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.