the night and wasn’t seen again. And oh . . . at 7:45 in the morning Officer Darnall Goodland slipped away quietly and died without ever waking up. Leaving a devastated family behind.

Interestingly, when the time came, the family found all the expenses for the funeral had already been paid in full. The generosity of some unknown benefactor.

Except Frank and I knew.

*

B.R. Stateham is a sixty-five year old curmudgeon who never grew up. He’s been writing stories, covering a number of genres, for most of his lifespan. And who knows? Maybe someday he’ll be discovered as the mystery genre’s ‘Next Amazing New Talent!’ Yeah, right.

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A Killing Kiss

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