"You want what??"
Herman the Police Union lawyer sat in the Holiday Inn motel room. When Cheryl asked him to meet them there, he had no idea she was cohabitating. Or collaborating, or whatever the hell she was doing. Besides leaving the Highway Patrol and getting a divorce.
And Joe Dork College moved in.
Bhakti’s navy blue Brooks Brothers sports jacket hung neatly in the open closet and beside it two pairs of pressed khakis on another couple of wooden hangers. Three Lacoste polo shirts, one in lime, another in salmon and the third in lavender lay on the dresser; next to them sat a cardboard box of men’s button down shirts. Bottom of the closet showed a pair of Pay-Less rubber loafers and a pair of cordovan leather with tassels.
But Herman absorbed the scene without much fuss, he’d seen much worse in his day, and accepted the Punjabi scientist’s presence as you would a potted plant. Still what his Rainbow Rambo was asking him fell between lunatic and criminal:
"I want to see the full intel file from the Felix Graffiti Task Force, or whatever they call it."
"Cheryl, are you crazy? You have four hours left on your two weeks’ notice. Whattaya think? They got some kind of war room? Maybe it’s in four different offices on three different floors, in file cabinets and under trash cans. Maybe the FBI has requested the whole lot and it isn’t even there."
"Herman, some person, some body, some nobody, maybe three nobodies–knows something. I want the names of the people who sit in the cubicles and what floor of the new Parker Center they work on. Maybe we’ll be lucky and there’ll be an expert, a nosy cop in one Precinct. And I want to know tonight."
Herman looked around at the pale seafoam yellow of the Holiday Inn room. "Do you mind if I go down to the bar-restaurant? I work better in dark cool air-conditioning."
They met him about 40 minutes later; Herman had borrowed a Holiday Inn writing tablet and a ball point pen. A couple of names were scribbled on it. His cell phone looked a touch sweaty. He was on his second G&T. You could tell by the rings on the bar.
"Do you have any idea how tricky it is to ask questions like this? The copper you’re asking can’t know why you’re asking or who you’re asking for." He pointed his finger at Cheryl. "And the patsy has to tell me what you want to know without getting himself stuck on you, tar-baby."
He took another draught of the clean G&T. "So when you get your cute little nosey nose slammed in the Parker Center rattrap it doesn’t have his cheese on it. So nu?" Herman saw the Indian didn’t get the Yiddish. "Capiche?" And that wasn’t much better either.
"So how did you do it?" Bhakti asked somewhat amazed.
"Feh," Herman cawed; a Jewish seagull dismissing his question. "What’s it to you?"
12:30 AM, the new Parker Center, the LAPD Headquarters had the night time quiets with still a slow, sleepy pulse in the building. The occasional ring of a phone, someone answering, soft murmurs. The duty sergeant didn’t even blink when Cheryl signed in at the front desk in the lobby. The desk cop didn’t even bother with Bhakti, saying, "He’s with you?" Not caring whether the Indian fellow was or not. They took the elevator to the third floor.
There was no name on the third floor office. A wall of translucent glass: a cardboard, hand-written sign was taped to the glass reading "Gang Task Force." And some joker had scrawled the smiling face of Felix on it. Cheryl knocked. No answer.
Inside, the nameplate on the clean, organized desk: F. Frederick. And that rang a bell somewhere, but she couldn’t place it. A nagging tick at the back of her head. She glanced around the office; it looked clean, almost unused. A map of greater Los Angeles on one wall showed the rough gang territories marked with post-its. Nothing special, nothing an ordinary cop wouldn’t already know. Crips here this block, Bloods there that block. No big deal.
The steel filing cabinet wasn’t even locked.
She opened the "E-F-G-H" drawer using a ball point pen to unlatch the handle; then poked through the "F" file using the tip of the pen. Slim pickings. One folder contained a slew of photos, Felix photos–pictures of graffiti on walls, tattoos on anonymous arms, a photo of the bang-flag gun that got her into all that trouble. She flipped past it, but discerned no discernable order, no notations, no police work to the drawer. This place was the dead letter office.
"There’s nothing here," Cheryl said to Bhakti. "Come on, let’s go. We’ll try that precinct guy in West Hollywood Herman knows."
The elevator doors opened at the lobby; Cheryl and Bhakti walked towards the front doors. The desk sergeant dozed at the reception desk, but opened his eyes as they passed.
"Thanks," Cheryl said to him. He didn’t reply.
As they left the building another cop, plainclothes, opened the glass door for them. Something familiar about him. Cheryl and Bhakti scooted through, nodding thanks. The plainclothes cop nodded too, then paused, watching them as they walked away.
Cheryl could feel the man’s eyes on her neck, but she kept on walking. Then it struck her: he was the Internal Affairs guy at her interrogation. The ferret looking cop with the pockmarked face. The guy who needled her, Are you sleepy Officer Gibson? Are we boring you? Nicknamed Felix by the police captain–the mayor’s crony who told the ferret, Oh, I think we’ve covered what we can today, Felix. The ID tag read FREDERICK. Just like the nameplate on the office upstairs.
"Nice to see you again, Officer Gibson," the Internal Affairs cop said from the door.
"Just keep walking," Cheryl muttered to Bhakti.
And he dutifully followed, without a clue.
The precinct in West Hollywood was definitely open for business. Nights were long in this part of town. And at 1 AM things just getting started. This time the desk sergeant, a tough looking lady named Dubois, took a moment from the general cacophony of pre-booking to give Cheryl some professional courtesy.
"Steinholtz? You want Detective Steinholtz?" Sergeant Dubois looked over Cheryl’s shoulder, "He’s coming in now."
The detective, a round, grumpy, man in his mid-fifties in a disheveled brown suit was escorting a suspect into the precinct. And not just any suspect. The young lady was about 30, tricked out for a night on the town. But this was no lady.
Broderick Fallows–A-list movie director. His newest offering the third installment of the Zyklon-B Trilogy had just broken 200 mil after two weekends. It was titledInexplicable. And no, Cheryl hadn’t bothered to see it, she’d wait for cable. Oh, that’s right, no more cable for a while without Rachel. Well, maybe the Holiday Inn.
Worse still for Mr. Fallows his face had been on the magazine Transformations for a month in every corner news box. A free give-away. His extra notoriety the result some kind of sex change, breast enhancement or estrogen therapy male to female at the urging of his/her ‘girlfriend’ a famous dominatrix to the stars. Cheryl had forgotten most of the details if she ever knew… Rachel had even taken Cheryl to a law-firm dinner with the guy once. But that was back when Fallows was a boy. He played with his broiled salmon and quinoa sauteed with yellow peppers and red onion, but didn’t eat much.
Now, mincing into a West Hollywood precinct in do-me heels and cuffed, Lady Fallows looked awful. Blond dripping hair a mess, lipstick smeared, missing a false eyelash. When Steinholtz brought the Lady Fallows to the high desk for booking he/she hitched up her top over an impressive boob job. The $500 Victoria’s Secret decollete chamois top in purple wasn’t chopped liver either.
"Soliciting. Hollywood & Vine," Det. Steinholtz told the Sergeant. "Outside the saloon Boys ‘n Bears. She can keep his cell phone, her cell phone. Don’t throw him in the pen with the others. But don’t let him run outside either."
Desk Sergeant Dubois wagged her head a little, "Again, Mr. Fallows?" She smiled. "Some of us here, just wish you’d move to San Francisco."
"It’s too cold," Fallows replied. Dubois nodded. True enough. Then to Steinholtz who started to walk away, "Some people for you."
Steinholtz halted in his tracks. "Oh yeah, Herman’s nameless friends," he said without blinking. "My desk is upstairs."
A cluttered desk with two extra chairs facing a large room, packed with desks, all of them taken, cops on the phones, shouting, laughter, guys eating breakfast at 2 AM: the noisy West Hollywood circus.
Steinholtz just stared at Cheryl. He held her badge in a meaty hand. Staring at it and rubbing the silver with a damp thumb. Even when he handed it back, he didn’t say anything.
Finally, "Nice shooting over by Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom. I read about it in the paper. This city is going to miss you."
"I seriously doubt that."
Steinholtz shrugged, a wry smile. Then got up from his desk, "Let’s go to the men’s room, we do our best work there."
Silently he led Cheryl and Bhakti inside the men’s room, a battered wall of urinals, a battered wall of stalls, a long grimy mirror over the sinks. A large map of the city was spread out over one side of the long mirror, taped at the edges. The map was plastered with stickers at various locations and intersections. The stickers were Felix the Cat faces, each one about the size of a shirt-collar button, no bigger. Still you could see the cat’s goofy smile.
The map looked like it had been hosed with a thousand rounds from a Uzi. Just top to bottom tiny black tags, many in clusters, overlapping in certain areas.
"I had the stickers made up myself," Det. Steinholtz said. "This is the record since your cat appeared. Everybody in the precinct helps out a little. We call it The Kitty Litter Map."
"Jesus," Bhakti remarked. "It looks like a virus, like a disease."
"Yeah, doesn’t it?"
Cheryl pointed to one spot, one Felix dot off by itself. All by its lonesome. She knew the area. The Taylor yards, railroad tracks and old warehouses. The Taylor yards were 1930s old, not used much now, and many of the warehouses had fallen in the quake of ’94.
Suddenly Cheryl remembered her dream of Sweet Jane talking to her out of the storm, then suffering under ugly hands. It came back clear and strong: the dark blue and gray clouds rolling over themselves, the sound of galloping hooves. A figure at the edge of the patio looking plaintively at her. Then the abandoned warehouse with pigeons cooing on the rafters, Sweet Jane tied to a table, mewing behind a gagged mouth, now the knife was going in, now the arms were coming off… And somebody was singing, Take a little Tip
"Yeah," Steinholtz told her. "An old warehouse. Stands out, doesn’t it? I went over, didn’t find anything. I’ll give you the address. Fresh eyes and all that."
Bhakti and Cheryl bumped back and forth across the abandoned tracks of the Taylor rail yards in the cramped MINI Cooper borrowed from Mrs. Herman. Crawling between parked dump trucks and bulldozers, even a crane where the authorities were still trying to clean up after the quake over a decade ago. Intact buildings dotting the landscape between piles of fallen rubble took on the appearance of broken teeth.
Many of the warehouses had long ago lost their signs or building numbers. Never mind their lights and power and their windows. But this was the place.
Bhakti stumbled on the concrete steps of a truck bay; the metal gate was locked. A few bays down, a battered roll-gate stood open three feet, but jammed in place. Just enough room to squirm through. Bhakti got a good snort of plaster and concrete dust laced with pigeon dung. But Cheryl got through without mussing her uniform. Practice.
A strange melange of street-lamp-dawn-sky lit the windows, bluish orange. They switched on their flashlights; light sabers in a large void turning the rest black. Bits of concrete crunched underfoot, the occasional tang of metal when they kicked a bit across the floor.
Against one wall a gated elevator stared at them like a black mouth. The elevator stalled between floors half-way up. Bhakti touched the slide gate and it clanged a little, making him jump, a large empty sound in this empty space.
"Let’s try the stairs," Cheryl said softly. "Somehow in my dream it felt like the top floor of a building." She paused for a moment, considering. "Does that make sense?"
Bhakti told her: "It was your dream." Cheryl found a screwdriver with a broken handle on the floor and took the precaution of jamming the tool over the bottom hinge, wedging the stairwell door open. They carefully climbed the stairs. At one landing the wooden stair rail grip gave way and fell at their feet with a noisy clatter.
The skylight at the top of the stairwell was growing lighter and the sound of pigeons in their roosts cooing seemed to ruffle the air around them. The smell, old, musty, deserted. When they reached the top several flustered pigeons flapped and fluttered. Then quieted down. Cheryl touched the half open door to the top floor of the warehouse. Their saber lights showed just a clean, swept wooden floor. Large planks extending the length of the building.
"You think this is the place?" Bhakti’s whisper cut the air.
"Yes, Bhakti." A pause. "But I don’t think you should have come. Maybe me either."
Bhakti had taken a dozen steps in one direction, Cheryl in the other. Next he looked, she was standing over a metal cot, just the plain metal frame of a camp cot with its spring meshing. Cut cords hung at the four corners. On a low table some empty plastic bottles, dirty gauze, long tweezers, medical clamps. On the floor, a large pair of garden pruning clippers with two foot handles, used for pruning the thicker branches of a shrub.
And in a sudden blow to his mind, Bhakti realized this is where it all happened. Janet, Janet, Janet. He was standing where the monster stood who took his baby. "Stand back," Cheryl warned him. And he could see why, a large pool of dried blood around the metal bed cot.
He felt the urge to tear his hair, to howl, the flashlight began to tremble in his hand. There wasn’t even any sign of the one they were looking for. If he didn’t pull himself together in a second he was going to drop the flashlight in a fit of tremors; the beam danced across the dark cavernous space.
"But–but," he stammered, "the guy at the precinct said he didn’t find anything." Then in slow measured toned, "He said he didn’t find anything."
He felt Cheryl thinking in a long following silence.
A new voice came out of the empty corner of the warehouse room; a dry and heartless voice seemed to hang in the air like a nasty smell:
"Maybe that’s because your guy in the precinct went to another warehouse."
Bhakti’s guts ran cold; the tremors took him and it took all his will not to drop the flashlight. Cheryl’s body snapped to the sound of the newcomer; her flashlight lanced into the dark. A figure emerged from the blacker shadows of the cavernous room. Cheryl recognized him at once.
Inspector Frederick of Internal Affairs at her departmental hearing.
And just now at the new Parker Center.
The ferret-like man picked his way across the floor. His own flashlight glanced across his pockmarked face. Then swept across the yawning room. No cat graffiti. But the flashlight stopped when it caught some large spray paint on a long expanse of wall. Silver and red, striking large letters:
A sicko’s idea of a sonnet. But still no smiling Felix Face.
"Did you see our happy cat on the way in?" Inspector Frederick asked. "No. Or on the stairs? Or downstairs? No. You just used the Kitty Litter map you saw in the precinct toilet."
Cheryl felt a twinge. She hadn’t even been looking for the smiling cat. Hell, maybe somebody had gotten the little sticker on the bathroom map wrong. With a touch of grit she asked him, "I thought you were with Internal Affairs."
The ferret faced man shrugged. "Transferred."
His flashlight touched the metal cot, the dark stained floor, the handles of the pruning clippers. "I suppose I should call in a forensics team just to be thorough. For all the good it will do. But I think we all know whose blood that is." He paused for a moment to see if his remark had any effect on the Indian man in dirty khakis holding a flashlight. He found his cell phone and tapped it.
"Are you the Magician?" Bhakti asked him slowly.
The ferret faced man snorted. Then wagged his head at the simp.
"Whattaya thinking, Fellah? There is no magician, Mr. Singh. He’s the boogey man, just a bedtime story drug dealers tell themselves at night. Mostly it makes them think they’re not the worst guys in town. See, I’m not so bad… there’s the Magician. That man much worse."
He started to dial his cell phone.
"How about I send you the report, Officer Gibson?" He caught himself, glanced at his watch, then the clock on his cell phone to confirm. "Sorry, should I say, the former Officer Gibson. You officially retired 35 minutes ago. Better get out of those blues. You wouldn’t want to be pulled over for impersonating a police officer, now would you?"
Cheryl took a ragged breath and almost smiled a little. "No, definitely not." The light was coming in stronger through the warehouse windows. They didn’t seem to need the flashlights any more. She snapped hers off.
She walked toward the stairwell door, Bhakti silently following.
"Nice to see you again, Officer Gibson. I’ll get you a copy of my report anyway."
As they passed into the stairwell and down the stairs a flock of pigeons flapped violently, a flurry of beating wings; a dozen or so zoomed off their roosts in every direction.
Shafts of sunlight lanced through the stairwell’s dirty windows. The trip down seeming longer than the way up. The door at the bottom landing still wedged with the broken screwdriver. Bhakti couldn’t get Janet’s blood on the floor out of his mind; and for a moment he almost ran back upstairs to mop it clean, somehow fix it. But instead he took a deep, shaky breath and plodded after Cheryl. The cavernous ground level didn’t seem particularly creepy anymore and the urge to walk softly or talk in whispers vanished.
Suddenly the stuck half-open roll gate grumbled upwards all the way.
The rising sun hit them full in the face. Blinding orange. The great flock of pigeons from the top floor escaped out a hole in the warehouse roof and wheeled in a magnificent arc, hurling off towards the sun. A tall figure stood in the open dock.
Hard to see his narrow face, but he cut a strange silhouette. A long, gaunt man wearing an old top hat, tuxedo and tails. Thin as a praying mantis. His seemed to smile as if he knew these two and was glad to meet them. You could see his white, grimed ankles, between the frayed pants and his dull tuxedo pumps. No socks. Dirty dress shirt, limp bow tie. He carried a black satchel, a doctor’s bag in one hand. A grinning sticker of Felix the cat smiled from the side of the satchel. But this one worn and faded. As if this was the original Felix, the one who spawned the rest. First Kitty in the litter.
The praying mantis in the top hat spoke:
"Officer Cheryl Gibson? Professor Bhakti Singh?"
Neither replied.
"I’m looking for a colleague here," the gaunt man added. "Another policeman. Have you seen him?"
Again, for a moment neither replied.
Then Bhakti asked, "Are you The Magician?"
The figure in the dock bay laughed a flinty laugh.
"Of course not, if I was The Magician would I need to carry one of these?"
The satchel opened and a long, black-barreled pistol appeared in the man’s hand; he waved it languidly back and forth. Cheryl instinctively reached for her Glock, and then paused–of course, another Bang Flag Gun?
"Could be, could be…" the gaunt man said as if reading her mind. "Do you want to take a chance on that, Officer Gibson? You might go bang-bang or I might go bang-bang and then you’d take a little trip…"
Something inside Bhakti snapped. He leapt across the space, heedless of the gun in the stranger’s fist. Shouting incoherently, "Janet! Janet! Janet! I want my daughter, give me my daughter, you killed my daughter, Janetjanetjanet!" In another second the two men were tussling on the ground, legs and arms, grunting, cursing. Cheryl saw Bhakti and the tall gaunt, stranger struggling over the bang flag gun, first one controlled it, then the other, plaster dust and pigeon dung puffed in the air–
And then–
Bhakti shouted in pain and clutched his shoulder. The gaunt man stood, unfolding from the ground till he stood his full, towering height. Yes, his revolver had finally gone off, but again, only a Bang Flag sticking out. Harmless. The Internal Affairs detective sauntered out of the darkness. He shouldered his fired weapon, the gun with no flag.
A calm dead quiet descended on the warehouse.
"Oh, Felix–I’ve been looking for you," the gaunt man said at last, brushing himself off. "There’s another Sweet Jane with a tramp stamp in Beverly Hills. Might want to check it out."
"Certainly, Mr. Piper," the Inspector said to the tall, gaunt man, with note of respect, even deference. "Nice to see you again."
Cheryl knelt over the Punjabi scientist, pressing his wound with her hand. The pressure on his shoulder made Bhakti groan. "Don’t move, we’ll get an ambulance. Inspector Frederick, Inspector!" she shouted, her whole attention on the wounded man. "Call EMT. Paramedics. Inspector!"
But Inspector Frederick was no longer inside the warehouse bay. He had stepped outside. For the Lady Bluecrew had finally arrived for their set-up; their establishing shot going for full frontal blood. The Lady Bluecamera trog pointed his long glass and metal nose straight on, while the boom dink turned up his headphones and stretched to keep the dangling meshed windscreen out of the frame and the lady host of Lady Blue massaged her slinky dress with one hand, the other hand keeping her own mike at her glossy lips, now ready to narrate immediate human history.
"Inspector Felix–uh–Fredericks–" getting his name slightly wrong. "How did you know Bhakti Singh would come here to find his daughter in this harrow house? Is there another Bang Flag Gun in this case? Would you call this an accidental shooting or are you in the process of making an arrest?"
Inspector Frederick thought about answering for a moment, but instead turned from the camera, punched a speed dial on his cell phone and called for emergency medical response, mumbling the address, and answering, "Yes, I’ll be here." Then moving on to Mr. Piper’s new info, calling dispatch about the new tramp stamp cat girl in Beverley Hills. Saying, "That’s right. Another Sweet Jane."
He paused to look at the tall man called, Piper. "Hey, what address in 902 is that?"
The lady host of Lady Blue, now a trifle confounded, made the crew, Camera Trog and Boom Dink swivel to the tall, gaunt man all dressed in black. Giving him extra lens time, a loving up-pan, starting with his old tux pumps, his grimy white sockless ankles, his black doctor’s satchel, moving on to the dumb toy gun and finally the frayed top hat. "Are you an informant, Mr. Piper? Do you work for the LAPD?"
But this terrible man in the tuxedo merely grinned a lifeless grin:
"Thank you for watching. We’ll take a short break now for a message from our sponsor. The Sweet Jane Perfume Company is proud to offer their newest fragrance–Innocence. Stay tuned to Lady Blue. There’s always more."
Adapted from END TIMEby Keith Korman – Tor, August 25, 2015
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