Chapter 7 – Semi-Charmed Life

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.”

“Impressive.”

“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 what?”

“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.

Wait.

The right?

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?

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