Chapter 1 – A Broken Man
The massive fist came out of nowhere. It connected with my jaw in a bone-rattling and sickening crunch. My head whipped to the side, blood and spit went flying. Another powerful blow slammed me right in the gut. I hunched over as my innards bounced around inside me. I labored to catch my breath, coughing, fighting the urge to throw up. The blood in my mouth only provoked my gag reflex. I went down on my knees, then fell forward and collapsed to the ground.
Two enormous, calloused hands grabbed me from behind and lifted me up. The pavement passed beneath me in a blur. I looked up just before colliding with a fast-approaching wall of metal. I didn’t hear or feel the collision, but somehow I knew I was in big trouble, just as everything around me went black.
I didn’t know how long I was out. The first thought I remembered having as I started to come to was about the weather.
Great. It’s raining again. That’s all it ever seems to do in this stinking city.
Little by little, I re-entered the realm of the living. Thunder growled from somewhere in the night sky, miles away. A cold-blooded rain fell like a million tiny shards of ice, stabbing at my bare face. I blinked against the frigid assault.
A haze enveloped me, thick and stifling, and hung heavily in every corner of my brain. The intense throbbing in my head made me feel like I had just met head-on with a freight train. I groaned and rolled over to lie face down on the hard pavement.
Gasping for air, I pushed through the agony and looked around. I was lying in an alleyway. In one direction, I could see the exit to the street. In the other, details faded into the shadows. A dull blue glow came from a light that flickered under the eaves of the building behind me.
I was soaking wet, water streaming down my face and obscuring my vision. I stretched out a trembling hand and groped the ground around me, uncertain what I was searching for. But then my fingers brushed the damp wool felt of my old fedora. I grabbed it. As I put it on, a sharp pain in my scalp made me wince, but with my head shielded from the downpour, I finally felt some relief.
I rested my head on a forearm and watched blood drip from my face onto the pavement. It mixed with the rain, flowing off in a tiny stream and swirling away. I swallowed and gagged on my saliva, thick with the metallic taste of blood. As I teetered on the edge of unconsciousness, my heart raced, and I could feel panic begin to rise. Sweat seeped out of my pores despite the wet chill of the night.
Survival instincts kicked in. A sudden desperation took hold of me, a desperation to get as far away as I could from wherever I was. I forced myself to my knees, fighting to keep steady, then struggled to my feet. My brain spun like a child’s top, and the feeling of the freight train came roaring back. My legs gave way, and I crumpled back to the ground and vomited.
A large metal shape sat before me, swaying back and forth with my surroundings. As I took long and steady breaths in an attempt to stave off another wave of nausea, something in my pain-wracked mind suddenly clicked. I remembered that I was drunk.
Growing more frantic by the second, I fought to hack through the fog-like intoxication. I focused on the metal shape, willing it to stop moving, and soon realized I was looking at a garbage dumpster, dark-colored and overflowing with trash. Midway up the side facing me was a dent roughly the same size as my head. I slipped a hand underneath my hat. My fingers came away bloodied, and a fragment of memory came back to me in a rush.
Bowie. That son of a bitch, I thought. What did he do to me? Whatever it was, I couldn’t dismiss the distinct possibility that I had deserved it.
I leaned forward and grabbed onto the side of the dumpster. Straining, my muscles shaking, I hauled myself to my feet. The closer I came to standing, the faster my brain ran laps around the interior of my skull. My legs wobbled beneath me as I stood, focusing on my next challenge. I had to walk.
I kept a tight grip on the dumpster and let myself get accustomed to standing again. After a weary few seconds, I let go, taking two steps toward the alleyway exit. I had no confidence in my legs but concentrated on the simple goal of making it out to the street. I took a third step. Then another. On my fifth step, my legs buckled and I fell face first back toward the ground. The swiftly approaching pavement was the last thing I saw before I blacked out.
My body shook as I came to for the second time. A low, muffled, warbling called to me from somewhere in the far distance. The sound grew closer and closer and soon materialized into a voice. The fog continued to dissipate, and I became aware that my body wasn’t shaking on its own. I could feel someone’s hands on my shoulders, giving me a gentle shake to bring me back to consciousness.
“Come on, Max. Come on back,” the voice said.
My eyes fluttered open to a face, hazy and tinted blue by the light of the alley. My breathing was shallow, but with each passing moment, my vision cleared. The face came into focus, revealing the concerned expression of an old man.
“S-Sam,” I sputtered. My voice sounded strange to my own ears. “Wh-what the hell happened?” A sudden awareness took over and I began to panic, squirming in an attempt to sit up.
The old man’s hands were surprisingly strong as they held me down. “Take it easy, son,” Sam said. “Don’t get too excited. You’re in bad shape. Bowie really did a number on you. More so than usual. I would’ve called the paramedics, but the block signal is down. Again.”
Fighting against Sam’s hold sent a torrent of pain through my back. I gave up, moaning, and went limp.
“There you go,” he said. “Just keep calm.”
Sam’s advice, despite its compassionate tone, was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment. “I’ve got to get home, Sam,” I told him, feeling more and more anxious and sick to my stomach.
Sam’s expression turned from concerned to skeptical. “Why? Have you got a date?” he asked sarcastically. “Look at you, out here in the rain and soaking wet! Your head’s bashed in, and you’re lying in your own puke, for God’s sake! You’re not going anywhere in your condition. Let’s get you back inside.” He finally helped me sit up. “We’ll get you dried off and sobered up.”
I nodded, reluctant but still grateful to the old man. “Thanks, Sam,” I said, reaching for my hat that lay on the ground beside me.
He stroked his mustache then gave a sympathetic smile. “I’m just sorry I couldn’t stop him before things got so out of hand.”
“Don’t worry about Bowie, old man. I’ve taken worse from tougher cats than him before.”
Sam chuckled as he lifted one of my arms over his shoulders. “You know what?” He helped me to my feet. “I believe you.”
Sam Duggin’s Fifth Street Bar was a lower-level dive on Manhattan’s East Side. Over the previous two years, I had become a regular and spent most of my evenings there. As sad as it may have sounded, I considered Sam’s my home away from home.
I sat at the bar and watched the steam rise from the mug of strong black coffee in my hands. My fedora hung alongside my raincoat on a stand in a nearby corner, both dripping onto a towel as they dried. I sat wearing nothing but my damp boxers as the rest of my clothes were in the back room getting tossed around in a dryer Sam used for towels and aprons. The place was empty, so it didn’t matter to me that I was half naked. With the condition I was in, and the way I was feeling, I really wouldn’t have cared if anyone saw me, anyway.
A makeshift bandage wrapped my midsection. Taking a deep breath caused a sharp pain in my side, so I figured I had a broken rib or two. Another bandage wrapped the crown of my head, covering an ugly gash that was the result of my collision with the dumpster. It explained all the blood I remembered seeing, and the incessant pounding in my skull. I had another bandage wrapped around the bloodied knuckles of my right hand. According to Sam, it was from a couple of well-placed but ineffective shots to Bowie’s jaw. My nose hurt, bleeding but not broken, with a wadded-up tissue sticking out of my left nostril.
While I still felt nauseated and my head throbbed, I no longer felt drunk. I took a cautious sip of coffee, hoping the caffeine could pull me out of my misery. But as lousy as I felt, what I really craved was a shot of bourbon. At the same time, though, the thought of liquor repulsed me.
Sam came out from the back room. “You sure you don’t want me to drive you to the hospital?”
I leaned back and forced a weak grin. “I’ll be fine. Just keep the joe hot, and I’ll survive.”
“Can I get you anything to eat? How ’bout a bowl of hot soup?”
“No, thanks. I doubt I could keep it down.”
“All right,” Sam replied. “Let me know if you change your mind.” He took several steps away, grabbed a towel, and started wiping down the bar top. I took a quiet moment to breathe and looked around.
Sam’s was your average humdrum food and booze joint, like any other old dive found in the city. The dark woods and muted colors gave the atmosphere a rather closed-in gloominess. Signs and posters pushing different brands of beers and spirits littered the ivy-green walls. The bar counter was toward the back of the building, lined with a dozen high-backed bar stools. Tables and chairs took up the areas closer to the front door. In one corner sat a pool table, with a couple of old dart boards hanging on a nearby wall.
Several old and dusty vidmonitors hung from the ceiling throughout the bar. The aging flat panels were always on, streaming live sports programs or gambling contests. Customers often flocked to Sam’s whenever the Yankees or other hometown teams were playing. As I sat there, however, they all showed the same blue screen with the words NO SIGNAL flashing across the bottom. Though the memory was vague, I remembered Sam telling me out in the alley that the block signal was down. It happened all the time. It was probably why the joint was so dead.
I finally looked back over at Sam. “What was this one about, anyway?”
He turned his face toward me as he continued to work. “You mean Bowie?” I only nodded, and he winked at me, asking, “What else would it be about?”
“Lila,” I said bitterly.
Sam flung the towel over his left shoulder and came over. “You were pretty high after six slugs.” He made no attempt to hide the disapproval in his voice. “Bowie came in here and ordered a beer. You said to put it on your tab, and he told you to go to hell. I was over at the tap when I heard him call you a choice name or two. Accused you of messing around with Lila behind his back. It seems he’d heard about the two of you ducking out of here together Sunday night.”
As Sam told the story, I grew more and more pissed-off with every word. Hearing the accusations come straight from Bowie’s mouth surely had had the same effect. No. It was probably worse given the fact I was drunk at the time.
Sam rubbed the back of his bald head and continued. “Well, you said something I couldn’t hear, and before I could do anything about it, you two were at it.”
I tried to push my brain, badly wanting to remember the events as Sam related them, but the memory held only empty bits and pieces.
Sam went on. “You wrestled around a bit before you both ended up out the side door. It all happened so fast.
“Anyway, he threw you headfirst at the dumpster. You were out cold before I could finally stop him. He stood over you and warned you to stay away from her.” Sam held up his hands and shrugged. “I followed him back in here, yelling at him, making sure he didn’t do any more damage. But he just downed the rest of his beer and left.”
Sam went silent, stroking his mustache while watching me. I had nothing meaningful to say, so I only shook my head in disbelief.
Sam then asked, “What did you think would happen after all this time fooling around with his girl?”
The question set me off, and my anger flared. I leaned back in my stool, ready to unload on Sam in my own defense when a sudden burst of pain ripped through my back. With a gasp, I cringed, and my body went rigid. “Goddammit, Sam!” I roared through clenched teeth.
I slumped forward carefully and rested on my elbows, letting out a long sigh and willing my body to relax. “I haven’t been fooling around with Lila.” I finally muttered.
Sam cocked his head. “Max, everyone here believes you two have had a thing for one another all along.”
“And I suppose you believe that?”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know what to believe. But I’ve seen the flirting. I’ve seen how cozy the two of you can get when she gets off work and joins you for a few drinks.”
“We’re friends, Sam. We’ve never had a thing for each other,” I replied, then threw him a stern look. “And I don’t flirt.”
“Well, what about Sunday night?” Sam countered. “Me and four other regs watched you and her, both stupid-drunk, stumble out of here together arm in arm. Hell, I may be old,” he lowered his chin, “but I have a pretty good idea of what might happen next.”
“Nothing happened,” I said. “Nothing has ever happened.” Sam raised an eyebrow, and for some reason I felt guilty despite telling him the god-honest truth. “Shit,” I spat and clumsily dismounted my stool. Hobbling to the end of the counter, I walked back behind the bar.
Sam watched with an amused look on his face as I passed by. I stopped at one of the liquor shelves and looked him dead in the eye. With a defiant glare, I pulled down a half empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s Red Barrel Bourbon. I grabbed a shot glass from a nearby stack, slammed it on the bar, and began filling it to the brim. A few drops of the precious amber-colored liquid slid down the outer sides of the glass.
Sam didn’t move. He only watched. I could only imagine the disappointment on his face as I raised the shot and knocked it back in one gulp. The liquor singed my insides, rushing down my gullet to slosh around with the shame and embarrassment and whatever else was in my stomach. I wiped away a small amount that had trickled down my chin.
“So much for making a full pot of coffee,” Sam mumbled.
I slammed the glass back down and filled it again. “Look,” I said, tapping my fingers on the bar top, desperate to find the right words. “Lila’s a great gal. She’s a rare bit of fresh air down here in this lower-level dump we call home. I’d like to think that her and I are friends. But do you want to know what I really believe?”
Sam knew I didn’t want him to answer.
“I’m just another pathetic dope who comes in here to drink my sorrows away,” I continued. “Maybe Lila has singled me out from the others and gives me a little extra attention, but I’m not dumb. I know the attention your pretty bartenders dole out on us barflies is just a means of filling up the tip jar. They all do it, some more than others. I get it. It’s business.
“But, yeah, sure. I think Lila’s a doll. She’s easy to talk to and easy to look at. But if I’m honest—”
“I suppose you’re gonna tell me that she’s not your type?” Sam asked cynically, cutting me off. “That’s bullshit.”
Sam rarely cursed, so I knew he was only trying to make a point. But the snide remark angered me nonetheless, and I slapped my hand hard against the counter—the hand wrapped in a bandage. Ouch.
“Honestly,” I said, grimacing. “I’m not interested in anything more. I can’t handle anything more. Nothing is going on between us. Nothing ever will.”
I could see by Sam’s expression that I still had a long way to go to convince him. I swore under my breath, then said, “Do you want to know what happened Sunday night? I walked her home. We said our goodbyes on the sidewalk. Once she was safely inside her building, I turned around and went home. That’s it.”
“Yes, that’s it!” I snapped back at him.
Sam was the last person I would have thought it necessary to explain myself to, and I was at my wit’s end. I had grown weary over just how much time we had spent going back and forth on the matter. Still, I supposed it was better to quash any rumors right then and there while I had the chance.
I felt tired and frustrated but found myself longing to see Bowie come walking back in through the front door. I was thirsting for a rematch, glancing at the windows near the entrance, hoping to see his hulking, ogre-like form headed my way. But only cars passed by and I looked away, disappointed.
Sam surveyed the bar top, pulled the towel off his shoulder, and attacked a spot he had missed earlier. “You know what?” he asked.
I downed another slug and looked at him wearily. “What?”
Sam took a step closer and leaned toward me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “I believe you.”
I knew Sam well enough to know that he wasn’t merely patronizing me. I sighed in relief, eager to forget the whole thing and move on, and gave the old man a grin of appreciation. After all, he was the closest thing I’d had to a father. I had spent most of my life without one. In the two years that I had known him, Sam had taken on a small part of the role.
At forty-one, I wasn’t a young man anymore. But Sam had many more years and much more experience than me. He was someone to look up to, someone to ask for advice whenever I found myself needing it. I could disappoint him, and felt remorse whenever I let him down. I loved the old man for that.
After a quick squeeze of my shoulder, Sam shooed me out from behind the bar. I went back to my stool, where he poured me another shot. “You know,” Sam said, looking thoughtful, “you should still be careful.”
I lifted the glass to my mouth, then stopped. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you might think you’re just a barfly and Lila’s your favorite bartender. Might think you’re just pals. But you do seem to give each other a lot of attention, not that any woman who looks like her doesn’t deserve it.” A smirk crossed my face, and Sam saw it. He laughed and held up his hands. “Look, I’m old, not dead!”
We shared a chuckle.
Sam wiped his forehead. “She’s what, twenty-five, twenty-six? Younger dames can sometimes get wrapped up with older guys who give them attention. I’ve seen it before. And you’re right, she has singled you out. It all may be innocent from your point of view. But just because you’re not interested in anything more doesn’t mean she isn’t.”
I swallowed the shot and noticed the pounding in my head had lessened. My buzz was coming back. I motioned for another drink, which Sam reluctantly poured. “I know what you’re saying,” I replied. “But there’s nothing there. Lila loves Bowie. And she’s smarter than that. She knows my life’s a mess, that I’m broke and out of work, that I’m still in love with my ex.”
Sam stroked his mustache again. “Sounds to me like you need fixing. Some women like the idea of fixing a broken man.” He let his words sink in for a moment. “Just be careful. That’s all I’m saying.” He tossed his towel into a bucket on the counter behind him. “Besides, I don’t want to see Bowie taking a knife to your throat next time.”
“I can handle him,” I replied, relieved that the conversation had moved away from Lila. “We’ll probably be in here tomorrow night, drinking and laughing it up.”
“I hope so. Can’t have the two of you getting into fights and scaring off paying customers.”
I rubbed my temples. “Yeah, well, sorry about tonight, Sam.”
He sighed with a smile and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. Weren’t any customers tonight to scare off, anyway.” Sam looked off, and I followed his gaze over to the old clock on the far wall. The antique digital timepiece, set on bar time, read 11:15 PM, which meant it was only eleven.
A loud, annoying buzz went off from somewhere in the back near the kitchen.
“Your clothes should be dry now,” Sam announced in response to the alarm. “I’m hoping for a late night rush if the weather doesn’t keep them in. They should start showing up anytime, so,” he chuckled as he walked away, “I can’t have you sitting there in your skivvies.”
As if on cue, the bell above the front door jingled as someone walked in. Sam disappeared into the back, while I turned my head toward the entrance and the newcomer. I expected either a look of amusement or a look of horror on their face upon finding a half-naked man, wrapped in bloodied bandages, sitting at the bar. The look on the person’s face, however, was neither, and a sudden dread took hold of me. I knew the face and the expression on it well.
Oh, no, I groaned in my head, just when I was starting to believe the night couldn’t have gotten any worse.
Chapter 2 – The Vixen
The young woman’s slate-blue eyes locked onto mine with a cool, unwavering stare as she approached. Her smoldering gaze dared me to try and look away. Any other sap unfortunate enough to catch sight of her would have been wise to run if only to save his own skin.
Her dark brown hair was long, pinned back on one side with a clip just above her left ear. The rest cascaded down the other side of her pretty, soft-featured face. She carried a small black leather clutch in one hand. A gray fur stole hung around her shoulders, the dead animal’s skin on display as though it were her latest trophy kill. A tight black dress sheathed her petite body, and pinstriped stockings clung to her legs while her black Oxford heels clicked on the hardwood floor in a slow rhythm as she walked closer.
Within seconds, she stood in front of me with a hand on her hip. Her face showed little expression until a slow grin spread across her red-painted lips. “Bowie do this?” she asked in a low, raspy voice.
I downed my shot of bourbon, trying to look indifferent as I set the glass back down on the bar. “What’s it to you?”
She shrugged and took a step closer. “Absolutely nothing. Only, I would’ve loved to have watched.”
I sighed. “I bet you would have.”
She smiled impishly and looked me head to toe. “Max, Max,” she cooed with twisted delight, “one of these days, you’re gonna get yourself into some real trouble.” She then leaned in close and spoke in my ear, her voice almost a whisper. “And I’m going to be there to see it.”
Her perfume tickled my nose with cherry blossoms and a hint of cinnamon. The scent, together with her words, sent an involuntary shudder coursing through my body. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
Using her index finger, she lightly traced several small circles on the top of my bandaged hand. It almost hurt. She then dragged her finger midway up my arm, triggering another shudder. She took a step back and eyed me coyly for a moment, savoring the unsettled expression on my face.
But then, after half a heartbeat, she broke down into a fit of giggles. With the flick of a switch, the seductive temptress disappeared. In her place, the spirited young girl I knew too well stood laughing at me.
“You dumbass,” she said.
I grinned. “Nice to see you too, Molly.”
Molly Mitchell, one of the other bartenders at Sam’s, was about to start her late night shift. I knew from experience that the sultry and provocative vixen persona was a front she put on to hook new customers into becoming regulars. She was good at it, and she knew it. Sam knew it too. Hiring her was a smart move.
In truth, Molly was just a twenty-something-year-old kid, working at Sam’s to help pay her way through nursing school. She was spunky, cheerful—with a tendency to swear like a sailor—and always eager to meet new people and hear their stories. While she was lively and outgoing, I was the complete opposite, but that never stopped us from becoming good friends.
The talk among the regulars suggested that Lila was my favorite bartender. If that were true, then Molly was a close second, though there was a distinct difference between the two. If Lila had singled me out for extra special attention, Molly had singled out damn near everyone.
“Holy shitballs, Max,” Molly said, her brow furrowing, her expression softening to reveal a genuine concern. “Seriously, are you okay?”
I shrugged. “I’ve felt better.”
Molly let out a loud sigh. “Bowie think you’re screwing around with Lila again?” she asked as she headed back behind the bar to stash her belongings and clock in.
“Something like that.”
She smiled and tapped the tip of her narrow nose with a forefinger. “Uh-huh.”
Sam walked out from the back, my clothes in hand. He greeted Molly as he approached and laid my things on the bar. “Here you go, son,” he said to me.
I thanked him and slid an arm into one of the sleeves of my shirt. It hurt, my arms and back shrieking in protest, but I finally managed to slip it on. I fumbled with the buttons, unable to use my bandaged hand.
Molly came back around to my side of the bar and began fastening the buttons for me. “Well, I guess the fun’s over,” she said, disappointed. Then, with a wicked grin, her inner vixen reappeared, saying, “I’d much rather see you sitting here in next to nothing.” Fastening the lowest button, just below my waistline, she threw me another grin that made me flush.
I cleared my throat and fought off another shudder.
Molly stifled a laugh as I stood up from my seat. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said demurely. “Am I making you uncomfortable?” She already knew the answer.
“Sure as hell are,” I replied and grabbed my trousers. As I tried to get a leg into them, I almost fell over.
“Here,” Molly said with a chuckle and held my arm to steady me. It was a battle of wits, but I soon had my pants on, making it a point to fasten the zipper myself.
Sam stood by and said nothing. His expression, a mix of concern and amusement, told me everything. I was a sorry sight to behold. Molly brought over the rest of my things and held my hat and raincoat while I finished getting dressed.
Sam gestured to me from where he stood behind the counter. “Let’s get you a cab.”
I shook my head. “I’ll walk. I could use the fresh air.” Sam then threw me a skeptical look, probably guessing that I needed a walk to sober up. “I’m okay, really. I’ll be fine.”
I took my hat and coat from Molly and turned to leave. At that moment, all the vidmonitors in the building flickered back to life. The screens, many set to different channels, caught everyone’s attention. It appeared the block signal was back up and running.
“Well, that’s good news,” Sam said.
“Thanks, you two,” I said, facing them both. “I’m going home. I can’t wait to forget about tonight.”
Molly laughed. “Like I’m going to let that happen.”
“I know, I know. If I—” My thoughts froze in mid-sentence and I stopped short, my attention glued to one of the monitors hanging above the bar. Set to a news channel, it was streaming some breaking story.
The live footage centered on police officers standing in an area cordoned off by yellow tape, in the flashing strobe of red and white lights. The words that ran along the bottom of the screen lit up in my brain like muzzle flash. Such words always did. They were the type of words no one ever wanted to see or hear, but for some sick and twisted reason they drew us in like moths to a flame. Or maybe it was just me.
I had seen such words before. Too often, in fact. It was a different time and place, but the words were nearly always the same. The only difference was they hit much harder than they used to. I had my reasons, after all. As I stood there staring up at them, a void grew somewhere deep within me. Old wounds ripped open. I took one feeble step closer to the bar, fixed on the words that blazed across the screen. WOMAN FOUND MURDERED.
Chapter 3 – A Life Once Lived
“Hey, Sam, turn that up, will you?” I asked. Sam reached up and pushed the volume slider, and the audio from the stream filled the bar.
“… found by police at approximately 10:15 PM this evening in Redford Park, Chelsea. Unofficial reports from sources close to the case are telling us that the victim is twenty-two-year-old Claire Hemsley, daughter of the wealthy coal mining tycoon, Albert Hemsley. Sources also say it appears to be foul play. Again, the woman’s identity has not been released by the police, but we’re being told unofficially that the victim is Claire Hemsley. A representative with the NYPD will be making a statement shortly.
“We’re now looking at live footage from our affiliate, News.i27, with reporters on site …”
Sam turned the volume down when a group of young people walked into the bar. As he went off to help them, I stood frozen in place, watching the stream continue on in silence.
“I heard about that on my way over here. So goddamn sad,” Molly said. I had forgotten she was still standing beside me. “She was my age,” Molly added solemnly.
I took a breath and stepped back as a horrible feeling stirred inside me. The uncomfortably familiar feeling hit me anytime news of that sort came along. I felt a dire and overpowering need to bring the victim’s killer to justice. A long time had passed since I last felt that need. Pursuing justice was, after all, what I used to do for a living.
“It’s terrible,” was all I could think to say. The thought that the girl’s murder might have happened while I sat wasting away at the bar sickened me.
Sam soon returned after delivering a pitcher of beer to his new customers. He took something out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Here, I almost forgot. This was in your trousers. Lucky I found it before it went in the dryer. I turned it off to save the battery.”
I took the hand-sized rectangular device that looked like a thin pane of heavily tinted glass. It was my jack. “Thanks,” I replied, not bothering to remind Sam that batteries weren’t as they were back in his day. Slipping the device into my pocket, I turned back toward the breaking news report.
Sam noticed. “What are you thinking, Max?” he asked with suspicion in his voice. I shook my head, still glued to monitor, though in my peripheral vision, I could see Molly glance over at Sam.
“I’ve seen that look before, Sam,” Molly said. “Bad news …” Her voice trailed away as she headed off toward a customer who was waving her down.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, shooting Sam a look.
He held up his hands. “Hey, we all know how you get when something bad like this happens. The old homicide detective in you wants out. You can’t let him, so you wind up in here drinking yourself silly.”
A long sigh escaped my lips, and I bent forward, resting my hands on the bar. Sam leaned in a little closer. I could see the deep wrinkles around his gray-green eyes. “I know you miss it,” he said, lowering his voice. “What’d you call it once? The chase? You want justice for people who’ve lost loved ones to bad people. But you’re not the big time New York City homicide detective you used to be. You’ve said it yourself. You’re an out-of-work private eye, and you’re broke. Speaking of which, I don’t even want to know what your bar tab is up to these days.
“Anyway, you’ve got more important things to think about. Can’t go worrying about some girl who got herself killed, horrible as it may be. Who you used to be and what you used to do, that’s all ancient history. Dwelling on it will only lead to trouble. Worry about the life you have now and getting it back together. Stay out of trouble, Max.”
The old man’s words hurt. They also made me angry, not at Sam, but at myself, because everything he said was true. I wasn’t a homicide detective anymore. A drunken brawl tended to ruin one’s career. Especially when it ended in a badly botched case that had gotten thrown out of court as a result. That was exactly what happened two years before.
Following my dismissal from the NYPD, I thought I could make my way as a private detective. While it seemed like a good idea on paper, my reputation preceded me. Even more, private dicks were already a longtime dying breed. The venture was a complete failure and things only got worse. My marriage, my finances, and my sobriety were all shot to hell and left to die in the aftermath.
It was hard to even reflect on the events that ruined my life, and alcohol helped mask the pain. When the smoke had finally cleared, I was nothing but a loner and a drunk. I spent my days with a scant cast and crew of bar folk whom I sadly regarded as family. It was often difficult to even get out of bed in the morning, knowing what my life had become.
I looked up at Sam, not sure if he could see the tears welling in my bloodshot eyes. “Thanks, Sam,” I said, trying my best to smile. “See you next time.” With that, I shook his hand and limped for the door.
“Bye, Max!” Molly called from somewhere behind me.
I kept on walking, too angry with myself to turn around. “Goodnight,” I muttered aloud, unsure if she had even heard me. I struggled into my raincoat and carefully put on my fedora. Pushing through the door, I walked out into the cold, rainy night.
The rain continued to fall as I staggered along Fifth Street. Either the late hour, the piss-poor weather, or both, left the streets devoid of life. Raindrops spattered the ground, leaving behind a misty sheen that reflected the glow of nearby lights and passing cars. Shop signs and advertisements flashed and buzzed angrily around me.
Steam vented from building orifices and gutter grates, drifting through the air like ghosts. The occasional whiff of urine or rotting garbage seeped out from shadowy corners. The streets were a complete sensory onslaught, and just another facet of life in the darker, lonelier parts of the city. None of it phased me, though. It never had. I was born and raised in the slums—the lower levels of New York City and its boroughs. It was home.
Keeping my head down, my coat collar up, and my hat pulled low, I warded off the rain and pressed on. I smoked a cigarette along the way, my exhalations trailing behind in wisps.
Leaving Sam’s and the humiliating events of that evening behind, I soon lost track of my thoughts. I quickly gave up on trying to determine where they headed, and let them roam. At times, they seemed to connect in a logical and meaningful string. Other times, they were a confused mess of lost and tumbling fragments lacking any rhyme or reason.
Walking in a straight line was a challenge, as banged up as I was. Or maybe it was the residual booze-induced stupor that still had a gentle, loving grasp on me. Regardless, I gave instinct the task of putting one foot in front of the other in the direction toward home. Unfortunately, instinct failed me as I crossed a street and was almost hit by a cab. The near miss left me with no choice. I had to reserve some small amount of awareness for the sole purpose of getting me and my instinct home in one piece.
After rounding the corner onto 10th, the wail of a siren faded in from somewhere in the distance. The roar of fan-jets soon joined in, and I stopped to listen. The clamor grew louder, echoing between the surrounding buildings. It drew my gaze toward the sky.
The sleek, angular shape of an NYPD flyer came soaring overhead at high speed, screaming by in a blur of flashing red and white lights. It was an Air Patrol Interceptor, no doubt on the glorious hunt for dangerous criminals. It banked between two tall buildings several blocks ahead and disappeared. Seeing it only reminded me again of the life I once lived as a member of New York City’s finest.
Disheartened and alone in the rain, I stood in silence for several moments before moving on.
Two minutes later, I was limping up the steps to my building, a five-story walkup and not anything special. It looked just as old and as plain as the other buildings that surrounded it.
At the entrance, I pulled out my jack, waved it in front of the lockpad, and waited for the chime of the unlocking door. Nothing happened. I then remembered Sam said he had turned the device off to save the battery. I fumbled with it in the dim light and turned it back on, waving it at the lockpad a second time. The panel’s lights lit up with the accompanying chime. After one last look at the empty, wet and gloomy street, I stepped inside.
My legs and arms burned in agony during the grueling climb to the third floor. My wet clothing dripped onto the carpet with a pitter-pat as I made my way down the hall. I waved my jack at the lockpad mounted in my apartment door. With a click, the door unlocked, and I trudged in.
I hung my hat and raincoat in the entryway and stripped down to my boxers, leaving everything in a pile in the middle of the floor. With only the city lights outside my window blinds to guide me, I headed for my liquor cabinet. I poured myself a glass of bourbon, then collapsed into my big, leather armchair, careful not to spill my drink.
The rain started coming down in sheets, joined by rumblings of thunder. Glad to be inside, I leaned back and stared upward, letting my mind go blank.
A subtle, blue glow bounced off the walls and ceiling, flashing on and off in the darkness. I was too tired to wonder what was causing it. I only watched it. On. Off. On. Off. The rhythmic flash almost seemed to match pace with my own, slow heartbeat. I didn’t know how long I sat there, transfixed on the gentle flashing before finally seeking it out. The light was coming from my jack, laying on the coffee table, alerting me to a new message.
I actually had four new messages, all from Lila. With each one, the urgency in her voice increased as she called to warn me about Bowie. After the last frantic message ended, I chuckled in spite of myself and put my jack down.
“You’re a little late, sweetheart,” I said aloud into the emptiness of the room. I downed the rest of my drink, then headed off for a long shower.
The steaming, hot water felt good against my skin. It soothed my injuries and washed away the blood and grime caked to my body. I watched the mess run down my legs and swirl around the drain before it disappeared.
After drying off, I redressed my wounds with fresh gauze, then went straight to bed. I was eager to put as much distance as possible between myself and that miserable night. Naked but for the bandages, I fell into bed and was asleep seconds after my head hit the pillow.
Nightmares. The disturbing dreams plagued me ever since the horrific event that ruined my life. The gruesome imagery was always the same, drawn from my blackest fears. The long hallway. The screaming, the laughter. The stale and putrid stench of death often reeked its way into my subconscious sense of smell. Rivers of blood. Floating, rotting corpses. Drowning.
People from my life, both past and present, alive and dead, appeared as ghosts. They mocked and berated me, accusing me of the most vicious atrocities. And one ghost in particular never failed to show. It took the form of a frail little girl, her face blurred out, soaked to her pale skin and dripping wet. I knew why it haunted me, why she haunted me. What was worse, I knew I would never be able to escape her. The guilt I felt would never go away. The little girl would haunt me for the rest of my life.
It happened every night. The menagerie of gruesome and terrifying visuals churned. They blended together into a mosaic of horror and raw, bloodied emotion. My dreams terrified me. That night, it was no different.
I awoke with a jolt that sent pain lurching through me. I let out a terrified cry, gasping for breath, intensifying the pain in my side. My heart pounded deep within my sweat-soaked and broken body. I sat up straight in bed, shivering uncontrollably, and fought off the horror.
It’s only a nightmare, Max, I had to remind myself. Only a nightmare. Well, most of it, anyway.
As the memory of the nightmare faded, my breathing slowed. My heart, however, wouldn’t stop pounding in my chest, and I considered another bourbon to calm my nerves. Then again, that would have involved getting out of bed, and I was simply in too much pain. I laid back down and pulled the blankets close, despite the stifling heat in my bedroom. I thought of nothing and waited for sleep and the terror dreams to take me once again.
But then I heard a noise. At first, I mistook it for thunder and dismissed it. Then I heard it again and listened more intently. It wasn’t thunder. The sound was faint, but definitely there, and it took me a moment to realize that someone was knocking at the front door.
I pushed the pain aside, sat up, and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. I slid open the top drawer of my nightstand. My old revolver sat inside, unused for years, among a clutter of other things. I reached for it and noticed my hand was shaking. Great. After unholstering the piece, I checked that it was loaded, then hobbled to my dresser and pulled on a clean pair of boxers.
Another round of knocking came as I tiptoed down the dark entryway. Light from the outside hallway slipped in under the front door, revealing the telltale shadow of someone standing on the other side.
Bowie. It has to be.
I glanced down at the weapon in my hand, and a sadistic thought took shape. Perhaps my gun will finally convince the brute that nothing is going on between Lila and me. After unlocking the door, I cracked it open, ready to point the piece in his fat, ugly face.
Chapter 4 – The Late-Night Visit
It wasn’t Bowie’s fat, ugly face on the other side of the door. I relaxed, my shoulders dropping, and let out a sigh. I hid my revolver behind my back and leaned against the jamb, letting the door swing open wide.
Lila Howard, looking on the verge of tears, locked her swollen blue eyes with mine as she walked into my apartment without a word.
I slipped the gun into one of the pockets of my raincoat hanging nearby, then reached for the doorknob and turned wrong. Pain shot down my spine. Grimacing, I shut and locked the door and quietly followed Lila into the living room. The sweet scent of honey and lavender hung in the air behind her.
“Hub, lights on,” I said. The lights around us flickered on one by one.
Lila stood in my living room with her back to me, hugging herself. She wore a thick blue coat and black jeans with sneakers. Her blonde hair was damp, appearing darker and more curled than usual. She looked cold. I leaned my aching back against the wall and waited. When she finally turned around, our gazes locked again. Her lips quivered, and I knew it wasn’t because she was cold.
Several more moments of silence passed before either of us finally spoke.
“Why didn’t you answer my calls?” Lila asked quietly.
“My jack was turned off. I didn’t get your messages until I got home.”
Lila swallowed, stifling back tears as she turned her head away. “It was obviously too late.”
“Yeah,” was all I could think to say, feeling bad for how clearly shaken up she was.
When Lila looked back at me, I saw her emotions start to unravel. Her lips tightened and turned downward. She inhaled sharply through her nose as a tear slid down her cheek. Taking two steps closer, she sought out the bandages that wrapped the injured parts of my body. “My God,” she choked on the words, “What has he done to you?”
She broke down into tears and rushed at me, wrapping her arms around me and squeezing. I bit my lip and let out a grunt as her hug reignited the pain in my ribs. Lila quickly pulled away, mortified. “Oh, Max,” she gasped, putting a hand to her mouth. “Max, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking—”
I gently put the fingertips of my bandaged hand to her lips and she went silent. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to smile. “Come here.” I pulled her back into my arms under my own terms and held her as she cried. She buried her head in my chest, her tears soaking into my bandages. I watched the storm outside the windows, the young woman in my arms, for many long quiet moments.
When Lila finally regained her composure, I led her to the sofa and had her sit while I limped over to the liquor cabinet. I poured a finger of Irish whiskey for her, and a bourbon for myself.
Lila took off her coat, revealing a tight-fitting beige sweater underneath. I handed her the glass, and she sat back, taking a long, slow swallow followed by a deep breath.
Over the next hour, we talked about what had happened. We talked about the fight. Most of what I could remember came from Sam’s account. Bowie seemed unusually relentless, and it appalled her. I told her what I had told Sam, that I’d taken worse from others before, but I wasn’t so sure it was true. She asked about my injuries, where I hurt. Everywhere. The only injury not worth mentioning was the damage to my pride.
The worst part was how terrible Lila felt about it. She blamed herself. She was upstate visiting a girlfriend when she got a call from Bowie. He accused her of being unfaithful, calling her a cheating whore. He then went on a tirade about going after me. Lila tried to call, unaware that I usually kept my jack on silent and calls often went unnoticed. She left several messages. She even tried to call the bar but wasn’t able to get through. She couldn’t have known that the block signal was down.
Her inability to reach me was the result of a handful of unfortunate variables—just rotten luck. Still, she begged me to believe that she had tried everything she could. But Lila didn’t need to beg. I believed her. And while there was no way she should have blamed herself for what happened, I knew her well enough to know she would anyway.
The storm continued to rage outside, but Lila and I paid it no mind. We were in our own little world, talking into the early hours of the morning. Eventually, with nothing left to say, we found ourselves listening to the rain hitting the windows.
Lila sat with her legs bent to one side, her shoes nearby on the floor. Leaning an elbow on an armrest, she fiddled with a lock of her blonde hair while staring off into space. I watched her, recalling the long conversation I’d had earlier with Sam.
Lila was a beautiful woman. Gorgeous, in fact, despite the weariness on her strained face. She was a small-town girl trying to make her way in the city. She had moved from Texas the previous year, following her childhood dream of living in The Big Apple. It wasn’t easy for her in the beginning. She was meek, timid, and people like that usually didn’t last long. But Lila had the nerve to stay, and soon found her place. And though she still faltered at times, she was always quick to pick herself back up and carry on. She had a certain determination that, if I was honest, made her all the more unique and attractive.
Everything I had told Sam, however, was true. As beautiful and charming as Lila was, I had never considered pursuing anything more than her friendship. I had never even entertained a single provocative thought about her. I just never thought of her in that way.
I was wrong about one thing, though. Our relationship was more than a barfly and his bartender, as I’d suggested to Sam. The fact she worried and cared so much to check on me made that much clear. We were friends after all. Maybe close friends, but nothing more, and that was just fine with me.
My thoughts churned as I slowly smoked a cigarette, and were finally interrupted when she yawned. I looked at her, noticing the dark circles under her eyes. “We should get some sleep,” I said as I mashed my spent cigarette into a nearby ashtray. “You’re welcome to stay here tonight if you want.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I need to sleep.”
“You can have the bed. I’ll take the couch.”
Lila threw me a dubious look and smiled, dimples forming on her cheeks. It was the first time she had smiled that night. “That’s sweet, but you need the bed. You shouldn’t sleep all cramped up in your condition. The couch will do me just fine.”
I shrugged my shoulders, smirking. “Have it your own way.”
It was a struggle getting to my feet. Lila got up and came over to lend a hand, the smile still on her lips. Face to face, we stood in silence for a moment before she looked down at the floor. The dimples faded.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m just glad things didn’t end up any worse than they did,” she murmured, keeping her head down. “I’m so sorry for what Bowie did to you.”
“It’s all over and done with,” I told her.
She looked back up at me. Her blue eyes shimmered, mesmerizing me, and for a moment, I lost myself. “I’ve been wanting to tell you—” Lila began, then stopped, biting her bottom lip.
I waited quietly for her to continue. Instead of saying anything more, though, Lila stepped closer to me. She reached up and placed her hands on either side of my face. Before I could realize what was happening, she stood on her toes, leaned in, and pressed her lips against mine.
Lila kissed me. And it wasn’t the kind of brief, affectionate peck shared between mere friends, either. It was much more. Her mouth lingered on mine, and my utter shock gave way to a nerve-twisting elation. I let my eyelids drift closed and kissed her back.
Lila’s lips, and soon enough, her tongue, danced around with my own. Her breath was warm and sweet, eliciting a desire for her that I had never thought myself capable of having. Her hands slid to my neck, then down to my bare chest. My heart was racing. She gasped for breath, fanning a fire that was swiftly spreading inside me. The passion and the fervor between us increased with every heartbeat.
Then, as cruel luck would have it, a sudden thought jumped into my head.
Sam was right.
To make matters worse, the words I had said to Sam only hours earlier began to echo from some shadowed corner of my conscience. They were the very words I had used to defend myself and the innocent relationship I thought I had with Lila. They repeated over and over again in my brain, heckling me.
Sam was right. Just because I wasn’t ever interested in anything more didn’t mean that she wasn’t. Damn it! Sam had told me to be careful.
What are you doing, Max? I asked myself.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. With a jerk, I pulled away from her, suddenly feeling guilty for allowing things to get that far. “Lila,” I said, sucking in a breath. “I can’t.”
She stepped back, looking lost. “Why not?” Her voice, laced with confusion, was almost a whisper.
I swallowed. “Because I care about you too much.” It was corny as hell, but it was the truth. I had no other reason to give her.
Uncertainty darkened her face as she considered my words for several seconds. Then, peering up at me, she forced a grin. “I-I understand.”
It was a lie, I knew. She had no idea what had just happened. I didn’t either.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized.
I gently squeezed her hand. “Don’t be.”
We stood there for many long, awkward seconds, neither of us knowing what to say.
I hid my frustration and embarrassment by going to fetch her some blankets and a pillow. While doing that, I also retrieved my gun from my raincoat and put it back in my nightstand. I soon returned to help Lila get settled, then we said goodnight. With a final word, I turned off the lights, went into my bedroom, and shut the door.
Blowing out an exasperated breath, I leaned my back against the door in dire need of a drink. Or a cold shower. Or both.
I went into the bathroom and retrieved a bottle of pills from the medicine cabinet. It was a prescription for cyclozophan, something I often took to help take the edge off. It was especially good for the nightmares. I popped one of the small, white pills and swallowed. I put the bottle back and shut the cabinet, catching a glance of myself in the mirror. It wasn’t the bruises or fresh cuts on my face that made me pause, it was how old and tired I looked. For several long seconds, I stared at my reflection, my thoughts about that night a jumbled mess.
But regardless of the turmoil within me, I did find one brief moment of respite. After such a dreadful and embarrassing night, I finally did something right. I resisted a beautiful woman’s advances. I prevented a thoughtless and irresponsible mistake from becoming something worse. Something that could have quickly gotten out of hand. Something that would have only ended up hurting her. It was true—I cared for her too much to let that happen. For the first time in years, it felt like I had finally done something right.
I crawled back into bed and pulled the covers close. I expected more nightmares, but knew the medication would make them slightly more bearable. Letting myself relax, I waited for sleep, which once again, came quickly.
I had another dream that night. But it wasn’t the same, terrible nightmare. The cyclozophan did its work and kept those wolves at bay. Through a thick mist, the memory came back to me in flashes as I began to wake the following morning. A serenity swathed my waking mind like a warm blanket. It was all because of the dream, a rather captivating dream, about Lila.
I had dreamed that I awoke to find her standing beside my bed, wrapped in nothing but a bed sheet. She gazed down at me. I could see what she wanted, what she needed. She leaned down to kiss me, whispering something in my ear, but the wind, rain, and thunder outside drowned out her words.
She kissed me again and pressed herself closer to me. With each flash of lightning outside, her sapphire eyes blazed with intensity. Closer and closer she came. Like water, the sheet around her body slipped effortlessly to the floor. She slid into my bed, while the wind continued to howl and moan.
With more lightning came brief glimpses of every line, every curve of her perfect figure. Her bare skin felt warm, smooth beneath my wandering fingertips. Her touch was a soft and gentle breath, drifting along the surface of my body.
As the storm raged on, I lost all control of my sleeping mind. I lost all sense of reason for what was happening and was powerless to stop it. Her electrifying stare was the last thing I saw before my vision blurred. In one fleeting moment, everything went black, and the dream came to a shuddering stillness and ended.
After a long, deep sigh, full consciousness came back to me, and I awoke to the beautiful dream playing over and over again in my memory. Although it was easy to admit that the dream was intoxicating, it also had me worried. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a dream that wasn’t a nightmare. It made me start to think that maybe the kiss was an even worse mistake than I had first thought. I wondered if it had stirred some underlying desires in me—desires that maybe I wasn’t fully aware of.
But for once in a long time, I’d had a pleasant dream. It was a nice change. Unfortunately, with each moment awake, the memory was growing vague and fading.