I don’t know about you, but I need a little bit of excitement in my quarantine. If you’re looking for some escape, too, Traveler, the first book Traveler Chronicles is now FREE on Kindle for 5 days!If the book receives 50 downloads, I’ll make the second book in the series, Prisoner, free for 5 days as well!
That’s two-thirds of the story totally free to you, for hours of socially-distanced entertainment!
If you’ve never experienced the Traveler-verse, now is the perfect time to get started. If you have, download a second copy to have in your phone for emergencies, and forward the link to a friend who needs a good read!
Free ebook promotion ends May 17, so don’t delay!
Thanks to Mary Sharp from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, for her kind profile in the March 8 edition of the paper. The article ended up focusing quite a bit on the role that Mary, Morgan, and Sophie played in the conclusion to the Traveler Trilogy.
Kind of a fun coincidence that the article dropped on International Women’s Day!
In Little Village Magazine, Beth Wheeler calls Traitor “a great read.”
Meanwhile, over on Amazon.com, Craig says Traitor is the best book of the Traveler Trilogy.
Get your copy of Traitor today!
Traitor, the final volume in the Traveler Trilogy is now available.
Here’s what people are saying about the thrilling conclusion to the Traveler saga:
“Traitor is my favorite thriller of the year. A brilliant, wild ride that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat…easily one of the best trilogies out there!
—Rachel Aukes, Bestselling author of 100 Days in Deadland
“Universe-hopping police officers, gun-toting psychics, and multidimensional cats, oh my. Dennis Green brings his dimension-hopping Traveler series to an explosive and undeniably satisfying conclusion. I can’t recommend this one enough.”
—Aaron Bunce, Author of the Overthrown and NecroVerse Series.
“The epic, explosive climax to Dennis Green’s dimension-hopping thrill ride has finally arrived! A literary love letter to the science fiction genre!”
—Adam Whitlatch, author of The Weller series
“Traitor is a compelling and satisfying conclusion to a crime series with a twist of science fiction.”
—Terri M. LeBlanc, M & M Bookstore
“With a stellar cast of characters and storytelling at its finest, Green once again delivers an action-fueled adventure filled with mystery, excitement, and suspense. I loved every heart-racing second!”
—Heidi Hutchinson, author of the Double Blind Study series
The shakes didn’t hit me until I reached my car.
I slid in, dropped the murder book onto the passenger seat, and steadied my breath. I put Grymzin’s gun in the glove compartment as post-trauma sweat slid down the center of my back. My hands had begun to shake, so I gripped the steering wheel in an attempt to hold them still.
I knew Grymzin didn’t like me, but attacking out of the blue was a bit much, even by Kaaro henchman standards. If I hadn’t had the sudden inspiration to go for the gun in his pocket, he certainly would have smashed me into Trav pulp.
Things were moving so fast during the fight that hardly a second passed between my thinking there might be a gun in that pocket and going after it. That had been a tremendously lucky guess.
I adjusted the rearview mirror to assess the damage to my face.
Given the way my head and hands ached, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. Grymzin had connected with my left cheek hard enough to raise a welt that would eventually bloom purple and green, but it was just pink for now. I was going to have a big a black eye on the other side. A ring on one of Grymzin’s hands had scored my temple and it oozed blood from a scratch that extended halfway to my jawline. But my nose was still straight and all my teeth remained fastened solidly to my skull. So all in all, I called it a win.
By now the shaking had stopped, although my arms and legs still felt weak as the adrenalin drained away. I took a deep breath, regretting it almost instantly as my ribs, nearly caved in by Grymzin’s bear hug, protested at now being asked to expand again.
Speaking of bears, while I didn’t quite look like I had been mauled by one, neither did I look presentable. I decided to go home to clean up and put the murder book someplace safe. The chances of a beat cop stopping me and seeing it were tiny, but it still made me nervous to have it laying out in the open.
I put the car in gear, turning the radio on as I pulled into traffic. I immediately regretted it.
When I was a teenager, my dad had turned me on to his favorite music, marginal and obscure album rock bands of the Seventies and Eighties. I’d inherited his extensive album and CD collection when he’d died a couple of years ago. But I rarely had to pull them out because our town had an increasingly rare media jewel. A great radio station.
AXE 106.9 had managed to avoid the homogenization of today’s music radio, playing a unique blend of rock, blues, and jazz that had become the soundtrack to my life since high school. But recently the station had ditched its one-of-a-kind music format in favor of talk programming. Fortunately, not some angry white guy wishing American society could be the way it was in his grandfather’s day. If that had been the case, I would have eliminated it from my radio presets. But this show was almost as bad.
It was a talk show hosted by a psychic, for God’s sake.
I punched around the dial a few times, finally settling on an Oldies station that was playing “God Only Knows,” which everyone knows is just about the most perfect pop song ever written. The Beach Boys’ layered harmonies even made my headache feel a little better.
One Beach Boys, a Four Tops double-play, and a Del Shannon later, I arrived at home. After I gingerly cleaning up my face and swallowing a bunch of ibuprofen, I was ready to go. The murder book sat on my coffee table, but I was not anywhere near ready to look at it yet. I grabbed my car keys and headed to work.
The street in front of The Kremlin was empty at this time of day. Cigarette butts that somehow never made it into the provided container, one of those wide-based, skinny-necked things, were the sidewalk’s only occupants, forming a nicotine path toward the door.
The bar was equally empty. The day bartender looked up as I entered.
“He in?” I asked. Receiving a nod in return, I headed for a door marked “Employees Only,” which was to the right of the big mirror that lined the back of the bar. I walked past several shelves crowded with liquor bottles on one side opposite a row of kegs on the floor.
I knocked on a door at the end of the hall.
Kaaro sat at his desk, an ultra-modern Scandinavian construction of metal, glass, and light wood. He looked up as I entered. He took in my swollen face, then took away my chance to open our conversation.
“It appears you and Bill came to an…agreement?”
“If by agreement, you mean we agreed that he should sleep on the floor for a couple of hours, sure.”
“You knew he was going to jump me?”
“Bill takes his job very seriously. It can’t be too much of a surprise. You know he’s never trusted you.”
Kaaro toyed with a fountain pen as he spoke. Like his desk and office furniture, it was a modern version of an old-fashioned device. The nib clicked up into the barrel like a ballpoint instead of having a cap you had to remove. The pen was the only item I had ever seen on the desk’s glass top. Where the papers he signed with it were, I had no idea.
“And it never occurred to you to tell him that trying to kill me was not a good idea?”
He shrugged, clicking the pen open and closed. “If my employees can’t take care of themselves, they are of limited use.”
“Trial by combat. Nice.”
“You’re an athlete, Travis. You know that strength is the foundation of success.”
“I would think that having your employees looking over their shoulders all the time would be a waste of resources.”
“It’s wise to be alert.”
“I’ll be alert all right. But how about you just keep him away from me?”
“Or your corporation’s headcount may diminish.”
He shrugged again. “That would also be a solution.”
“What are you suggesting, Anton?”
He spread his hands, the pen now occupying the exact geographical center of his desk. “I am suggesting nothing. You know it is not in my nature to intervene in…personnel matters. Over the years, I have found they tend to solve themselves.”
“When one of your personnel ends up dead.”
His nostrils flared. People didn’t question Anton Kaaro. Of course, his chief enforcer already wanted to kill me, so from my point of view, there was little to lose.
“A tool that is not tempered by heat will break when you need it most,” he snapped.
“And people trying to kill each other attracts the cops. Either tell him to lay off or resign yourself to having to explain his dead body.”
Kaaro looked at me unblinking, like a snake preparing to strike. Then, just as I was starting to wonder what had possessed me to walk into this office without a weapon, he smiled.
Not only that, he chuckled.
“See? This is why I hired you, Travis. You are my conscience. You keep me from reverting to past behaviors. I need that.” He clicked the pen closed and set it back down with an air of finality.
“Is there anything else? I assume that your…conversation with Bill has not allowed you to begin looking into Sam’s death?’
“You’d be right.”
He nodded and drew his phone from his suit coat pocket. I was dismissed.
It was time to go back to my normal job, fixing drinks and keeping order.
And so, my life settled in to its regular routine. Wake up from a restless night’s sleep, which strangely often included weird dreams in which the radio psychic, Morgan Foster, figured prominently. I guess the loss of the AXE was weighing on me more than I had realized.
Combined with whatever after-shift recreation I’d indulged in, this often left me with a headache. But alcohol was my sole vice these days, as Amy seemed to have worked some legerdemain on the schedule that largely kept us from encountering one another. Bill was making himself scarce as well. My morning routine consisted of popping some ibuprofen, fencing class at the Y, and going to work. All while avoiding the murder book.
I didn’t see much of Kaaro for the next few days either, which was also good, as he certainly would have asked me about my progress on Sam’s murder.
But then my day off arrived. I put in extra time at the Y, where I was finally starting to see some progress with the blade. I got home, showered, and puttered around. But finally, I could no longer ignore the binder that rested on the same coffee table where Sam’s feet had spent many hours.
I had seen dozens of murder books in the past, of course. Hundreds of crime scenes and the accompanying photos. But no matter how experienced you are, it’s different when it’s someone you know.
You never get used to seeing your own dead body.
I shook my head, taking firm hold of the part of my mind that was trying to wriggle out of this task. Pushing its nonsense aside, I opened the binder. The first several pages were printouts of forms. Even though nearly all of our records are kept online these days, most cops still kept a binder like this one with dead-tree copies of photos, interview transcripts, reports, and other important documents. It’s hard to spread the contents of a computer file out on a table and see everything at once. I paged through the whole thing to get a feel for what was there.
Which was not a lot. The first several pages were forms. The medical examiner’s report followed that. Then some witness reports. Sam had been killed around nine p.m., long after the building had emptied. My friend had kept crazy hours, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to work through the night. The custodial staff knew to give his lab a wide berth if the lights were on, no matter what time it was. His body hadn’t even been discovered until late the next morning. A former office mate had poked her head in to say hi and discovered the grisly scene.
The fun part came in the very next section. My stomach turned as I pulled out the photos of Sam’s body. He had been discovered laying on his back. A bloody smear on the wall behind him indicated the force of the gunfire had driven him back into it before he had collapsed to the floor. Close-up shots of his wounds followed. I flipped back to the ME’s report. No traces of powder residue, which meant his assailant had to have been across the room when he or she fired. Sam’s hands were unmarked. He hadn’t even had time to raise his arms before his assailant fired.
Gratefully setting the photos of Sam aside, I moved on to the next series of prints. These were of the rest of the scene. I shook my head as I looked at the assortment of otherwise innocent bottles and jars that together added up to a meth lab. My eyes strayed back to the photo of Sam’s lifeless body.
“What the hell, Sam?” I muttered softly. “You never drank anything stronger than oatmeal stout. How did you get involved with this?”
That train of thought led me back to the ME’s report again.
Nope. No traces of drugs in Sam’s system. And an examination of his mouth and teeth had revealed no trace of oral deterioration from smoking methamphetamine.
So Sam wasn’t cooking for his own consumption. Unless he had gotten shot before he’d taken his first sniff. That would have been poor timing to the nth degree. Although…
Another flip back, this time to the inventory of material at the crime scene. The containers in the picture looked new. In fact, the propane torch was full, the coffee filters unopened. No meth-making waste in the trash can. It did look like he’d been killed while setting up his lab for its first use.
“Not possible,” I whispered. The only person who would want to kill Sam before he started cooking meth would be me. Or maybe his mom.
Nothing about this made any sense. Why remove Sam from the board before he was even a threat?
Unless he had been making drugs someplace else. Was he taking them to his main lab and for some reason pulled everything out of his backpack? Pretty stupid to leave it out in plain sight. And if there was one thing Sam Markus was not, it was stupid.
No, I was missing something. I moved on to the next set of pictures. These were of Sam’s computer workstation which was a standup desk opposite the table where the meth materials had been placed. A giant Coke glass sat next to his mouse, to the right of the monitor.
I thumbed through the other photographs of this area searching for the camera angle I was looking for. I found it about three prints down. The left side of the computer, where there was a charging stand for his phone.
And a mouse pad.
Sam was right-handed. But all those years at a computer had given him a perpetual ache in his right wrist. Eventually, he’d simply switched hands and taught himself to use the mouse left-handed. Whenever I had to use Sam’s computer, the first thing I did was grab the mouse and put it on the right side.
Someone else had been at Sam’s desk. Probably after killing him.
What had they been looking for?
This sucks,” Dexter Wasson said as he plopped down in the chair next to Sophie.
“The big one,” agreed Mason Selvas, on her other side.
“Shut up!” Sophie hissed. “The assembly is about to start.”
Backpacks jostled against the blonde wood seats in the Warren Middle School auditorium as students filed in. Teachers and guidance counselors stood in the aisles, on alert to keep students from cuddling or fighting, whichever seemed like the bigger crisis.
“I can’t believe they are making us all sit here and listen to some girl play the violin,” Mason said.
“Some girl? Really, Mason?” Sophie’s voice dripped sweet acid. “Like the girl who put you on the mat three times last week?” The three had been carpooling to tae kwon do classes since elementary school.
“And who also plays violin?” Dexter added.
“You were supposed to take me down,” Mason said loftily. “That’s why I was there. They picked me because they knew I could take a punch.”
Dex sniggered. “Dude, you took all the punches.”
Mason’s cheeks turned pink. He started to object, but Sophie cut him off with an elbow jab.
“Ow!” the big redhead rubbed his ribs.
“Would you idiots please shut up?” Sophie repeated. “I want to hear the music.”
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” Mason said.
At that moment, Dr. Gallart, the principal, walked onto the auditorium stage.
He waited patiently for the hubbub to die down, then stepped up to a microphone mounted on a chrome stand at the center of the tiny stage.
“Good morning,” the principal said. “Thanks to you all for getting in and getting situated quickly and quietly. I know our special guests appreciate your consideration. Now, before we get started…”
But whatever the principal was about to say was lost as every light in the room suddenly went out. This left the windowless space in near complete darkness even though it was ten-thirty in the morning.
But in the instant between shocked silence and the inevitable rising din of questions and complaints, a long, amplified note from a bass guitar rang out followed almost immediately by the sharp report of a drum beat, loud and steady, in time with the heartbeats of the gathered students. A high note soared above the rhythm, and just as suddenly as the lights had gone out, they returned. Except now in the exact same spot where the principal had stood there was now a woman, her back bent at a nearly impossible angle. A cherry-red violin nestled under her chin, bow extended straight up toward the ceiling. She was barefoot, wearing a leotard and skirt that was comprised mainly of multi-colored fabric strips which shimmered in the spotlight.
She struck a second note and the beat sped up. A keyboardist, drummer, and bassist were visible behind her. The violinist followed at first but then took over the tempo, dashing ahead of the ensemble like a runner in the zone, demanding the other musicians follow her. Then she added movement, kicking each leg out below the knee, not unlike an Irish step dancer. She swept and spun across the stage, sliding up to each of the other musicians in turn so that each had a moment with her in the spotlight.
Someone started to clap and before long the entire auditorium had joined in, feeding the quartet as the music worked its way to a thundering crescendo, before ending with each musician playing the three concluding notes of the piece in unison and louder than a lot of rock bands.
The musicians froze as the last notes echoed against the concrete walls before finally fading to silence.
For about ten seconds.
Then applause broke out and the band relaxed, smiling as the kids clapped and cheered. Mason whooped louder than anyone else, fist in the air.
As the applause died down, the woman approached the microphone.
“Thank you so much,” she said softly but with a twinkle in her eye. “So, you liked that?”
Her smile got wider at the answering roar. “Well, it might interest you to know that it was written more than two hundred years ago by a guy whose music has been played more than all of today’s pop artists put together. His name was Mozart. Now, we have maybe taken just a few liberties with his original composition, but Mozart loved nothing more than surprising his audience. I think he’d approve.”
She paused, taking a moment to tune her instrument. “Would you like to hear some more?” she asked.
The room roared once again. The violinist smiled and nodded to the drummer who counted off the next tune.
This was one even middle schoolers could recognize immediately, though few could identify it as the beginning to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Like the first selection, it was embellished with rock and roll beats, some paying homage to pop versions of the song that the older teachers recognized, and others completely original.
The music then continued in the same vein. Classical pieces with a modern flair alternated with pop songs done in a classical style that were somehow almost as much fun as the original versions the kids watched on YouTube. At one point, the bass player, a woman with spiky blonde hair, took the mic and rapped a hip-hop verse to Copland’s Rodeo.
After nearly an hour, the violinist paused and introduced the other three musicians. “And my name is Mary Logan,” she finished, then had to wait nearly a minute for the applause to die down. She acknowledged it with a nod.
“You know, a musician enjoys nothing more than taking an old song and finding a way to make it sound new. But there is also something to be said for sticking to the original notes. That’s what we do in the symphony orchestra, and in its own way, that music has just as much power and emotion as what we played today.”
She paused, taking a swig from a water bottle at her feet. “Fact is, we couldn’t take those songs and do something new with them without knowing the originals backward and forwards. Now, we would love it if you all left here today as fans of classical music. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to remind you that there is so much great music out there that you haven’t had a chance to hear. I hope that the next time someone asks you to check out something you haven’t heard before, you’ll give it a chance.”
She went on to explain how students and their families could come to an upcoming symphony concert for free.
“We have time for one more. It’s a song that…” she paused. “…A good friend of mine introduced me to. And it’s become one of our favorites to play.”
And with that, she launched into the song, which began with her playing a refrain by herself. She was joined by the pianist, a skinny man whose long black hair spilled down his collar.
Sophie sat up straight in her seat. “‘Jungleland,’’ she murmured. “That figures.”
“Shh,” Dexter hissed.
Few in the room were any more familiar with Bruce Springsteen than they were with Mozart, but the quartet brought fire and fury to the song, communicating its message of love drowned by the violence of the streets nearly as effectively as The Boss himself, all without singing a single lyric.
Mary’s violin took the place of Springsteen’s voice for the long, plaintive wail that closed the song. She turned toward the pianist and met his eyes as he gently took up the final, quiet phrase which brought the song to its lonely, desperate conclusion. Four hundred teenaged bodies sat stock-still as the last notes echoed in the auditorium before erupting again in cheers and footstomps.
Mary tucked an errant strand of auburn hair behind her ear and bowed. Then she reached out her hands, still holding violin and bow, to her bandmates. They joined her and all bowed bowing together.
“Whoa,” Dex breathed, leaning back in his chair.
Sophie jumped up, shrugging quickly into her backpack.
“What’s the hurry?” Mason asked. “It’s going to take hours to get everyone out of here.”
“I want to talk to her,” Sophie said. “See you in fourth hour.”
She fought upstream in the exact opposite direction of the herd trying to exit. But since no one was that anxious to get to fourth hour, she soon found herself at the top of the short stairway that led to the stage.
The musicians were packing up their gear. Mary looked up as Sophie approached.
“Hi,” she said kindly.
Suddenly, Sophie’s throat went dry. She looked at the woman, mouth working, but nothing came out.
“Did you want tickets to the concert?” Mary asked gently.
Sophie shook her head.
Okay, dummy. Breathe. She probably already thinks you’re a total spaz.
“I—I just wanted to tell you I really enjoyed the music.”
“Um. Especially the last song.”
Mary raised an eyebrow. “Really? You know that song?”
“I’m impressed. Bruce Springsteen isn’t usually the first choice of most girls your age.”
“My dad is always playing that stuff.”
“Ah. That explains a lot. My friend…the one I mentioned…It was one of his favorites. His dad influenced his musical tastes, too.”
A faraway look came into the woman’s eyes. “Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, The Eagles. And don’t even get me started on Al Stewart. He loved them all. And you never wanted to listen to the radio with him. ‘This is the second-best Elton John song,’ he would pronounce. Or ‘God Only Knows’ is the most perfect pop song ever written.”
She stopped and looked at Sophie with a confused frown. “I’m sorry, you didn’t come up here to listen to me reminisce. What can I do for you?”
Sophie screwed up her courage. Everything rested on how this lady reacted to her next question.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
Sophie took a deep breath.
Don’t chicken out now. “Your friend. It’s Mr. Becker, isn’t it?”
Mary’s jaw dropped. “How…how do you know Trav?”
“He helped me.”
“He…” Mary cocked her head and examined Sophie more closely. “Wait. I know you. You’re one of the girls who was kidnapped.”
“Oh, honey, how are you doing?” Mary reached out and took Sophie by the shoulders. “Are you okay? I can’t even imagine what you went through.”
“I’m fine, Miss Logan.”
“Please call me Mary.”
“But what do you mean Trav helped you?” Mary frowned again. “Trav wasn’t involved. He was…It was just before…” Her voice trailed off.
“Just before he died?”
“Yes.” Mary shook her head. “I don’t understand. What do you mean he helped you?”
She took Sophie gently by the arm and guided her out of earshot of the other musicians.
“In fact,” she continued, speaking softly, “Trav was actually being held in a cell when they found you. There were a lot of people around that day. Maybe you just heard his name and confused it with someone else.”
Sophie shook her head firmly. “No! No one believes me, but I know it!” She kept her tone soft, but her whisper was fierce. “He was there. And there was a woman, too. Morgan.”
“The psychic. Yes, I knew that, even though it didn’t make the media. But honey, like I said, Trav was at the police station the whole time. I’m sorry, but he couldn’t have been with you.”
Sophie nodded. She’d been expecting this. Time to bring out the big gun.
“How did he die?”
“Trav?” Mary frowned, perplexed by the turn in their conversation. “Well, he…”
Her voice trailed off, and she began again.
“It was…sudden,” she finished. Her lips tightened and her eyes darted from side to side.
Sophie watched as a fine line of perspiration broke out on Mary’s forehead. She hated making the woman uncomfortable, but she had come too far to back away now. Sophie had despaired of finding anyone who would believe her story. But when she realized that the arts outreach program coming to her school was led by Trav Becker’s girlfriend, she knew this was her chance to solve a mystery that no one else even knew existed. The next thing she asked would either pierce Mary’s mental fog or have her calling Sophie’s principal.
“What was the funeral like?”
Mary’s mouth opened, then closed. Her eyes narrowed. “Why would you ask me that?” she demanded.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Sophie said. “I’ll leave you alone if you want. But only if you can tell me something about Trav Becker’s funeral. Just one thing. Anything.”
“Fine,” Mary replied, her lips pressing into a white line her cherry-colored lipstick couldn’t hide. “It was a very nice service. Trav’s…”
Mary’s voice trailed off again.
“I was there!” she whispered fiercely. “Why can’t I remember?”
“Are you sure you were there?” Sophie asked.
“Of course I was there! I had to be there!” Mary’s voice caught and her eyes began to fill with tears. “Why wasn’t I there?”
“Something’s not right,” Sophie said urgently. “I remember him. He rescued us! But he said he couldn’t be with us when we were found. And then he was just…gone. Later, people said he died. But I checked. There was nothing in the newspaper or on the internet. One day he was here. And the next…he just wasn’t.”
Sophie grabbed Mary’s hand. “Please! You have to believe me.”
Mary looked at the teenager for a long time, and Sophie watched as the tears in her eyes disappeared, replaced by steel.
“Well, you’re right about one thing,” Mary said grimly. “Something is wrong. And I’m going to find out what it is.”
“Me, too,” Sophie said quickly.
The violinist looked at the girl again for a long time. Just when Sophie was sure it was because she was trying to figure out a way to tell Sophie to butt out, Mary nodded.
“Of course. And I know just who is going to help us.”
I slammed the crash bar on the Y’s exit door way harder than necessary, startling a black-and-white cat which sprang from my path as I hurtled out. It darted under a convenient evergreen bush from where it watched me warily as I tossed my bags into the back seat of my car.
If I wanted to keep taking fencing lessons, I was going to have to learn to keep my emotions under control. Seeing Leon would be an occupational hazard. I almost went back in to apologize but decided it would be better to let things cool off. I would bump into him at the pool soon enough.
Besides, it was time to go see Kaaro and his mystery project.
The reminder on my phone consisted solely of an address on Third Street, the artery that connected The District to downtown.
The District was a former industrial area that had recently been rehabbed into urban lofts, funky shops, bars, and restaurants.
Anton Kaaro, through a variety of silent partnerships and shell corporations, had provided much of the capital for the transformation. The money ironically came from the very activities the development pushed out of the neighborhood.
Kaaro was pretty smug about it, too. He had been calm and quite sure of himself when I had questioned him in jail the other day.
No, that wasn’t right. Kaaro wasn’t in jail. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, phone to his ear. He raised a hand as he saw me pull up, gesturing to a nearby parking spot.
Anton Kaaro was in his late fifties. Like Leon, he wore his hair short, but it was black as night with just a touch of gray at the temples. His eyes were green and he was dressed head-to-toe in gray. Gray suit, gray shirt, gray tie, even gray shoes. Looming next to him like a twilight shadow was Kaaro’s bodyguard, one Bilol Grymzin.
Grymzin also wore gray. Gray slacks at least, although the material they were composed of had never existed in nature. Neither had whatever petrochemical bath had birthed his faux-leather jacket. He was a couple of inches taller than me, thick and muscular, and nearly as wide as he was tall. His greasy black hair had started to recede, although he was compensating by letting what hair remained droop down well past his collar. A single eyebrow topped his close-set eyes and wide nose, which featured a cross-hatching of tiny blood vessels.
I nodded at Grymzin as I approached. He stared at some point over my left shoulder, not acknowledging me in the slightest.
Kaaro stowed his phone in a pocket of his suit jacket. “Good morning, Travis.”
His voice was soft but resonant with no discernible accent. You had to listen very closely to catch the slightly more formal sentence construction that indicated he hadn’t grown up speaking English. He was also the only person on Earth besides my mom who called me Travis.
“I trust you had a restful night.”
“You could say that,” I said. “So, what’s up?”
“I wanted to show you my newest acquisition.”
Kaaro gestured to a narrow door in the middle of the block, the kind that sometimes led to apartments on upper floors of buildings like these. Sure enough, a stairway was revealed as he swung open the door. He started up the stairs. I gestured for Grymzin to precede me, but he shook his head.
“After you,” he rumbled, his Eastern European tongue adding a glottal stop before the y.
I shrugged and followed Kaaro, trying to ignore the itch between my shoulder blades at having his thug at my rear.
“This building contains one of the best-kept secrets of our fair city,” Kaaro said as we ascended. “It is one of many constructed in the early 1900s by Abraham Siemans.”
“As in Siemans Department Store?”
I was too young to have ever shopped at Siemans, but it had been the downtown anchor for more than a century before finally surrendering to the inevitable mall-ward flight of retail.
“Most business barons of his generation built showy mansions near the country club, but Siemans was different,” Kaaro continued. “He considered a commute wasted time. He had seen townhouses in Washington and Boston that were quite luxurious despite being on the upper floors of commercial buildings. So instead of putting several walkup apartments into this building, he built one large dwelling for himself.”
“I had no idea you were such a history buff.”
By now we had reached a landing on the second floor. I looked through an open door on my right. A paint crew labored in a corner. Much of the room was covered in drop cloths, but what parts I could see were impressive.
A massive bar ran nearly the entire length of the space. It was constructed of mahogany so dark it seemed to absorb the room’s light. The serving surface was translucent stone lit from underneath to create a rich, golden glow. The floor was also hardwood and gave off the acrid smell of recent refinishing. Daylight streamed in through large bay windows at the other end. To my left was a doorway that opened into a slightly smaller room. This one featured a fireplace and ornate chandelier, into which a workman was screwing blacklight bulbs.
“That will be an interesting effect,” I remarked.
“Each room will have its own look,” Kaaro explained, “enabling customers to have the feeling of bar hopping without having to close out their bills or drive to another establishment.”
Kaaro took me out the back door where a rooftop bar had been constructed, along with a DJ stand and dance floor. The next floor (I thought of it as the second, but really it was the third from ground level) featured several smaller rooms. One contained a shorter but still very elegant bar made of the same materials as the big one.
The door to the next floor was closed. Kaaro turned to me with a smile.
“You will like this, I think,” he said, opening the door with a flourish.
Like the first level, the door opened onto a narrow room occupied primarily by yet another ornate bar. This one’s underlight glowed blue. This room also opened up into a more spacious area where the bar ended, but unlike the others, there was no furniture, just a small table in the corner.
“What do you think?” Kaaro asked.
I shrugged. “What are you putting in here?”
“Why, Travis, I’m disappointed. I put more stock in your powers of observation. This will be a place for live music.”
That was a bit of a surprise. Kaaro’s establishments tended to be low-overhead where entertainment was concerned. They were designed primarily to be an efficient system for the exchange of alcohol for money. Not to mention the accompanying lowering of inhibitions which made some customers ripe for Kaaro’s less legal, but more lucrative, businesses.
“What kind of music?”
“I think our town could use a jazz club, don’t you?”
“A jazz club? That’s a little different image than your other properties, isn’t it?”
He shrugged again. “To stay healthy, a business needs to branch out.”
“Um, if you’re expecting a jazz club to be a profit center, you may have to adjust your expectations.”
“The jazz club will be just one of the several different themes, as you have seen. It will give the club an upscale image, different from our other businesses.”
Kaaro stopped and tilted his head, trying to read the expression on my face. “What?”
“I just never figured you would open a jazz club.”
“I never had a manager who was a jazz fan before.”
Then it sank in. “You mean me?”
“Just so. Did you think I hired you only to be a bouncer? That would be a waste of talent. Besides, the online casino will go live in the next few weeks, and I anticipate that will take up much of my time.”
I just stared at him, completely at a loss for words. Kaaro took advantage of my silence to pull out his phone and study the screen with a frown. He looked over my shoulder at Grymzin, who had plodded along behind us throughout our walking tour.
“Bill, my phone is nearly depleted. Will you go down to the car and get my external battery?”
Not for the first time, I wondered why Kaaro always called me by my given name but used an Americanized version of Grymzin’s.
For his part, the Uzbek looked as if he wanted to say something, his ponderous gaze swinging from Kaaro to me and back again. Kaaro raised an eyebrow at his hesitation.
Grymzin closed his mouth and spun around. A moment later we heard him thump down the stairs.
Kaaro waited until the heavy tread faded. “You don’t have to give me an answer right now, Travis. But showing you this club is not the only reason I wanted to talk to you today.”
“I have had some disturbing news, and it has to do with you.”
“Well, indirectly, at least. You know the police have been investigating the shooting death of your friend Sam Marcus.”
If I had been surprised that Anton Kaaro had just offered to let me manage a jazz club, hearing him utter Sam’s name was a complete shock.
“Yeah, I heard,” I finally managed.
“They have not made much progress in their investigation.”
I didn’t ask how he knew. Anton Kaaro had always seemed to know what was going on in the PD. Apparently, his sources in the department were still good.
“In fact,” Kaaro continued, “they are getting ready to move the case to inactive status.”
“I think they are giving up too quickly.”
“And why do you care?”
“He was your friend. Even though you don’t show it often, I can tell his death has been weighing on you these past weeks.”
“True. But someone killed your friend. Don’t you think that person should answer for it?”
“Why do you think I will succeed where the police failed?”
“Why, I have faith in your investigative skills, my friend,” Kaaro said with a chuckle. “Just as I have faith in your administrative skills or else I would not turn my latest venture over to you.”
“Yeah, about that…”
He held up his hand. “We can discuss that later. Now you need to look at the files on Sam and see if there is anything your former colleagues missed.”
“How am I going to do that? I can’t just waltz into Central Station and ask for the murder book.”
“I would never give an employee an assignment without also providing adequate resources. Let’s step into your office.”
I followed him into a room behind the bar.
My “office” was a square box not much bigger than a closet. A desk, chair, and small filing cabinet, pretty much filled the available space. I didn’t know what things were normally kept in a bar manager’s office, but I was pretty sure a binder with a case number and the name Samuel Markus written on it in black marker was not one of them.
I swung around to face Kaaro. “Where the hell did you get the case notes?”
“From the police, of course.”
“Leon will decorate his office wall with the skin of whoever let this out of the station.”
“That’s not something you have to worry about.” He glanced nonchalantly at his watch. “I must go. Let me know if you find anything interesting.”
I waited until I heard his slightly-lighter-than-Grymzin’s tread fade down the stairs before I opened the murder book.
The first thing that spilled out of the binder were several eight-by-ten photos of the murder scene. I knew what the pictures would show, of course, but there was no way I could prepare for the sight of my friend’s body.
I squeezed my eyes shut and closed the book. I wasn’t ready to look at these pictures yet, no matter how much I wanted to find Sam’s killer.
I tucked the book under one arm and headed downstairs. I was almost to the front door, distracted by my incongruous memory of Sam’s bleeding form that I wasn’t paying any attention to my surroundings.
Thus, I didn’t notice the man standing beside the stairway until his fist crashed into the side of my head.
The punch swung me around, but I managed to catch the banister to keep from hitting the ground. This luckily served to put the rail between me and a glowering Bilol Grymzin. Moving with a speed that belied his bulk, he spun around the stair’s edge to grab me.
Still seeing stars, I managed to duck away from his grasping hands. Dropping the murder book, I kicked out. My heel connected with his thigh hard enough to push him back and out of reach. But not for long. He grabbed for the leg, but I was able to pull it back and slither to the side. His momentum carried him onto the first step of the stairway where I had stood a moment before.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shouted, desperate to buy time to clear my head.
Grymzin didn’t reply, only grunted as he slammed into me. This time there was no avoiding his bearlike grasp so instead I stepped in, and as his arms began to close around me, drove both hands up as hard as I could, connecting solidly with his chin. The extra six inches as he stood on the stair above me gave my punch extra force. He reeled back against the railing, causing it to creak and sway dangerously. Sagging against the pillar, he shook his own head.
It was your standard big guy-little guy fight. He was stronger with an enormous reach. I was quicker, but if he got even one of those big arms on me, he’d crush me like a soda can.
“What the fuck, Bill? Anton isn’t going to be happy if you break his nice new staircase.”
“Worth it,” the big man rumbled, “if I get to break you along with it.”
He charged again, but this time I was able to dance easily out of his path. I don’t know why I kept talking to him. It was like trying to reason with the Hulk. But I kept at it.
“Our boss doesn’t want his employees fighting.”
“He’ll get over it.”
“Why, Bill? At least clue me in!”
Grymzin grunted again. “Mr. Kaaro pays me to keep trouble away from him.”
“Bullshit. Mr. Kaaro is too trusting. Once a cop, always a cop.”
“Too trusting? Have you met Anton Kaaro?”
Grymzin didn’t reply this time. He charged me again. I ducked and weaved, thinking he was trying to ram me against the wall, but he anticipated my dodge and as I slipped to the side, his ham-sized fist was waiting for me. A rainbow exploded behind my eyes as I desperately scrambled to stay out of his grasp.
Unfortunately, this also put Grymzin between me and the door.
The Uzbek smiled as he also realized I was cornered.
“This will go easier if you just stand still,” he grated. Sweat dotted his expansive forehead, but his breath came easy. I wasn’t going to just be able to outlast him.
“You expect me to just stand still and let you beat on me?”
The big man shrugged. “I don’t care what you do. But I do know that Mr. Kaaro will soon need to find another manager for his new bar.” And he lunged toward me once again.
Time seemed to slow down. He reached his left hand into his jacket pocket as he moved, and almost like I had x-ray vision, I knew there was a knife in that pocket.
But as this slow-motion attack continued, another version played out in my mind at the same time, like it was superimposed over my actual vision. Because in that moment, I also knew that Grymzin had gone for the knife instead of the gun tucked into his other pocket. Probably because gunshots in the daytime might attract unwelcome attention.
In my mind’s eye, I could suddenly see an improbable scene play out. It was ridiculous, the kind of nonsense you see in movie fights. But it was my only chance.
As Grymzin moved toward me, I lunged at him with a roar, putting every ounce of strength my legs contained into a shove to knock him off balance. I slapped my right hand against the arm that was going for the knife, trapping it for just an instant inside the pocket.
My other hand snaked inside his jacket and closed on the grip of the pistol. As my momentum carried us across the floor, I whipped it out and smashed the pistol butt into his face. He staggered backward which gave me room for a good wind-up. I slammed the gun into his temple. The murder in his eyes gave way to glazy confusion. I wound up again and gave him a matching smack on the other side.
He was now close enough to the wall that the force of my blow snapped his head back into the plaster. He raised his hands weakly before his eyes rolled back into his head and, like a massive tree falling in the forest, he slowly slid down the wall.
I rested my hands on my knees, quivering as the adrenalin rush faded. I looked at the gun in my hand, still not quite believing my crazy rush had worked. The after effects of Bill’s blows to my head apparently were still with me as well because there was a glowing red outline tracing the edge of the weapon. I closed my eyes and shook my head. When I opened them again, everything was normal.
Stuffing his gun into the waistband of my pants, I picked up the murder book and pushed open the door, leaving Grymzin snoring unevenly in an ugly pile in the corner.